Homemade Sloppy Joes: No sugar, no gluten, no dairy, no junk

Sloppy Joes in the traditional can (that are supposed to make families come together and chat happily at the table) contain several different types of sugar, several stabilizers (guar gum, carob bean gum, xanthan gum), nearly 3000 mg of sodium per can, and 35 mg of sugar per can, which is about the same as a can of cola (and that’s just in the small size can!!!).   Most recipes for homemade Sloppy Joes call for quite a lot of brown sugar or other sweeteners.  My challenge was: how could they be made without sugar, but still have that slightly sweet taste?  The secret, I think, is in the onions!

I thought that if I caramelized the onions – over low heat and for a nice long time – they might add the sweetness that the recipe needs.   Most recipes say to quickly saute onions, peppers and celery until they’re tender, taking just a few minutes.  Caramelizing takes some time (but little effort) and will let you make the Sloppy Joes without any more sweeteners.  When onions are caramelized, they’re cooked slowly, over a fairly low heat, and the sugars that are naturally present develop a deep rich flavor.

It worked.  The final result had no added sugar, but it was delicious!


2 very large onions, sliced

1 large or 2 medium red or yellow bell peppers, diced

a couple of celery stalks, diced

1 1/2 pounds of lean ground beef (you could use lean ground turkey)

3 tablespoons of tomato paste (with no sugar or processed ingredients)

1 28 oz can of peeled whole tomatoes (again, with no sugar)

optional: 2 tablespoons of the thickener of your choice (gluten free choices: tapioca flour or arrowroot powder or coconut flour – or you could use regular flour)

olive oil

optional:  a teaspoon or two of red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar


Pour about 3 tablespoons of olive oil into a large skillet.  Add the sliced onions and cook over medium-low heat for about an hour.  Stir every 12 or 15 minutes until the onions are very soft and a deep golden color.  Don’t rush this.

When they’re soft and golden, turn up the heat a little and add the peppers and celery and cook just until they’re tender.  Add the beef and cook until it’s thoroughly browned.  Add the tomato paste and cook for about 5 minutes.   Pour some of the tomato juice from the can into a measuring cup and stir in the tapioca flour (or whichever flour you’re using) until the flour is well combined.  Add the tomatoes and the rest of the juice to the beef mixture and cook until it’s all heated throughout.  Stir in the tomato juice/flour mixture and cook until the entire mixture is thickened (just a few minutes more).  Add a splash of vinegar and stir to combine.  (The vinegar adds just a little tang and flavor.)

Serve over your choice of toasted buns, or for a gluten-free option, serve over baked sweet potatoes.

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