🚨 This Bounded by Buns’ 100th sandwich blog post. 🚨
Let’s spend some time discussing loose meat and ground steak sandwiches.
What is a loose meat sandwich?
In some ways, you could consider a loose meat sandwich to be a sloppy joe minus the tomato-based sauce. It’s ground beef—although, at home, you certainly could use ground turkey or ground sausage—that has been browned, cooked down, and broken into small crumbles. A scoop of cooked and seasoned ground beef is then placed between buns with condiments and toppings and served as a sandwich.
The origin of the loose meat sandwich, sometimes called a tavern sandwich, can be mostly traced to Iowa. A restaurant chain based in Iowa called Maid-Rite is well known for loose meat sandwiches and their menu claims that the original Maid-Rite sandwich has been served with loose meat, mustard, onions, and pickles for almost a hundred years.
Maid-Rite was founded in 1926 in Muscatine, Iowa. A person named Fred Angell started up the business and was already franchising the restaurant into two additional locations in 1927 and 1928. As of 2021 Maid-Rite has expanded to 30+ locations across the Midwest.
What about a ground steak sandwich?
A “ground steak” is a sandwich local to the area surrounding Mount Airy, a town in Surry County, North Carolina—where my in-laws happen to live. At its root, a ground steak sandwich is the same as a loose meat sandwich except the ground steak version includes all-purpose flour and water as a binder in the browned, ground beef that results in almost a thickened gravy situation which holds the individual beef crumbles together.
Sandwich Tribunal covered Mount Airy’s ground steak sandwich in 2021.
Most of my ground steak sandwich experiences have come during Mount Airy’s “Autumn Leaves” festival. This is also where I learned about the collard green sandwich that I wrote about almost a year ago.
There’s a fairly new sandwich spot in Chicago called TriBecca’s Sandwich Shop and they have a sandwich on their menu called the MaidWrong. It’s basically a fancier version of the Maid-Rite sandwich, with a few extra ingredients.
My wife and I recently met up with our friend JP and checked out TriBecca’s and the MaidWrong sandwich. It’s warm and cheesy and savory with a touch of sweetness from the onions. The bun is super soft and it’s definitely “made right” even though they named it MadeWrong.
My loose meat/ground steak plan
I didn’t really want to just copy TriBecca’s MaidWrong, but I did like some of the concepts, and I used the whole thing to structure my sandwich. But first I decided to try the other loose meat sandwiches first to see what I appreciated most.
In this sandwich blog post I’m going to:
- make a Maid-Rite-inspired loose meat sandwich
- make my version of Mt. Airy’s ground steak sandwich
- make my own version that takes a little inspiration from the Maid-Rite, the ground steak, and the MaidWrong.
Spoiler: I’m going to humbly name mine the MadeGreat.
First, as always, we’re going to tackle bread and make some super soft and squishy buns.
Soft potato buns
For the soft bun, I chose to go with my super soft potato bun recipe that I have written about many times at this point. It’s a great bun recipe that should be easy for a new baker.
There are two ingredients that aren’t typically in your pantry and those are potato flour and dry milk powder. These are both ingredients with very long shelf lives and the dry milk powder is one of those ingredients that can save your bacon at some point if you have a recipe that requires milk and you forgot to buy it.
If you plan to be a baker, these are two ingredients that you should be happy to have in your arsenal for the benefit of your bread and otherwise.
In this particular batch of buns, I did both an egg wash prior to baking and I did a butter wash after the baking process was completed.
The egg wash helps to brown the buns fully and the butter wash after the buns are cooked gives the outside of each bun great flavor, but it also ensures that each bun exterior will be soft as well as flavorful.
A Maid-Rite version
Maid-Rite’s default version contains mustard, pickles, and diced onions. These components fit in just fine since this is basically a hamburger without a patty. This sandwich is super easy to make, but I think I would prefer it to have some cheese and if I make another Maid-Rite copycat style sandwich, I will go with the Cheese-Rite which just includes a slice of cheese and everything else is the same as the original.
Maid-Rite cooks their ground beef longer than I do in my recipe. This makes their meat bind together well. I didn’t really want to make a ground meat recipe that was cooked down for multiple hours, so mine is inspired by Maid-Rite more than it is a duplication of their recipe. If you want to use the same amount of cook time and break down the ground beef more than I did, you can use a potato masher and mash the meat up after it is fully cooked. I do this with my hot dog chili recipes, and it works great to get the meat into much smaller pieces. Just make sure you’re not ruining a pan by scratching it with your potato masher.
Ground Steak Sandwich
Mount Airy’s ground steak sandwich is browned ground beef that’s seasoned with salt, and black pepper, and cooked down in a mixture of flour and water. The flour combines with the water and residual beef grease and becomes a binder to hold the ground meat together.
This ground beef mixture is placed on a soft bun with coleslaw, a tomato slice, and condiments like mustard or mayonnaise.
Even though Mt Airy is on the Western side of NC, I chose to use my Eastern North Carolina slaw recipe. It’s a good southern slaw recipe and it’s probably like what you might find in a ground steak sandwich. There’s some sweetness and a bit of twang from the apple cider vinegar and mustard. Don’t forget the celery seed, which I feel is very important in an NC-based slaw.
Here’s my slaw recipe. I’ve also included the ingredients and instructions for the slaw in my ground steak sandwich recipe below.
Ground steak sandwiches are available at several drive-ins and restaurants in Mount Airy. Odell’s Sandwich Shop, Snappy Lunch, and the Dairy Center are just three spots I can name that you can visit if you want to try one for yourself. But there are many others.
If you can time your visit during the Fall, you can check out the Autumn Leaves Festival where someone will definitely have a booth selling ground steak sandwiches (Flat Rock Ruritan Club) and another booth will be selling collard green sandwiches (Sandy Level Community Council). Skip breakfast and try both.
Here’s my Ground Steak Sandwich recipe. Just like the Maid-Rite recipe, I’m not cooking the meat for as long as these Mount Airy ground steak joints are cooking their beef, but my recipe is quick and easy.
A warm and comforting sandwich full of soft flavorful beef. The slaw brings a zippy tangy, and sweet flavor that balances out all the savoriness from the ground steak. Bring a little Mount Airy, North Carolina into your own kitchen.Get Recipe
The MadeGreat sandwich
My MadeGreat sandwich is packed full of flavor. As I wrote before, it’s not a direct copy of any of the three commercial loose meat sandwiches I’ve written about, it’s just a combination of two complex ingredients that I know work great with beef and complement each other well.
Chimichurri is good stuff. I’ve written about chimichurri in a couple of sandwich blog posts at this point, but if you’re grilling steak or eating some sort of beef, it’s a fantastic sauce/condiment.
Chimichurri is a fresh condiment that is super flavorful, that is full of oily, garlicky goodness with just a hint of spice. The fresh herby flavor compliments beef in ways that most other condiments cannot.
Here’s my chimichurri recipe which is a staple at my house whenever we’re getting ready for steak grilling season.
Caramelized onions are somewhat savory but mostly sweet. The word caramelize in the name is somewhat indicative of the caramel flavors that you should expect from these softened onions.
You cook the onions down for at least 30 minutes, more like 45 to get the color and softness that brings out the caramelized flavors. My process might be cheating a little bit, but what I do is cook the onions until they start looking dry in the pan and then I add a couple of tablespoons of water.
These tablespoons of water will rehydrate the onions in the pan and that will allow them to brown but not burn. Doing this every time the pan looks extra dry helps a lot to make sure I’m not burning anything. I’m sure more experienced chefs can caramelize onions without using tablespoons of water and it’s probably down to pan and temperature control, but this technique works well for me, and it produces consistent sweet and soft onions.
Let’s assemble these MadeGreats.
The MadeGreat recipe
Here’s my MadeGreat sandwich recipe.
The garlic-y and zesty chimichurri and sweet caramelized onions pack so much punch in this loose meat sandwich. Enjoy at your own risk.
- 1 cup flat leafed Italian parsley
- 1 cup cilantro leaves
- 1⁄2 cup fresh mint leaves
- 1 shallot, diced
- 4 to 5 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1⁄2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 3⁄4 cup olive oil
- 1⁄4 cup red wine vinegar
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2 large yellow onion or Vidalia onion, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoon butter
- a pinch or more of kosher salt
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1 1⁄2 tablespoon all-purpose flour
- 3⁄4 cup water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 4 soft hamburger buns
- caramelized onions (from above)
- chimichurri (from above)
Chimichurri: add the herbs, diced shallot and chopped garlic to a food processor or blender and pulse until chopped and incorporated.
Pour in 3/4 cup olive oil and 1/4 cup of red wine vinegar into the food processor and pulse until you have a blended sauce with a soupy consistency.
Taste your chimichurri at this point and add salt and pepper until it tastes the way you'd like.
If you think it's too chunky, you can add up to another quarter cup of olive oil or vinegar and pulse again to change the thickness of the sauce.
Store in the fridge for about 2 to 3 weeks. If you're pulling it straight out of the fridge to use, it might be extra thick. Allowing the chimichurri to come closer to room temperature will bring it back to an oilier texture.
Caramelized onions: add 1 tablespoon of butter to a large pan over medium heat.
When butter is bubbly and frothing, add your sliced onion.
Add a pinch of salt and stir everything to combine.
Reduce heat to medium-low and cook onions, stirring often for 20 minutes.
After 20 minutes, your onions should be tan-colored, but not browned. You might start to see dark brown spots forming on the bottom of the pan though, and if you do see that, add a tablespoon of water or two to the pan with the onions and use that water to stir the dark parts at the bottom to keep things from burning.
Continue cooking the onions over medium-low heat for another 10 or 15 minutes. Remember: if you see dark spots or dry areas on the pan, add a tablespoon of water. The water should cook off quickly, but it will help to temper the pan temperature and help the onions to cook through without burning.
After the onions are nice and brown, remove from the pan to a sealed container and if not serving immediately, store in the fridge for no more than a week or so.
Loose meat/ground steak: in a large skillet over medium-high heat, brown the ground beef, attempting to break it up into smaller crumbles while it cooks.
While the beef is browning, add your flour and water to a medium bowl and whisk to combine.
When the beef is mostly cooked and there is no visible pink on the meat, whisk the flour and water mixture one more time and add it to the skillet with the beef. Reduce the heat under the pan to medium-low and cook until the liquid has boiled off. Continue mashing and breaking the meat into smaller pieces while it is cooking. This should take another 8 to 10 minutes or so.
After the liquid is mostly gone, remove the pan from the heat.
Sandwich assembly: toast your buns if desired.
Scoop 1/4 of the caramelized onion and add to each bottom bun half. Top the onions with 1/4 of the loose meat mixture and then spoon over a bit of chimichurri. Add the top bun and serve.
Loose meat or ground steak? They’re both winners!
Make one of these at home and check back next week when we’re doing another Italian thing.