An Iowa Loose Meat Sandwich Recipe That (Sorry!) Rivals Your Local Maid-Rite

This squishy, snackable Iowa loose meat sandwich brings well-seasoned beef crumbles, onion, pickles, and mustard together on a bun, for an undeniable combination of classic Midwestern flavors.

Side view of a Loose Meat Sandwich
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Too often, the justification for making an Iowa-style loose meat sandwich goes something like, “It’s from Iowa, and it’s really not that bad.” That’s fine for readers working through 50-state cooking challenges, but the sandwich deserves better—and so do you.

In the past decade, I’ve driven all over Iowa eating loose meats. I’ve had the Charlie Boy at the Miles Inn and the Tastee at the Tastee Inn & Out, both in Sioux City—one right after the other, at the end of a loose meat crawl. I’ve spooned beef crumbles off my plate at the Maid-Rite in Lamoni, which serves a monster of a Hawkeye State mashup that combines loose meat filling with the state’s signature plate-size, deep-fried pork tenderloin. I’ve had a sandwich and a slice of pie at the Canteen Lunch in the Alley, the Ottumwa institution that inspired Roseanne and Tom Arnold’s fictional Lanford Lunch Box on Roseanne. (Tom is from Ottumwa.)

Side view of loose meat sandwich
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I think the loose meat—also called a "Maid-Rite," after the Iowa-based fast food chain that popularized it, and, in the Sioux City area, a "tavern sandwich"—is a lot of fun. A sloppy Joe without the slop, it’s a mid-century Midwestern classic, bringing beef crumbles (ideally, but not always, well seasoned), onion, pickles, and mustard together on a bun. It’s a squishy, snackable sandwich and an undeniable combination of all-American flavors.

That said, I do understand the skepticism. There’s already an effective and popular way of serving ground beef on a bun, and Serious Eats has covered burgers extensively.

Why The Iowa Loose Meat Sandwich Matters

So what advantage is there in loosening the meat? In need of a gut check on that question, I turned to an expert—my fiancée, Liz Cook, a writer and native of small-town Perry, Iowa, who grew up eating the sandwich at Band Olympics and other school events. After reminding me that she has gone on record calling loose meats “terrible,” she offered a more gracious perspective: “It’s Midwestern practicality when it comes to feeding a crowd. If you’re feeding 300 hungry kids at a basketball game or a band contest, you’re not going to be frying up burgers in a school cafeteria kitchen. You’re going to be steaming 10 pounds of gray meat in a roasting pan, and doling out the little nubbins with an ice cream scoop.” Fair enough.

Sandwich stacked
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But, to me, there's more to loose meat than practicality: With a little effort, you can make a loose meat that’s an actual crowd-pleaser—a practically foolproof taste of Iowa and a burger alternative that’s a whole lot better than “nubbins” on a stale bun.

Loose Meat, the Io-way: My Guiding Principles for Creating This Recipe

To stay true to the form and purpose of this very Midwestern sandwich, I came up with three rules for the recipe development process, ensuring that the result was really an Iowa-style loose meat, not just a pulverized burger or a lighter sloppy Joe:

  1. The meat should be loose from beginning to end. In other words, this is not a chopped cheese. No pattying, searing, and then loosening, which would make the recipe fussier and less crowd-friendly.) That’s the Iowa way.
  2. The finished meat should not be swimming in anything—sauce or grease. It should be juicy but not sopping.
  3. The ingredients in the basic recipe must be limited to ground beef, onion, simple seasonings, mustard, classic cucumber pickles, cheese, and a squishy burger bun—no "twists." Enhancements like pickled peppers, potato chips, chimichurri, hot sauce, cheese sauce, blue cheese crumbles, mayo, and chopped olives (all of which I’ve tried and recommend) are welcome and encouraged but not foundational. You can add those on your own.

4 Tips for Cooking a Loose Meat Sandwich at Home

Although I had basic guidelines before I even started developing the recipe, I did work a few tricks into the final recipe, based on dozens of tests. 

1. Grate the onions. First, for the final version of the sandwich, I grated, rather than diced, the onions. That helps the onion break down more quickly, softening at the same rate as the ground beef cooks through, which is important, given the short cook time. I wanted a relatively uniform filling with integrated onion flavor, not a chili-like medley of beef chunks and diced onion.

2. Add some MSG to enhance the beefy flavor. In my opinion, less is more where this sandwich is concerned. Every time I tried dialing up the seasoning—adding paprika, mustard, and brown sugar, among other things, to the meat mixture—I thought the result tasted garish and unwholesome, like bad fast food. I don’t put paprika in my burgers, and I don’t like it in my loose meat, either. That said, I added just a quarter teaspoon of monosodium glutamate to the recipe to give the sandwich a glutamate boost, enhancing its beefy flavor without overcomplicating the flavor profile. I’m listing the MSG as optional to appease the MSG averse, but I strongly encourage you to use it here.

3. Treat the meat with baking soda. Third, for the most unconventional step in this recipe, I velveted the ground beef before cooking it, using baking soda—a trick I learned from America’s Test Kitchen, though it originates in Chinese stir-fry tradition. Letting the beef soak in a baking soda solution before cooking tenderizes it and helps it retain moisture, resulting in juicy, burgerlike crumbles rather than the dry, pebbly pieces that make up many loose meat fillings.

4. Add some cornstarch. And for my last trick, I finished the cook with a cornstarch slurry to thicken the remaining liquid in the pan and help it cling to the beef. The result isn’t a sauce—remember, that’s not allowed—but it captures the flavor that’s often left behind when loose meat is spooned out of its simmering juices.

The result is a version of an Iowa tradition that’s both practical and delicious. It’s a loose meat good enough to win over the skeptics. How do I know? Well, even Liz says it’s not bad—really. And given her loose meat hangups, after all those years of sandwich meat scooped out of crowd-sized electric roasters, that means something to me.

 In a medium bowl, whisk to combine 1 tablespoon water with baking soda. Add the ground beef and mix to combine. Let sit for 15 minutes.

Overhead view of whisking and adding meat
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Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk the remaining 1 tablespoon water with cornstarch; set aside. In a separate small bowl, combine stock, black pepper, salt, red pepper flakes, and MSG, if using. Mix well and set aside.

Two image collage of prepping cornstarch and stock
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In a large sauté pan or stainless-steel skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil over high heat until shimmering. Add beef and grated onion and cook, stirring frequently and breaking the beef into small pieces with a wooden spoon, until most of the beef is no longer pink and onions are softened, about 5 minutes. Add minced garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Pour in the stock mixture and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Add the cornstarch mixture and cook, stirring constantly, until the sauce has thickened and coats the ground beef, about 1 minute.

Four image collage of cooking meat
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Separate the buns and place a slice of American cheese on each bottom half. Using a slotted spoon, top cheese with about 1/4 of the loose meat filling (about 4 ounces per sandwich) and press gently to compact. Top with 2 to 3 dill pickle chips and mustard. Place the top buns on, squish to compact the layers, and serve immediately.

Four image collage of assembling sandwiches
Serious Eats / Qi Ai

Special-Equipment

Large sauté pan or stainless-steel skillet

Notes

A potato roll is ideal, but any burger bun is fine, and using whatever you can get (within reason) is more true to the tradition than going to three stores looking for potato rolls.

Make-Ahead and Storage

You can make the meat ahead of time, storing it in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to four days. We don't recommend it. The meat takes under half an hour (and minimal effort) to prep and cook combined, and it'll never be better or juicier than when it's fresh. Likewise, any leftover cooked meat can be stored in a tightly sealed container in the fridge for up to four days.

How to Make Real Deal Iowa Ham Balls

Not your average meatballs, these Iowa ham balls are a regional favorite in which ham and ground pork are bound with buttery crackers and tangy buttermilk, then shaped and baked in a sticky sweet sauce.

Overhead view of plated ham balls
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Last year, I moved in with an Iowan. The way people outside the Midwest confuse Iowa and my home state of Ohio, you might assume that my fiancée, Liz, and I grew up in similar cultures—and, sure, in many ways, we did. But they weren’t the same. The Midwest is a massive region, and Des Moines is hundreds of miles from Cincinnati. (They aren’t even in the same time zone.) So, on trips to various parts of Iowa to visit Liz’s family and friends, I’ve been getting an education in Hawkeye State traditions. 

Even before I was driving up to Iowa once a month, I was intrigued by ham balls, Iowa’s version of those glazed cocktail meatballs that are irresistible at parties. And now that I have an Iowan roommate, I’ve been working on my own recipe.

Side view of iowa ham balls
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Per countless vintage sources, the Iowa ham ball originated as a way to repurpose leftovers. Cooks would grind up the previous night’s ham, mix it with binders and milk, shape it into meatballs, and bake it, often in a sugary glaze.

“We Iowans are a creative lot,” Liz’s mom, Iowa native Jill Cook, said when I reached out to ask for ham ball tips. “Austere farming situations are sometimes the mother of invention.” (The similarly resourceful Pennsylvania Dutch have their own ham ball tradition.)

These days, Iowa grocery stores sell a ham ball-specific mixture of ground ham and pork called “ham loaf,” and the balls are on restaurant menus across the state. Like so many make-do dishes, the ham ball has become a beloved part of the culture.

The Basic Ingredient Ratio for Iowa Ham Balls

There are rules for Iowa ham balls now. "I don’t use the same recipe for ham balls every time I make them,” Jill says, “but the standard Iowa recipe has half ground ham, half ground pork, and always crackers, egg, milk, and a glaze with brown sugar, mustard, ketchup, and vinegar.”

Many Iowans would agree, at least generally. How do I know? In the past couple of months, I’ve found, compared, and in some cases, tested more than 80 Iowa ham ball recipes, spanning more than 150 years. (The oldest recipe I found, from the Waterloo, Iowa Courier, is pitched as a use for “what is usually left, and otherwise lost, of boiled ham,” a poignant lead-in, and calls for “as many eggs as you have persons to eat.”)

Overhead view of mixing meat mixture
Serious Eats / Qi Ai

The formula is consistent. While there are variations between decades and recipes, of course, generations of Iowans have used the same one-to-one-to-one ratio: one pound ham, one pound pork, one cup cracker crumbs. (Sometimes, it's actually one-to-one-to-one-to-one, with one egg, but cooks more often use two eggs, and somewhere between 1/2 and 1 cup of milk, for that amount of meat.)

Mix it all up (with added seasoning, if you’d like, though the ham is salty enough that you don’t need salt), form it into balls, nestle them into a baking dish, pour a sugary glaze (a basic brown sugar-and-vinegar syrup works) over the top, bake at 350℉ for 45 to 60 minutes, and you have real-deal Iowa ham balls. That’s it. You can stop reading here and get to work.

Or you can stick around for just a few more paragraphs to find out what I learned from making 128 ham balls in two months.

Tips for Tender Ham Balls

A lot of what I learned through testing ham ball recipes was what not to do. Adjusting that meat-to-cracker-crumb ratio up and down resulted in ham balls that were either pasty and dry or spongy and greasy. 

But I did make some changes to the basic recipe that I used as a starting point. For my first test, I compared different binders: saltines and graham crackers (Jill’s go-to), which are traditional, plus panko and fresh bread. Of those options, saltines were the clear winner, giving me a neutral (and not-too-sweet) flavor and a tender texture, but I still wasn’t thrilled with the result. It was too neutral. Bland, almost. That’s how I ended up with Ritz crackers, which add a buttery flavor that pairs well with ham.

Overhead view of ham balls
Serious Eats / Qi Ai

Influenced by a few 1960s recipes for sweet-and-sour ham balls, I tried introducing pineapple, ginger, clove, cinnamon, allspice, and a touch of soy to the formula. Some of that stuck. Pineapple and clove go well with ham, and soy, ginger, and floral white pepper round out the flavor profile.

Finally, because heavy and rich ham and pork balls fortified with egg and cracker crumbs need all the lightening and brightening they can get, I swapped buttermilk in for the traditional whole milk. At a mere 1/2 cup, the buttermilk adds just a touch of acidity (but you can substitute milk if you want).

Dialing in the Sweet to Tart Ratio in the Glaze

When I cut the amount of sugar in the glaze, which seemed like a reasonable way to keep the ham balls on the right side of cloying, they lost some of their sweet-and-salty appeal, as the salt prevailed. So, I went back to 1/2 cup of sugar. Don’t skimp. (Some older recipes call for even more.)

While the glaze is often fortified with ketchup or other tomato products, I was initially resistant to putting tomato in the glaze, preferring the older combination of brown sugar, mustard, and vinegar. But after many rounds of testing, I finally had to admit that tomato, in condensed soup form, was an effective way to thicken the glaze and add umami to the dish, as it does for meatloaf. Iowa cooks have evolved the recipe over the years for a reason.

Overhead view of pouring glaze
Serious Eats / Qi Ai

Even with these few adjustments and fine tuning, this is still a straight-down-the-line Iowa ham ball recipe, informed by months of research and testing. 

In the make-do spirit of this dish, feel free to fiddle with it a little bit. Maybe you want more pineapple juice in the glaze. Maybe you want to take it out. Maybe you want to mix some red pepper flakes, or a teaspoon of allspice, or dry mustard, into the meat. Maybe you have country ham or bacon on hand, and you want to try adding that. (I liked my bacon-accented ham balls, with four ounces of ground bacon replacing some of the ham and fresh pork, but Liz correctly noted that it was too far from the Iowa standard for this recipe.) That’s what the structure is for—to create space for improvisation and invention. Happy hamballing.

For the glaze: Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 350℉ (175℃). In a small saucepan, combine all glaze ingredients and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Simmer, whisking frequently until sugar dissolves, then remove from heat and set aside.

Overhead view of glaze in pot
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For the ham balls: In a food processor, pulse the ham until finely ground, about 25 pulses; set aside.

Overhead view of meat in food processor
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In a large bowl, mix cracker crumbs, ginger, white pepper, and clove until well combined. Add buttermilk and stir to combine. Let sit until crumbs are softened and hydrated, about 5 minutes. Stir in ground ham to combine.

Two image collage of combining milk and ham with breadcrumbs
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In a small bowl, beat eggs and soy sauce together, then add to the ham mixture and use your hands to combine. Add pork and mix gently, until fully incorporated. Divide meat mixture into 16 ham balls by rolling each meat portion between your wet hands to form balls, rewetting hands as needed. Nestle prepared ham balls into an oven-proof nonstick or lightly greased 9-by-9-inch baking dish or pan. 

Overhead view of ham balls being formed
Serious Eats / Qi Ai

Pour the glaze evenly over the balls, being sure to coat each one. Bake until the glaze is reduced and lightly caramelized and ham balls are cooked through, tender, and register at least 160°F (70°C) on an instant-read thermometer, 40 to 50 minutes. Spoon the ham balls onto plates to serve, topping with extra glaze.

Overhead view of pouring sauce over ham balls and cooked ham balls
Serious Eats / Qi Ai

Special Equipment

Small saucepan, food processor, 9-by-9-inch baking dish or pan

Make-Ahead and Storage

The assembled glaze and the raw shaped ham balls can be refrigerated separately for up to 3 days before continuing with step 5 to finish cooking.

The fully cooked ham balls can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days.

Your North Dakotan Grandma Would Approve of This Comforting Knoephla Recipe

Most North Dakotan grandmas seem to agree that this beloved soup should be simple and comforting, with little more than good chicken broth and handmade (not frozen!) dumplings.

Overhead view of knoephla soup
Serious Eats / Qi Ai

I was fifteen minutes from Strasburg, North Dakota, Lawrence Welk’s hometown, when I saw the red-and-blue lights in my rearview mirror. Oh, no. I’d been road tripping through the Midwest for more than a decade without a speeding ticket.

As it turned out, I was going 70-something in a 65, driving like I was still on the interstate. I did get a ticket. I also got the officer’s thoughts on knoephla—a beloved North Dakotan creamy dumpling soup with roots in Germany—after he asked what brought me to the state. (Answer: the food, mostly.) “My grandma put potato in her dumplings,” he said. “There are different ways to do it. Not sure what the right way is.” He shrugged.

There are different ways to do it, and adding potato to the dumplings is one of the less common, but the knoephla (pronounced nef-la) soup story is usually pretty much the same. It typically involves someone’s grandma, and people who grew up on grandma’s knoephla soup seem to agree that the dish should be a simple and comforting soup, with little more than good chicken broth and handmade (not frozen!) dumplings.

For two months, I ate my way toward the perfect bowl of knoephla soup, maxing out on heavy cream and carbs while testing potential secret ingredients, including miso, celery seed, and various herbs. “I think there’s always a desire to try something new with traditional recipes,” says Jeremy Kopp, interim director of the Germans From Russia Heritage Collection at North Dakota State University, who went through dozens of community cookbooks with me while I was in Fargo researching knoephla. “Historically, everyone had something a little different, but when you boil it down, it’s really all the same. Now, people try to differentiate themselves. There’s that need to be different, or why would someone come to my blog, or read my cookbook?” 

After all my attempts at innovation and differentiation, I ended up with a knoephla soup recipe that’s pretty traditional, resembling many of the recipes in the community cookbooks I’ve been stockpiling (but tested and tweaked for the best possible result). It’s what the dish, which is well known on the Plains but not part of most American cooks’ repertoires, deserves—a straightforward introduction.

Nailing the Soup for My Perfect Version of Knoephla

The knoephla soup that I find most satisfying is comforting but not too heavy, with a texture somewhere between a rich chicken broth and a béchamel. Some knoephla soups are gravy-like in texture, but while a rib-sticking soup can hit the spot in the depths of winter, I can only drink gravy every so often. Other soups are thinner, like chicken and dumplings without the meat, lacking the comforting richness that I associate with the dish. For this recipe, I split the difference by thickening the soup with a small amount of roux, which gave the soup base just the right body.

Cubes of russet potato, softened in the broth, complement the dumplings, adding earthy flavor and extra heft to each spoonful. Chopped celery adds savory depth. (A 2008 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry helped establish why celery is a popular addition to soups like these—it concluded that volatile compounds in the vegetable enhance perceptions of sweet and umami flavors.) I left carrot, a common ingredient, out of this recipe. It adds color to the bowl (as does turmeric, for some cooks), but it isn’t in many of the older recipes, and to me, knoephla soup’s plainness is part of its appeal. Would you add carrot to your mac and cheese? No? Then you won’t miss it here. (Yes? Sounds interesting, but bear with me.)

The Dumplings

I’ve heard more than one North Dakotan compare the dumplings used in knoephla to spaetzle, a close relative. Most North Dakota knoephla are dense and a little bit chewy, unlike fluffy Southern dumplings—but tender, too, after a twenty-minute simmer in the broth. Using milk in the dough and adding a touch of baking powder makes the dumplings soft and slurpable. 

Overhead view of cutting dumplings
Serious Eats / Qi Ai

In this recipe, I’m asking you to cut your dumplings ahead of time, so you can add them to the soup all at once. Many of those North Dakota grandmas I mentioned snip the dumplings directly into the soup with scissors. That works, too, and it can be cleaner and more efficient, but it means slightly different cook times for your dumplings, because cutting eight dough ropes can take a few minutes, especially for a first-timer. The difference in texture is negligible after a 20-minute simmer, but if you cut the dumplings beforehand, you don’t have to—literally—sweat it, standing over a hot pot of simmering water while snipping frantically.

The result of my months of interviews, sampling, and tinkering is a simple and satisfying dumpling soup. “You can take something as simple as knoephla and make it so complicated,” says Robert Serr, who serves the soup at Bismarck, North Dakota’s beloved Little Cottage Café on Mondays and Wednesdays. “You know, you don’t even know what you’re making anymore, and it tastes like crap. Or you can keep it simple, use stuff you can buy at the grocery store, and turn out a pretty decent product. That’s what I’ve always done.” And I’m pretty sure that’s the right way.

For the Dumplings: In a large mixing bowl, whisk flour, salt, and baking powder to combine. In a separate small bowl, whisk eggs and milk until eggs are thoroughly beaten. Pour wet ingredients into the dry and stir until a shaggy dough forms. (If dough is too dry, add milk 1 tablespoon at a time until dough comes together. Be patient.) 

Two image collage of mixing dough together
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Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until a smooth, elastic dough forms, about 5 minutes. Roll dough into a ball, wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and let rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour.

Overhead view of rolling dough
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Cut dough into eight equal sized pieces (about 65g each), cover loosely with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap and let rest for 5 minutes. Working with 1 dough piece at a time, roll each piece into a long thin rope about 1/2-inch thick and 9 inches long. If dough springs back while rolling, re-cover and let sit to relax for 5 to 10 minutes while you start the soup.

Overhead view of rolling dough
Serious Eats / Qi Ai

Using a knife or a bench scraper, cut each dough rope, right before adding to the soup, into ½-inch long dumplings, dusting the work surface lightly with flour as needed to prevent sticking.

Overhead view of cutting dumplings
Serious Eats / Qi Ai

For the Soup: While the dumpling dough is resting before cutting ,in a Dutch oven or large stockpot, heat butter over medium-high heat until melted and beginning to foam. Add onion, celery, salt, and pepper and cook until vegetables are softened and translucent, 5 to 7 minutes. 

Overhead view of celery in pot
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Add flour and cook, stirring constantly until no dry flour remains, about 2 minutes. Slowly pour in broth, scraping bottom of pan to loosen any stuck bits and whisking to break up any lumps. Bring to a simmer then add potatoes and dumplings. Simmer, adjusting heat as needed to maintain simmer, until potatoes are tender and the dumplings are cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cream. Season with salt and white pepper to taste. Serve. 

Overhead view of making knoephla
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Special Equipment

Dutch oven or large pot

Make-Ahead and Storage

The finished soup can be cooled down and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days, with a caveat that the knoephla dumplings will swell and soften as they absorb the broth. (A lot of people consider that a good thing. In my research, I came across multiple recipes that mentioned that knoephla soup is better the second day!)