Somewhere in my Hoosier childhood, I remember a hamburger bun filled with "loose hamburger" meat that was slightly sweet with a hint of tang. I especially loved the savory juices that absorbed into the bun. Think "sloppy Joe" but without tomato sauce crossed with a White Castle hamburger.
I don't really remember any condiments put on the burger. My siblings don't recall such a concoction at all. I honestly do not remember where I had it. I now suspect it was, perhaps, a school lunch at the middle school where I once taught.
Wherever and whatever, I have since learned it is simply called a "loose-meat sandwich" made popular by an Iowa chain called Maid Rite. Most have closed. But their ardent and loyal following is still powerful, and today there are dozens of recipes that swear to be the "original" with ingredients ranging from root beer to dried soup mixes to simmering for hours on end. It's almost a cult following, like one's guarded chili recipe.
America's Test Kitchen offered their "authentic" version a few years ago (recipe follows). It's not what I remembered, so I played around with it for ages. I thought I had lost my notes and recipe; but, happily, I recently found them hiding in a computer file I never finished.
This is quite easy. The key is to use great hamburger meat. Ground hamburger (you never really know what you are getting in it anymore) is now so expensive that I simply pass it up and buy the fresh, pre-formed hamburger patties produced by small companies who use quality meat. It's worth it.
Also, the key is the ratio of sugar to vinegar. Too much sugar results in a too-sweet burger. But, guess what? It's delicious! Just add more mustard and dill pickles. If not your taste, trust me, kids will eat them up!
The traditional topping is a spider-web squirt of American yellow mustard and dill pickles. Maybe some extra tiny diced onions. That's it. No ketchup. No mayo. No cheese. I prefer to take a whole dill pickle and slice it razor thin on a mandolin and then pile it on the burger. It's much easier to bite into and to chew. You will never go back to jar-sliced pickles.
If you have the time, soak the dried onion flakes in the beef broth until they are hydrated.
- 1 pound 80/20 ground beef
- 1-2 tablespoons dried/minced onion flakes
- 1 good tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- 3-4 teaspoons brown sugar (start with less)
- 1/3 cup beef broth
- 1-2 tablespoons water (start with less)
- salt/pepper to taste
- American yellow mustard
- Slider buns (not Hawaiin)
Simply add all ingredients to a pan and cook on med/low heat until everything is cooked through. Taste and adjust your seasonings. Allow to slow simmer about 20 minutes, giving a quick stir every once-in-a-while, adding more liquid if necessary. You want loose and wet.
When ready to serve, place a slider bun cut side down over the meat and allow to steam for 30-60 seconds. Pile with meat. Squirt on some mustard, add the sliced dill pickles, top with bun and enjoy with a hefty side of salty chips or crispy fries. Add a cold fizzy soda or a beer ...
Here is America's Test Kitchen recipe:
- 1 pound 85 percent lean ground beef
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 tablespoon yellow mustard, plus extra for serving
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon each salt and pepper
- 1/2 cup finely chopped onion
- 4 hamburger buns
- Sliced dill pickles
Since posting this, a friend e-mailed that, indeed, a Maid Rite was once in the county of Indiana where I grew up, so that must be where I had these and/or my mother made them from memory since the diner was not close to our house. Mystery solved!