Campaigning For Casseroles: In Defense of the Original One-Pot Meal
The casserole is the OG one-pot meal. Full of culinary quandaries, we demystify the dish and make the case for including casseroles in your meal plan.
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At Yummly, there's no new food we won't try — and since there are people from all over the world here, we've had some very interesting food in the office: egg yolk flavored fish skin cracklins, vegemite, mooncakes with whole egg yolks suspended in red bean paste, and the Carolina Reaper (the world's hottest pepper), to name a few. While we're constantly expanding our palates, there's one thing we can always return to as our ultimate comfort food: the casserole.
Cooks from around the world have been mixing different ingredients to form a one-pot meal for centuries. Italians claim lasagna while Morrocans merge lamb, rice, dried fruit, and spices for a tagine. An Irish casserole is made up of a base of ground beef topped with mashed potatoes — we know that as shepherd's pie. A French version of a casserole slow cooks duck, beans, and sausage — the name of the dish even sounds like "casserole"; it's called "cassoulet."
Even though casseroles having been warming American kitchens for decades, somewhere along the way, the casserole's reputation got sullied. One of the original American casserole recipes is the Johnny Marzetti casserole, which was basically used as a vehicle for leftover sauce, meat, and noodles.
Frugal home cooks ran with the idea throughout the mid and late 20th century. They came up with frighteningly weird mixtures to repurpose bits of leftovers into new meals. The worst I've heard of is a hot dog cabbage casserole. If it were bratwurst served on a bed of sauerkraut with a bit of mustard, I definitely would give it a pass, but the recipe involves cut up frankfurters layered with par-cooked cabbage, a cream sauce and cracker crumbs. It's then topped with ketchup. I'm sure there's someone out there who enjoys this blend of conflicting flavors and textures, but I would not be one of them. Fortunately for me, the most egregious casserole I was subjected to is the tuna noodle casserole. I'm sure you're familiar with it — egg noodles, canned tuna, frozen peas, and cream of mushroom soup all blended together and baked for what sounds like a weird meal, but is quite delicious and very mid-century.
My other childhood favorite is Rotel chicken. It's just an Americanized Mexican chicken casserole recipe my mom got from the back of a can of Rotel tomatoes, but it's amazing: cheddar cheese, tortilla chips, chicken, onion, cream of chicken soup, and tomatoes. The chips swell up from the soup, cheese, and tomatoes to create something akin to chili con queso in meal form. Aside from trading recipes, we can probably credit that type of "back of the box recipe" for the proliferation of casserole recipes in the 1950s and 1960s.
But we're here to extoll the sanctity of the casserole, not tear it down. It's home cooking at it's finest and I'd go so far as to say a casserole done well could sell well in a restaurant. In a recent interview on Milk Street Radio, Ina Garten (The Barefoot Contessa) told Christopher Kimball that in the early days of her shop, she tried serving fancy food, but people didn't want it. They wanted simple comfort food so that's what she gave them and it turned her into a highly revered cook and cookbook author. So in honor of the casserole, we put together a few tips and ideas for making a casserole along with casserole recipes that the whole family will want to come home to for a weeknight meal.
What Qualifies As A Casserole?
A casserole can be many different things. It can be a breakfast bake like bread pudding (also known as French toast casserole), a pasta bake like baked mac and cheese, or egg dishes like quiche, frittata, strata, or Spanish omelet (or, more accurately, Spanish tortilla).
A casserole is also the name of a type of baking dish; they can be tempered glass, earthenware, stoneware, porcelain, cast iron, or enamel (porcelain-covered cast iron). For earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain, make sure it there's a stamp on the bottom that says it's oven-safe before your bake with it.
If you don't have a casserole dish, you can make a casserole in a metal pan or a cake pan, but the baking time will need to be adjusted and you should spray the pan with cooking spray or prepare it with butter so the ingredients don't stick to the pan.
Much like a salad, a casserole can be whatever you want it to be. You can mix together as many or as few ingredients as you'd like, however, I've broken down the components of the conventional casserole. The four main parts of casseroles are as follows:
Base: vegetables and/or meat. This is the ingredient you’ll build the casserole around.
Binder: egg or egg substitute. This is the ingredient that holds everything together.
Liquid: this can be many things: mayonnaise, cheese, milk, condensed soup. This is the ingredient that keeps the casserole moist.
Starch: noodles, bread crumbs, cracker crumbs, pie crust, biscuits. This ingredient gives the casserole body and can acts as a crispy topping (if you’re not using noodles — but you can have a crumb topping on a noodle casserole).
Not every casserole uses all four components. If you're using egg, you might not necessarily use liquid and vice versa. Or you might skip meat and vegetables as the base, like in a baked penne. However, what I really love about casseroles is that you can get a balanced meal out of them so that they're a one-pot meal that can be vegetarian, vegan, paleo, keto, or whatever dietary preference you're cooking for.
To Cover Or Not To Cover
Covering a casserole can do a few things. A covered casserole does cook faster than an uncovered casserole because the cover traps the steam from any moisture in the ingredients that are being cooked and recirculates the heat.
Covering casseroles also prevents the top of the casserole from burning; which is key for very dense casseroles like lasagna. One thing to note is that if you are using aluminum foil, acid from the casserole can burn holes in the aluminum. I have seen this happen with lasagna and solved the issue by covering it first with plastic wrap and then covering it with aluminum. I use store-brand BPA-free plastic wrap and it works great. But an even better solution would be to use a casserole dish that comes with a lid.
The only real downside to covering casseroles is that you won't get a crunchy top crust. A workaround for that is to remove the cover near the end of cooking so the top has a chance to crisp up.
Casseroles are great for make-ahead meals so you can have a hot weeknight dinner like chicken enchiladas without putting in a lot of effort when you get home from work. It's also the go-to comfort food for delivering to family, friends, and neighbors that are going through high-stress situations — bringing home a newborn, a death in the family, or a military deployment — comfort food at work. That means they have to be freezer-friendly.
Freezer-Friendly Ingredients: Most casseroles freeze well, but not all of them. Casseroles with tomato sauce work, but a tomato casserole won't freeze well because tomatoes (and other vegetables with high water content) contain so much water that when they thaw, a big puddle will form that you can't correct. If you're making a casserole to freeze, just make sure there's a starchy component to soak up any displaced water.
Freezing Egg Casseroles: Even though we've been cooking eggs for millennia, what they can and can't do is still a mystery to most. Egg casseroles (like frittatas) can be frozen uncooked — in general, raw eggs freeze really well. That means that, yes, you can freeze breakfast casseroles! But depending on how eggy the casserole is, it may not do well cooked and then frozen. Cooked egg shrinks up and hardens fairly quickly, so an eggy casserole may not respond well to the yo-yo-ing temperatures.
Cooking Frozen Casseroles: You don't have to thaw frozen casseroles, but it's helpful if you want it to cook quickly; it will take a lot longer to cook if it's frozen all the way through. Just remember that you should thaw in your refrigerator overnight rather than leaving it on the counter to defrost. My preference is doing a cold start with frozen casseroles that have not been thawed. That just means sticking the frozen, covered casserole in a cold oven and letting the casserole heat up with the oven set at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour. This works for both pre-cooked and uncooked frozen casseroles.
For a thawed pre-cooked casserole, reheat it at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes or until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit. For a thawed casserole that was not pre-cooked, bake it per the recipe.
When you find the glorious casserole you want to make — perhaps a broccoli, chicken, and rice casserole or maybe a cauliflower casserole — pay attention to the size of the casserole dish the recipe calls for. If a recipe requires a 13 x 9-inch casserole dish, don't use an 8 x 8-inch baker. The cook time will be off and the results may not be good; it may cook unevenly and you'll end up with a burnt top and an undercooked middle.
Adjusting Casseroles For Dietary Preferences
One of the magical things about casseroles is that they can be made to suit many different dietary preferences in a way that everyone can enjoy them.
Low-Calorie: Mayonnaise is very high in calories (and fat), but it does a lot to make casseroles moist and flavorful. If dairy is not an issue for you, cutting the mayonnaise with cottage cheese can make your casserole lighter. In fact, there are more than a few casserole recipes that use cottage cheese as the main fat source. Admittedly, some may use the cottage cheese to make the casserole more delicious rather than low-calorie.
Gluten-Free: Finding a gluten-free casserole recipe is easy, if you're open to rice and potatoes. They're both gluten-free and make some of the best casseroles. The ingredient you should look out for is cream of mushroom soup or cream of chicken soup — they sometimes contain gluten. If the recipe you want to cook has one of these, just be sure to read ingredient labels in the store and buy a gluten-free brand. If it's the crunchy topping that you're looking for, gluten-free panko breadcrumbs can be used in place of cracker toppings.
Low-Carb or Keto:
If you follow a low-carb or keto diet, there are plenty of ways to make a casserole without the extra starch (and without any hard-to-find ingredients).
Vegan: There are many amazing casserole recipes that don't call for meat or dairy. There are different ways home cooks use ingredients to make casseroles creamy without using dairy — nutritional yeast and legumes like cashews or beans can produce creamy casseroles — but there are also satisfying vegetable casseroles that don't make an attempt at reproducing the textures of a carnivore's diet.
Keep Cooking Casseroles
There are more than 30,000 casserole recipes to browse on Yummly — there's one for every taste and dietary preference. From our favorite Thanksgiving green bean casserole to chicken pot pie to repurpose last night's chicken, you can find a one-dish meal that you're in the mood for tonight.