Casserole. Hot dish. Bake. No matter what you call it, across the nation homemakers are combining seemingly random ingredients and baking them up hot to serve their families a meal. Most casseroles serve a simple purpose: to use frugal or leftover ingredients and create a comforting meal that nourishes a family without costing a lot of money.
When we were first married, I would cringe at the thought of making casseroles. I was a bit of a cooking snob, and thought casseroles were disgusting, preservative filled junk food. Truly, I didn’t understand how amazing and healthy the humble casserole could be. Fast forward 9 years and 4 kids later, and I have turned full circle; embracing the casserole for all of it’s amazing abilities to be frugal, healthy, adaptable and so good! Nothing gets my family to the table like a creamy, cheesy casserole.
This change of heart didn’t happen overnight. First I had to understand what made a casserole taste good, and how to recreate old recipes to use what I had on hand. I have learned over the years that there are 5 parts to an amazing casserole: Protein, Starch, Vegetables, Sauce, and Cheese. Any combination of these 5 ingredients can be used to serve a filling meal to your family.
Let’s break this down for a 9×13 Casserole:
This includes any type of meat, ground or shredded. Ground or shredded beef, pork, and venison; shredded chicken or turkey; even wild game can be used if that is what your family has available. (We grew up eating Deer and Moose meat, and it was so good!) Also, beans make a great protein in casseroles as they are cheap and filling. Usually about 1 pound of meat, or 2 cans of beans is sufficient. If your family has older children, or you want to serve this for more than one meal, increase the amount to 1 ½ pounds. I start with 1 pound of meat and supplement with a can of beans. If you really love your family, add a few slices of cooked and crumbled bacon to put your dish over the top. (Serving bacon is a form of saying I love you!)
We often think of potatoes here, but pasta, rice, quinoa, barley, cauliflower, and sweet potatoes work just as well. Most potatoes can be added raw, and I love the convenience of frozen hash browns. Cook grains, rice and pasta until slightly firm before adding to the casserole. Use the following amount for a 9×13 dish: 1 pound of pasta, 2 cups cooked rice or grains, one bag frozen hash browns/tater tots, 4-5 medium potatoes sliced or mashed, one large head of cauliflower chopped or cooked and mashed.
Moms, let’s be honest. We have all tried to sneak vegetables into our meals before. Casseroles are the ultimate way to add vegetables, because the flavor is often masked by the sauce. The sky is the limit on vegetables, just make sure to cook or soften hard vegetables beforehand, and cut them all the same size to ensure even cooking.
My favorites include any bag of frozen vegetable blend, any can of vegetables, and of course there are almost always onions and garlic sautéed and added to my casseroles. For a 9×13 dish, use the following amount: 1 bag frozen vegetables, 1-2 cans vegetables, one head broccoli, chopped, 2-4 Cups leftover cooked vegetables, 1 large onion and 4 cloves garlic chopped and sautéed.
This is what makes your dish a casserole. The sauce brings it all together and turns an ordinary group of ingredients into a spectacular meal. Many recipes call for “cream of” soups. I am not a fan of the ingredients in canned soups, so I make my own. It is super easy, tastes a million times better, and you can customize it for your family. Other options include pesto, marinara, pizza sauce, alfredo, enchilada sauce, chicken or vegetable stock, and gravy. Aim for 3 cups of sauce for a 9 x 13 pan.
This ingredient could be optional if your family doesn’t eat cheese, but it really is a defining attribute to most casseroles because everything tastes better covered in cheese! For a 9×13 casserole, aim to use 1-2 cups of cheese. ½ can be mixed or layered into the casserole, and the other half sprinkled on top. Any variety your family loves can be used. My favorite is sharp cheddar, as it adds a ton of flavor.
You can choose to make any casserole your own with the use of spices and dried herbs. For Mexican casseroles, add ½ to 1 tsp. each of smoked paprika, cumin, oregano and chili powder. For Italian casseroles, add 1 tsp. basil, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. I am heavy handed when using spices and herbs, and look to incorporate at least 3 different spices and herbs to every casserole.
To recap, for a 9×13 casserole combine the following:
- 1 to 1½ pounds cooked meat, or 1-2 cans cooked beans
- 1 pound of pasta, 2 cups cooked rice or grains, one bag frozen hash browns/tater tots, 4-5 medium potatoes sliced or mashed, one large head of cauliflower chopped or cooked and mashed.
- 1 bag frozen vegetables, 1-2 cans vegetables, one head broccoli chopped, 2-4 cups leftover cooked vegetables, 1 large onion and 4 cloves garlic chopped and sautéed.
- for 3 cups of sauce.
- 1-2 Cups shredded cheese
How to Bake a Casserole
Baking a casserole is also super easy. If the ingredients are precooked, just assemble and bake in your Pyrex – 9 inch x 13 Inch glass baking dish, uncovered at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. This works even if the potatoes are raw, just check at 30 minutes and add additional time if they aren’t easily pierced with a fork. Add the cheese topping during the last 10 minutes. For a casserole with pasta, I like to cover with foil to keep the pasta from drying out. Remove the foil during the last 10 minutes to cook the cheese topping.
*Homemaking Tip: Prep 2 casseroles at a time and freeze one for later. I love these Glad Pans and Lids, especially if I am taking a meal to another family. Then they don’t have to wash and return a pan, and I don’t have to go without my favorite baking dish!
Learning the anatomy of the casserole has been a game changer in my cooking, as I am no longer limited to exact recipes I find in cookbooks or on Pinterest. I can use my meal plan to determine some great meals for the week, and use the leftovers to fashion meals that taste even more amazing. I save money using up leftovers, keep my family healthy by not resorting to fast food, and save time as I only cook some of the ingredients once. That, my friends, is a major kitchen victory!
Pair with a salad and this homemade bread, and you have a delicious meal for your family.
So, this fall as the weather cools down, make sure you schedule a few yummy casseroles on your meal plan, and watch as your family inhales the cheesy goodness of leftovers. It is pure magic!