You would think that making a really good casserole would be easy. Just throw a lot of good stuff in a casserole dish and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for half an hour, right? I thought so, too, until I was at a friend’s house and tasted a casserole that was just flat out inedible. I don’t even remember what was in that particular dish. All I remember is that I spat out the first bite I took of it because it tasted awful. So much for the theory that you can just put anything in a casserole dish and it’ll taste fine.
Casseroles are fine in theory. They’re the go-to comfort food for a lot of people who still remember nightly family dinners and all those times they took a casserole in a food warmer to Grandma’s holiday party. Anytime you go to a Lutheran potluck, you’re going to see a big long row of casserole dishes. (Trust me, I’ve been to enough Lutheran potlucks that I can honestly say that it’s hard to exaggerate how many varieties of the casserole can show up at an event with a decent turnout. If you’ve ever heard Garrison Keillor talk about the religious scene in his tales of Lake Wobegon, you know what I’m talking about.) You just have to be discerning about what you put into your casserole if you want it to be a rollicking success.
It can be tricky. When you’re starting out, your results will probably come out too watery, too dry, you put too much or too little spice in, or some ingredients will be overcooked or undercooked when the rest is perfect. If you want the perfect casserole, following some basic tips might help:
Completely thaw out and pat dry veggies. If you use a lot of ingredients out of the freezer in your cooking, you must have noticed that those bags of frozen veggies are caked together with sheets of ice in the bag. You want to get rid of that extra moisture before you put them in your casserole. Completely thaw them out in a strainer and then pat them dry. Better yet, consider skipping the freezer aisle and buying fresh veggies within a day or two of making the casserole. This gets rid of extra moisture that can cause your casserole to come out all runny and also solve the problem of veggies that didn’t get done in the oven.
Consider steaming or roasting ingredients that take longer to cook in advance. Potatoes and brocolli are the two big culprits when it comes to ingredients that didn’t quite get done in the casserole. Partially cooking them in advance can help solve this problem. (Chefs call it “par-cooking.”)
Ignore the step in the recipe that says “Cook pasta according to package directions.” Sure, you want to soften lasagna up in a pot of boiling water first, but pasta has a tendency to get either overdone and come out mushy or underdone and still be crisp in the casserole dish. Shorten the boiling time by about two to four minutes and it should come out perfect.
Make in advance and freeze, but don’t forget to thaw out all the way before you put it in the oven. When making a big holiday meal, one of my favorite things to do is mix up part of it a couple of weeks in advance and then freeze it. However, this can wreck your casserole if you don’t thaw it out all the way before cooking. The edges of a still cold casserole can become overdone while the inside is still underdone. Put it in the refrigerator two or three days before you plan to bake it, take it out of the refrigerator when you turn the oven on and are waiting for it to preheat, and it should be fine.
Don’t be afraid to tweak ingredient amounts or scrap and start over if it doesn’t come out perfect the first time. A lot of recipes call for “salt and pepper to taste” for a reason. It’s an acknowledgement that some people like so much pepper that you wonder if the Duchess from Alice in Wonderland made that casserole while others are trying to watch their salt intake for reasons of cardiovascular health. I like to sneak an extra handful of cheese into some of my favorite casseroles. Others might like extra potatoes. The whole point of making a casserole is that you can be flexible with it without ruining it.
Creamy Seafood Casserole
1 cupchopped onions
1 1/2 cupschopped celery
2 1/2 cupsmilk
6 tablespoonsall-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoonsbutter
4 ouncesCheddar cheese, sliced
1/2 teaspoonblack pepper
1/4 poundlobster meat
1/4 poundmedium shrimp
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9X13 casserole dish. Saute onions and celery in 3 tablespoons butter until tender. Mix milk, flour and 1 1/2 teaspoon butter in saucepan while heating over medium heat until well blended. Add cheese; melt completely into mixture. Add salt and pepper. Mix onions, celery and cheese mix in a medium bowl. Toss in all the seafood. Transfer to casserole dish. Bake for 25 minutes until seafood is opaque and top is lightly browned. Serve hot.
Sweet Potato Casserole
The Swiss Do Chicken Casserole The Correct Way
Trust me. The test of a really good casserole is whether it heats up well in the microwave the next day. And this one does.
6 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
6 slices Swiss cheese
1 (10.75 ounce) can condensed cream of chicken soup
1/4 cup milk
2 cups herb-seasoned stuffing mix
1/4 cup butter
Preheat oven to 350. Grease a casserole dish. Arrange chicken in a single layer in the dish. Top with Swiss cheese. Mix soup and milk in small bowl and pour evenly over the chicken. Sprinkle stuffing mix on top. Melt butter and drizzle on top. Bake for 50 minutes.