The secret of the casserole: Demolish leftovers with this easy casserole hack

November 17 | Guest post by Beth
beer and pretzels casserole
By: personalcreationsCC BY 2.0

I'm one of those "I don't have time to cook between coming home from Obligation A and leaving for Obligation B" people. Luckily, I was raised by a mother with the same issue, who prioritized keeping us kids healthy, so she figured out life hacks (and passed them along to us). My favorite of these is the secret of the casserole.

Oh sure, you could follow a recipe, but isn't it easier to make your own, and use things you already have on hand? Every casserole follows the same basic schematic. And once you know that, you can use it to get rid of leftovers, get more greens into your diet, experiment with flavor profiles, and generally be a dinner genius.

You can make a casserole fresh, or cover it and freeze it indefinitely (as long as the meat in it is pre-cooked), for a fast dinner throughout the year.

Any basic casserole (for a 13" x 9" dish) requires the following:

One of these sauce bases:

  • 10 ounces undiluted "cream of"-style soup + 8 ounces milk (dairy or otherwise)/mayonnaise/sour cream
  • 8 ounces plain cream cheese/Unflavored yogurt/Sour cream + 4 ounces milk (dairy or otherwise)
  • 28 ounces diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 12 ounces broth-style soup/stock
  • 12 ounces milk (dairy or otherwise)
  • 12 ounces actual sauce (enchilada sauce, salsa, gravy, BBQ sauce, etc)

One of these protein option, if desired:

  • 12 solid white tuna, drained and flaked
  • 2 cups chopped cooked chicken
  • 2 cups chopped cooked ham
  • 2 cups chopped cooked turkey
  • 1 pound ground beef, browned and drained
  • 2 cups beans (drained)

One of these "dry bases" to absorb liquid (preferably pre-cooked al denti):

  • 2 cups elbow macaroni,
  • 1 cup cooked rice (white works best, but you can use other types)
  • 4 cups wide egg noodles
  • 3 cups medium pasta shells

One of these veggie:

  • 1 (10-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed (or fresh, cooked and gently squeezed to a less-moist consistency)
  • 1 (10-ounce) package frozen cut broccoli (or fresh, cooked)
  • 1 (10-ounce) package frozen English peas (or fresh, cooked)
  • 1 (16-ounce) package frozen sliced yellow squash (or fresh, baked until tender)
  • 1 (10-ounce) package frozen whole kernel corn (or fresh, cooked)
  • 1/2 medium onion, diced

One extra (optional, can combine as desired):

  • 1 (3-ounce) can sliced mushrooms, drained (or fresh, sliced and sauteed just until tender)
  • 1/4 cup sliced ripe olives
  • 1/4 cup chopped bell pepper
  • 1/4 cup chopped onion
  • 1/4 cup chopped celery
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 (4.5-ounce) can chopped green chiles (or fresh, diced and cooked just until tender)

One of these seasonings:

  • 1 envelope taco seasoning mix
  • 1 envelope ranch dressing seasoning
  • 2 tsp salt + 2 tsp pepper
  • Really, whatever you want, to taste

One topping (optional):

  • 1/2 cup shredded cheese
  • 1/2 cup fine, dry breadcrumbs, or panko
  • 1/2 cup crumbled dehydrated vegetable
  • Crushed potato chips (or go super simple and use something like flavored Doritos)

Recipe:

  1. Combine everything except the topping and stir until well combined.
  2. If you go the riskier route and layer each ingredient type instead, make sure the dry base is on the bottom, and the sauce base is poured over everything just before added the topping.
  3. Spoon the casserole mixture into a lightly greased 13″ x 9″ x 2″ baking dish.
  4. Sprinkle the topping evenly over the casserole.
  5. Cover and bake casserole at 350 degrees Farenheit for 20-30 minutes. Then uncover and bake 8-10 additional minutes.

If you prefer to make the casserole ahead of time and freeze it, do so before the baking step.
No time to thaw the dish before baking? If you have a sturdy enough casserole dish (like a Pyrex), you can just put it into the oven. Be aware that you may need to increase the baking time by an additional 10-20 minutes to compensate. (I like to put it in the oven as it pre-heats, personally, so the temperature change isn't too dramatic).

Need some ideas for starters?

  • Cream cheese/milk sauce base + Beef + Cooked pasta + Onion + Taco seasoning packet + Shredded cheddar cheese topping
  • Diced tomato sauce base + Beans + Cooked pasta + Kale + Mushrooms + Garlic + seasoning
  • Fish stock soup base + Cooked rice + Broccoli + Mushroom + Water chestnuts (drained) + Peppery Asian spices + Panko topping
  • Cream of mushroom soup sauce base + Shredded chicken + Cooked rice + Squash + Onion + Ranch packet seasoning + Bread crumb topping

Enjoy!

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  1. We too ate tons of casseroles growing up and for years I made either favorite recipes from my mom or searched online for casserole recipes to use up a specific ingredient. It was really a routine changing lightbulb (basket?) moment when I realized, duh- you can put just about whatever you want in them. Thanks for the great article-super helpful in laying this out. My favorite dump-it-in the casserole dujour seasoning is a bunch of coriander with some cumin and garlic.

    3 agree
  2. And of course there's the "Oh crap, this whole loaf of bread is stale/hard as a rock" school of casseroles.

    4 agree
  3. OH GOD THANK YOU FOR THIS.

    No, seriously. My parents never did casseroles when I was growing up, probably as a result of having eaten a billion of them as children themselves. (Same thing for liver and onions and brussels sprouts.) Until I read this post, I thought that pulling off a casserole was some form of mild sorcery. XDDD

    5 agree
  4. As a products liability attorney who has had a fair amount of glassware cases, DO NOT put a glass dish in the oven directly from the freezer or in a pre-heating oven (which has wildly fluctuating temperatures). It may work once or twice, but you are weakening the glassware and asking for a giant shattered mess in your oven (or worse).

    8 agree
    • Hrm. Never had a problem with my Pyrex glass casserole dishes in the 20 years I've been doing that, but perhaps a crock would be safer? What would you recommend?

      1 agrees
      • As long as you bring the dish to room temperature and put it in an already pre-heated oven, you should be fine. 🙂

        3 agree
  5. Thank you for this! I just moved to a new city to start a new job that involves a ridiculous commute and I have been wondering what I'm going to do because I can't live on Amy's frozen meals forever. (too expensive!)

    I'll definitely be creating my own casserole on my next day off!

    2 agree
  6. Another great starch to use is stuffing mix. If you mix it with about half a cup or so of liquid (stock) and then layer the casserole so it's protein+sauce+veg on the bottom and then top with the casserole. Bake it covered with foil so that the stuffing sort of steams. I've also done with the stuffing mixed with a can of diced tomatoes and that's really tasty too.

    Personally, I prefer to add my fresh veg uncooked to the casserole so it keeps a bit of bite.

  7. This seems like a very mid-western formula. You could easily adapt this same formula for the Crock Pot!

    1 agrees
  8. Other dry things to use in casseroles can include leftover stuffing, leftover dried out tortillas, leftover baked potato, or hash browns (I've even done a sweet casserole/ bread pudding with dried out old cake).

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