Learn simple swaps, basic ratios, and other tips to become a freewheeling casserole creator. No recipe required!

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We have lost our off-the-cuff casserole traditions. As home cooks become more and more committed to printed recipes and cookbooks to guide their cooking practice, suddenly casseroles have left the realm of “toss all the leftovers with something creamy and bake” spontaneity and have become no different than any other recipe, with ingredients to be sourced or techniques to master.

But the act of tossing together stuff you have on hand and freewheeling it is really wonderfully empowering as a cook. Not to mention so much easier, because you learn that you can swap ingredients in or out as you choose and make it to your own taste and dietary preferences. Once you master a basic ratio of what to include in a casserole, you can riff endlessly. Like the musician who takes the time to memorize scales and key signatures so that they can improve a solo, getting a general idea of how casseroles come together means that you can have a lifetime of unique dishes ahead of you and your family, and you may find that you never really make the same one twice!

Casserole 101 is basic, because it always served a basic need. Extend leftovers into a satisfying second meal by adding some pantry and fridge ingredients and baking in dish. Full stop. A 9x13 baking dish is standard, but you can make in a Dutch oven or skillet if that is easier. You can choose to layer ingredients or mix them all together.

Some initial things to know

If your casserole contains all pre-cooked items, then you are just needing to bake long enough to heat everything through.

If you have any raw items like vegetables or potatoes in it, you will want to be sure to test those items for doneness before serving.

If you are making a casserole ahead of time to then chill and reheat, leave off the topping until you are reheating, or whatever you are putting on top will get either soggy (crumbs or chips) or leathery (cheese).

If you like casseroles for their last-minute magic, be sure to stock your pantry with some helpful staples like canned condensed cream soups (mushroom and chicken are common, but celery is also a great one), breadcrumbs (regular is fine, but think about panko for extra crunch), noodles of various shapes and a variety of rices or grains, and canned and frozen proteins and vegetables like beans and tuna and salmon, or pearl onions, chopped broccoli, etc.

How to make casseroles without a recipe

Choose your own adventure! Use this basic ratio to extend leftovers into a satisfying second meal. With this method, you can make casseroles out of almost anything. Serves 4-6.

You will need:

1 cup chopped aromatics (any combo of onions, celery, bell peppers, carrots, fennel)

3-4 cups cooked protein (ground or chopped meat, canned fish or canned beans)

2-3 cups carbs (cooked pasta or rice or grains, shredded or cubed raw potatoes)

1-2 cups vegetables (raw, cooked, frozen or canned)

1-2 cups sauce or binder (canned condensed soup, white sauce, cheese sauce, gravy, simmer sauce, sour cream)

Seasonings to taste

1 cup topping (cheese, toasted breadcrumbs, crushed snack ships, nuts, or a combo)

DIRECTIONS

  1. Heat your oven to 350 degrees F and grease your vessel.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the aromatics, protein, carbs, and vegetables and season well with salt and pepper, and any other spices or herbs you might want to add.
  3. Add one cup of your chosen binder, and then mix well. If it seems dry, add more binder until you get the consistency you like. You can use a combo, for example, a can of condensed soup along with some sour cream, or a half and half mix of white sauce and gravy.
  4. Once the mixture seems like it has enough saucy stuff to effectively bind and flavor it, pour into the prepared dish and top with your chosen topping.
  5. Bake for 30 minutes, then check the temp and if needed, doneness of any raw ingredients. Continue to cook until all ingredients are fully cooked, the casserole is bubbling around the edges, and the topping has your desired browning.

    Reduce the oven heat to 200 if you need to hold it warm until dinner time.

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