2 simple ways to upgrade classic green bean casserole

Switching in frozen vegetables for canned makes a world of difference.
Who doesn't love a French-fried onion topping?
Who doesn't love a French-fried onion topping?Emily Gerard

For many Americans, green bean casserole is an iconic, non-negotiable part of the Thanksgiving dinner spread. Just look at how far the dish made it in TODAY's 'Sidesgiving' Bracket Challenge — it beat out mac and cheese to enter the final four before losing to stuffing because, well, stuffing.

Here's where I have to confess: I've never had green bean casserole in my life. I don't know if my family fell into some sort of green bean-less Thanksgiving vortex or what, but it has never once made an appearance on our table. So when TODAY's Dylan Dreyer started waxing poetic about the french-fried onion topping, I felt a strong urge to see what all the fuss was about. I love a French-fried onion topping. Who doesn't love a French-fried onion topping?

For my very first green bean casserole experience, I followed the instructions on the back of the French's canister to a T. I love to cook and it was hard to resist the urge to fiddle with the recipe, but I figured it's got to be a classic for a reason, right? One thing is for sure — you cannot mess this one up. I love the fact that it doesn't dirty a single dish besides the one you make it in — you just dump the wet stuff in there, mix it, dump in the green beans and onions, mix it, bake, mix again, top with more onions, bake again.

Me and my first-ever green bean casserole. (Can you tell I'm proud of it?)Emily Gerard

When I pulled it out of the oven, I had high hopes. I felt like a real 1950s housewife as I placed my lovely golden-brown casserole on the dinner table. But as I dug in, I was surprised at how gloppy it was inside. The canned green beans seemed to have sort of melted away and it didn't really feel like a vegetable dish anymore.

Now, perhaps this is what you're after. Perhaps you're tricking small children into thinking there are no vegetables in there at all, or perhaps the nostalgia factor makes it perfect for you, and in that case, no tweaks are necessary. But my interest was sufficiently piqued that I wanted to make my own perfect green bean casserole. I wanted it spicier and way more veggie-heavy. So I began tinkering.

The voluminousness of the broccoli stands up to all that creamy, cheesy goodness perfectly.Emily Gerard

Folks, I've eaten a lot of casserole this week. I wanted to keep it super easy, because even experienced cooks appreciate a simple dish on Thanksgiving. But even switching in frozen vegetables for canned made such a huge difference. I wanted to up the mushroom factor as well, making more of a detectable presence, so I added a whole bag of frozen mushrooms, along with a bag of frozen haricots verts. With some careful stirring, you can still fit it all in the same 1.5-quart casserole dish, and the end result is clearly identifiable as a vegetable side. Victory!

I also wanted to try out a wildcard version. French's Test Kitchen recommends a broccoli-cheddar twist that intrigued me. Sticking with my preference for frozen over canned, I found I loved that one even more. The voluminousness of the broccoli stands up to all that creamy, cheesy goodness perfectly. French's also suggests using sour cream in place of some of the milk, which gives it a pleasant tang. And in both versions, I added red pepper flakes. If you like a kick, make sure you do, too.

The one through-line here is those crispy fried onions. I have to agree with Dylan — put those on top of anything, and you can't really go wrong.