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"When in doubt, cover it with Tater Tots!" That sage casserole advice comes from blogger, cookbook author and Instagram star Molly Yeh, who's known for her casseroles like Tater Tot Chicken Pot Pie, Smoky Bacon Mac and Cheese and Chinese Hotdish.
Yeh, whose new TV show, "Girl Meets Farm," premiered on the Food Network in June, recently shared that tip and more rules for creating the perfect casseroles.
In addition to her casserole tips, Yeh also explained the difference between a casserole and a hotdish, in case any other non-Midwesterners are wondering.
"A hotdish is a subset of the casserole that includes a protein, often ground beef, soup — usually creamed soup — vegetables and a starch. Tater Tots and wild rice are two favorites [of mine]," said Yeh, who became a hotdish aficionado after moving with her husband from New York to a farm on the Minnesota/North Dakota border. "It's a complete meal in a dish. So while all hotdishes are casseroles, not all casseroles are hotdishes. For example, green bean casserole or sweet potato casserole are casseroles but because they don't feature a protein and are side dishes, they wouldn't be a hotdish."
Whether you prefer them sweet or savory, piping hot or warm, casseroles are certainly one of America's best comfort foods.
1. Save time on cleanup by using one cooking vessel.
Yeh said she likes doing all of her stove-top steps, such as browning meat and precooking vegetables in an oven-safe cocotte or braiser, so they can go directly from the stove to the oven, cutting down on dishes to clean. "I love my cast iron cocottes because they can go from the stove to the oven to the serving table, making my casseroles one-pot wonders," she told TODAY Food.
2. Skip the canned soup.
"So many common casserole recipes call for canned creamed soups, but making your creamed soup from a roux is really not that hard and it's worth the extra bit of effort," said Yeh. "The texture's better, the flavor's better, and there are so many more ways you can tailor it to your liking."
A roux is made by simply mixing together equal parts fat and flour. "Usually, I use butter and all purpose flour, however oil will work, as will gluten-free all purpose flour," she added. "And then I add my liquid, which might be homemade stock, or milk plus a bouillon cube, and maybe a little bit of cream to thicken it. For dairy-free versions, coconut milk is nice [but] you'll just want to make sure that the other flavors you're using complement the flavor of coconut milk. I also occasionally use tomato sauce. There's something called Funeral Hotdish around here that uses tomato sauce!"
3. Go for flavor-forward fillings.
Yeh said that in terms of meat, breakfast sausage and leftover Thanksgiving turkey are two of her favorite casserole fillings. "They are so flavorful on their own that you really can't go wrong by baking them into a casserole," she said. But don't be afraid to think outside of the traditional casserole box (or pan). You don't even have to use meat or dairy in your casseroles. Yeh recently created a vegan Harissa Chickpea Hotdish, for example. "Some other little things I like to do are add chopped apples to my mac and cheese because apples and cheese go so well together and apples give a nice hit of sweetness," she said. "I also like adding bacon and using the bacon fat as the fat in my roux."
4. Choose the right veggies.
"When it comes to vegetables, I typically stick to the basics like onions, carrots, celery, peas, green beans, potatoes — sturdy guys that I tend to have on hand and that are easy to get in the winter since that's high casserole season!" She also steers clear of vegetables like Brussels sprouts that taste better when they are crispy. "In general, casseroles are soft and creamy and comforting," she noted. "They are the opposite of a salad. So when choosing ingredients, choose things that you're OK with getting mushed together — ingredients that don't do well in casseroles are ones that depend on crisp textures to be good, like Brussels sprouts, lettuce and cabbage, for example."
5. Don't skip precooking certain ingredients.
Ingredients like bacon and some veggies need to be precooked before you add them to the mixture, while meats should be browned and in some cases cooked through for casseroles. "It's important to cook onions, carrots and celery before adding them to the casserole since otherwise they'll be undercooked, but peas are easy because you can take a handful from the freezer and just toss them into the hot casserole mixture," advised Yeh.
6. Use some noodle know-how.
"For noodles, you'll definitely want to cook them a minute or two under the timing given on the box since they'll continue to cook in the oven," Yeh said. "And I can never time my noodles to be done when the rest of my ingredients are ready so they usually have to sit for a few minutes in the colander. If that's the case, I make sure to toss them in a drizzle of olive oil so that they don't all stick together."
7. Try mixing cheeses for complex flavors and textures.
"For mac and cheeses, I love a combination of melty cheeses and try to include one bold one, like gruyere, and one or two others that complement it, like white or sharp cheddar and Parmesan," Yeh said. "Parmesan is kind of a given in all of my mac and cheeses since it adds a great hit of flavor."
8. Don't skimp on the crispy topping.
The biggest mistake people make when assembling a casserole? "Wimping out on the crispy top!" said Yeh emphatically.
"The innards of casseroles are soft and comforting but they need a crispy top to provide some nice textural contrast and crunch. So whether you're topping your mac and cheese with a big layer of breadcrumbs or your hotdish with Tater Tots, ensure that the oven is hot enough and that you bake it for long enough so that they get golden and crispy."
In fact, Yeh said the topping is her most important consideration when coming up with the cooking time and temperature for her casserole recipes. "I tailor my cooking time and temperature to the tops of my casseroles," she said. "The insides can honestly probably cook at any temperature and still be good, so my priority when baking a casserole is figuring out what temp will get the top crispy — something on the higher side."
9. Store them properly for the best make-ahead meals.
One of the best things about casseroles is that you can make them ahead for effortless dinners down the road. Yeh said casseroles will keep for two or three days in the fridge and three months in the freezer. "To freeze, I just make sure they're cooled completely before wrapping in plastic wrap and, if I'm going to be storing for longer than a week or two, a layer of foil. For the fridge, just let it cool and wrap it really well," she advised. "For reheating frozen casseroles, they take some time in the oven so I cover it with foil and bake for about an hour and then uncover and cook for about 15-20 minutes to allow the top to get crispy." Just be sure to remove plastic wrap before reheating your casserole.
10. Serve a bottle on the side...
No, not a bottle of wine (though there's nothing wrong with having a glass of pinot noir with your favorite casserole). "Since waiting for a hotdish to cool before you can eat it is the most difficult part, I always have mine with ketchup because it's good and it cools it down," said Yeh.