Are those qualities things that we should throw away in the modern day? Heck no. For this post, let’s put away the camera, put on some music, and just enjoy the simple pleasures of a warm, comforting plate of food that would make your grandma proud. Hey, if slow cooking can get its renaissance, maybe casseroles deserve a second chance too.
While cooking food in large baking dishes has been a staple for centuries, the idea of a one-dish meal baked in an oven had a surprisingly recent rise to fame. The casserole as we think of it today in much of North America and Western Europe rose to prominence in the 40s and 50s, as pre-prepared foods became more popular and cheaper and lighter bakeware became more readily available. These “ancestor” casserole dishes are made up of the 3 main components of a casserole which still apply to this day - a starchy base, a star meat or veggie filling, and a sauce baked together into a single cohesive one-pan dish.
It seems like the reputation for casseroles never truly recovered after the 70s, and for many, have become a part of culinary history which should be forgotten or at least hidden in the back-most corners of the recipe library. But while the collective taste of that era was a bit questionable, the basic idea of a one-dish supper where you can get your protein, vegetables, and starch in one warm, cozy pan still holds value in 2019.
There are 3 main parts that make up a casserole: the starchy base, the filling, and the sauce.
The base: The starchy base is the foundation of the casserole. It isn’t going to be the most flavorful part of the dish, but it is what will make the casserole filling and satisfying. The base itself can be any variety of starches - like rice, mashed potato, pasta, or bread.
The filling: The filling is what “defines” a casserole, and by that, I mean it's the protein and/or veggies which are the star of the dish you are making. This can be anything from chicken to beef and from mushrooms to peppers. In the classic Tuna Noodle Casserole for example, it is the tuna and green peas which make the dish distinctive, rather than just another baked pasta; not that there's anything wrong with that. The filling is also often intertwined with the next major part of the casserole - the sauce.
The sauce: The sauce is the binder of the casserole. It’s what gives moisture, flavour, and “carries” the dish when it is fully baked. Again, there is a ton of variation here, like cheese sauces, tomato sauce, or even gravy. Sometimes, the sauce can even just be the juices and liquid from the meat and vegetables being released while cooking. Like I mentioned earlier, the sauce can be its own distinct element or cooked together with the “filling” as one component. That is the case in the recipe at the end of this post, where the chili is both the protein as well as the sauce. But more on that later.
Most often, you will see casserole dishes made of either ceramic or glass, however, you can get metal dishes as well. I recommend sticking with ceramic or oven-safe glass since you will be serving your casserole out of the dish itself. Metal pans can easily dent or get marked by knives. Furthermore, if they are non-stick, the coating can be scraped off and end up in your food - no bueno.
When buying a casserole dish, look for one that fits at least 1.5-2 quarts. I prefer rectangular pans over oval shaped ones as they are easier to serve out of. If you want, you can get a baking dish set that comes with an oven-safe lid, but that is up to you. This Pyrex set is what I bought over four years ago and will probably be the only set I need to buy for the rest of my life. I love it. Finally, if you don’t care about buying new or are on a budget, I definitely recommend checking out the kitchenware section of your local Goodwill or thrift shop; you will almost always find many perfectly good Pyrex and ceramic casserole and baking dishes for under $5.
Alright, now that you have the 101 on what a casserole is and how to make one, get ready to go forth and make your first. While I will shamelessly promote the the following recipe as a great place to start (this is my blog afterall), I would also reach out to your parents or grandparents on if there are any family favorites or recipes that they would like to share. If you are in your 20s or 30s, your folks probably grew up in the casserole heyday, so call your mother and ask her to send you a recipe to flex your newly built muscles on.
This is a quick and easy casserole that packs just enough spice to keep things interesting, but not so hot that it will scare off your mild-palated friends and family. That being said, feel free to add extra chili flake or hot sauce if you like your food on the hot side.
Tip: Cook the chili on the stove and let it simmer as long as you can - As little as 30 minutes will do, but I would recommend at least 1 hour for the flavors to really develop. You can also cook your chili ahead of time and refrigerate it until you are ready to make this casserole. Just heat it up on the stove until hot, but not boiling, before adding it to your casserole/baking dish.
Recipe: Tex-Mex Chili Bake
- 1 lb. ground chuck
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
- 1 green bell pepper, finely diced
- 1 16 oz. can pinto beans with liquid
- 1 16 oz. can fire roasted tomato with liquid
- 1 16 oz. can low-sodium beef stock or broth
- 1 tsp. minced garlic
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 1 round teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/4 tsp. chili flake
- 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat your oven to 400 degrees
- Brown the beef in a large cast iron dutch oven in 1 tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat until most of the pink is gone
- Add in the onion and bell pepper and sautee with the beef until tender and slightly translucent, about 3-5 minutes
- Add in garlic, chili powder, cumin, red pepper flake, and cinnamon and stir until fragrant
- Add the tomato, beans, beef stock, and a heavy pinch of salt and pepper
- Combine everything in the pot thoroughly and bring to a boil. One boiling, reduce heat to low and simmer the chili, lid half ajar, for 1 hour. Season with salt and pepper to taste after 1 hour.
- Pour chili into a 9x13 baking dish and set aside
- Prepare two boxes of Jiffy corn bread mix according to package directions, adding 1 tablespoon sugar to the mix
- Pour cornbread over chili and bake in a 400 degree oven for 20-25 minutes
- Serve hot with sour cream, hot sauce, diced onion, and cilantro if desired