Don’t Kill Your Casserole…
Casseroles are not for everyone. However, for those of us who find them efficient and effective way of a quick meal or feeding large groups I have some tips I found that might interest you. I also consider most of these when I am making soup and slow cooker meals. Significant others, dads, and anyone dissing casseroles need to re-consider. The flavors are great, AND it is an easy way for the busy Cooks in your home to feed a nutritionally sound meal to a lot… fast. The new normal requires your consideration.
Casseroles have long been the savior of weeknight dinners, the champion of do-ahead dishes, the perfect way to stretch leftovers deliciously into a second meal, sometimes even more satisfying than the first. They are staunchly comforting, easy enough for both kids and harried parents to pull off, and even the fussiest of gourmands will cop to loving a classic casserole or two. And if they claim they don’t, just say the words cassoulet or tian Provençale and their denials will go silent. But simple-to-prepare doesn’t mean without pitfalls. Here are a dozen of the places you can go wrong with your casserole cookery.
1. Choosing the wrong baking dish.
Casserole dishes need, first and foremost, to be ovenproof. Glass, ceramic, cast iron, enameled — whatever you choose be sure you know it is designed to go into the oven. There’s nothing worse than assembling a perfect casserole in that lovely piece of pottery you bought at the art fair and have it crack in half mid-bake.
2. Using the wrong size dish.
Once you have ascertained that your dish is oven safe, make sure it is the right size for what you want it to contain. Recipes should specify size and shape (an oval 10-inch dish will contain less volume than a rectangle), and depth. Casserole dishes should be filled no more than three-quarters of the height of the dish to prevent overflow when cooking. And it is always a good idea to place the casserole dish on a sheet pan to catch spatters, or to place a sheet pan on the rack just below. You don’t win on convenience with a casserole if you then have to clean your oven!
3. Not removing extra moisture from wet vegetables before cooking.
Casseroles are at their best when the ingredients are able to meld, which is why they often taste even better the second day. The enemy of a great casserole is excess water, and vegetables are your number one source of too much moisture. To prevent a soupy casserole, be sure to fully thaw any frozen vegetables in a colander over a bowl, and pat dry, squeeze excess moisture out of greens like spinach or chard, and quickly precook watery fresh vegetables like onions, mushrooms or squashes just until they release their moisture. For vegetables you are using in large layers or slices like eggplant or zucchini, you can also salt the slices and let drain in a colander for 30 minutes, then rinse off the salt and pat dry with paper towels.
4. Not cutting your raw vegetables into uniform sizes.
Casseroles aren’t meant to be knife-and-fork dishes, so you want all of your ingredients to be bite-size. When you are making a casserole with leftovers, the ingredients are already cooked, so they can be essentially any size to begin with. But if you are working with raw vegetables that are supposed to cook in the baking process, keeping them all prepped at similar sizes will help ensure they cook evenly.
5. Not par-cooking vegetables, pasta, grains, or rice.
Not all vegetables cook at the same rate, so you want to give some of them a head start by par-cooking (partially cooking) them. Soft vegetables like broccoli can be quickly par-cooked (aka blanched). If you are using hard vegetables like potatoes or carrots or other hardy root vegetables, you’ll want to par-cook for longer. Often a quick 2-5 minutes in the microwave will just give them that great head-start. And if you’re using onions in your casserole, you can sauté them for a few minutes to deepen their flavor and avoid any raw onion taste in your finished dish.
6. Not par-cooking pasta, grains, or rice.
Unless your recipe calls specifically for raw grains or pasta, you always risk these ingredients being on the crunchy side of al dente, and when added raw to a casserole, can sometimes soak up too much of the moisture, leaving you with a casserole that eats dry. Par-cooking your pasta, or grains, usually to between 4-5 minutes shy of the usual cooking time will give you that balance of toothsome but fully cooked that you want in a casserole. Be sure to plunge them into an ice bath or chill immediately under very cold running water so that the cooking process is halted where you want it, or you risk the opposite problem, mushiness.
7. Not browning meat.
While casseroles are a fast toss-it-together kind of meal, it is always worth taking the extra time to brown whatever meat or poultry you are including. Brown equals flavor, and while you aren’t cooking the protein through, you are giving it a chance to release its initial fat and water, which will help keep your casserole both deeply flavored and not overly greasy.
8. Using fresh herbs.
It seems a little counter-intuitive to not want to use such a great ingredient as a fresh herb, but when it comes to casseroles, dried is the way to go. Fresh herbs suffer in flavor and color when baked for a long time, and their intensity varies wildly. Use dried in the casserole itself, and then, if you have them on hand, garnish the finished casserole with some of the fresh stuff just before serving to echo the flavor in the dish and bring some brightness to the finished dish.
9. Not letting baked casseroles rest before serving.
When the whole point is getting the food on the table quickly, it seems crazy to say that any baked casserole should sit for 15-20 minutes before you dig in. But there is a good reason, and not just because you are less likely to burn your tongue. Just like you rest your meats after cooking to allow the juices to reabsorb, a casserole right out of the oven has all of its liquid bubbling at the surface and ready to flow like lava. Think about the difference between that lasagna that stands proudly showing off its layers, and the one that collapses into a slumpy tangle of noodles and sauce that you need a spoon to eat. Give your casseroles that bit of time at room temp to firm up and let the sauce settle and you’ll be rewarded for your patience.
10. Leaving covered or uncovered for too long.
Covering a casserole helps the dish cook evenly, stay moist, and prevents burning. Uncovering helps with browning, crisping and allowing for steam to release. So how do you know when to do what? Follow the recipe you have chosen on this, but if you are making it up as you go, generally the sweet spot for any casserole is about halfway: covered for the first half to get the cooking underway, then uncovered for the second half to allow steam to release and give you browning. If you have a cheesy topping, it can go on from the beginning; the covered cooking will melt it and the uncovered will brown it nicely. If you are using a crispy topping, you might want to hold off and add it halfway through the cooking after you remove the cover, so that it doesn’t sog out, and won’t burn.
11. Cooking at the wrong temperature.
Again, any recipe will give you the oven temperature and baking time, but if you are making up your own casserole, don’t cook it lower than 300 or higher than 400 degrees F. Casseroles generally do best at a moderately hot heat, especially if the ingredients are already cooked. A shallower casserole can take a higher temp and shorter baking time; but if your casserole is a deep one or contains raw vegetables and protein, aim for a slightly longer time and lower temp cook. When in doubt, 350 degrees F is your best friend.
12. Not freezing properly.
Casseroles are often ideal for freezing, and many recipes suggest making a double batch so that you have one to serve and one to freeze. But this can be a disaster if you don’t do it correctly. If you plan on freezing, you may want to use a disposable foil pan for assembly and storage so that you don’t have your good baking dishes in your freezer. Let your cooked casserole cool to room temp for about an hour after cooking, then cover and chill in the fridge overnight. Never put a hot casserole (or anything else for that matter) into your fridge or freezer; you will raise the temperature of your appliance which can be unsafe for your food. Once chilled, lay a sheet of parchment paper on the surface of your casserole then cover tightly with plastic wrap, and then wrap completely in heavy duty foil. To bake a frozen casserole, you can thaw it overnight in the fridge and bake it as usual, Alternatively, you can put a frozen casserole in a cold oven, then turn on the oven. The casserole will slowly heat as the oven comes up to temperature. It’s important to heat a casserole thoroughly before eating it; use an instant-read thermometer to make sure the casserole is at 165 degrees F for safe consumption. Just don’t try to speed things up by cranking up the heat or you can end up with a casserole that’s cooked on the outside but uncooked on the inside.