Bad casseroles are a holiday tradition. They may taste fine or at least familiar, but they’re often made with less-than top-quality ingredients, and a set-it-and-forget-it, pour-some-gravy-on-top mentality. The spread at my family’s annual Thanksgiving, for example, includes my dad’s candied sweet potatoes (canned yams and marshmallows), stuffing from a box, and my sister’s contribution: green bean casserole from the back of a fried onion can. We can’t choose our relatives and their potluck offerings, and they, in turn, may never be willing to try recipes that stray from tradition. But there is one thing that all casserole lovers should agree on: What’s on the inside is important, but what’s on the outside matters most. A creamy, gooey, flavorful base is really only as good as its crispy, crunchy, crumbly topping. Here are more ways to perfect Thanksgiving casseroles.
You may think duh, but bacon is often forgotten in the Thanksgiving scrum. And it’s true, a hint of cured pork makes for a quick and easy upgrade. One way to enrich a casserole is to replace some (or all) of the butter or oil with rendered bacon fat. Adding chopped bacon to the mix will also cause a frenzy, but make sure to cut back on additional salt in the recipe.
Finely chopped mushrooms act like little flavor sponges in a casserole and add a nice, meaty texture. This works especially well for pasta.
Two Words: Corn and Cheese
My introduction to this combination was a box of Kraft mac and cheese mixed with a can of creamed corn. It was definitely not terrible, but a from-scratch version with sharp cheddar, fresh Parmesan and sweet corn is 10 times better. The addition of corn takes traditional mac and cheese into serious casserole territory—as long as you also sprinkle on a crunchy topping and stick it in the oven until it’s bubbly and brown on top.
Blend in Root Vegetables
I love adding a roasted and mashed sweet potato or butternut squash to any baked pasta and cheese dish, especially in the fall. It adds a mild sweetness and a velvety texture (as well as a few servings and nutrients), but rarely does anyone guess the secret ingredient.
Fatten Up the Crispy Topping
It’s well established that the absolute best thing about a casserole is the crunchy topping. To make it even better, toss bread crumbs or other starchy bits in a little reserved onion-infused oil, sage butter or bacon fat before sprinkling them over the casserole (which should be done in the last 15 to 20 minutes of baking). They’ll brown better and add even more of whatever flavors you’re using to each bite.
Blanket Anything with Biscuits
Bread crumbs are a go-to casserole topper, and biscuits and bread are really just giant crumbs. So, top off a hearty, meaty casserole with either, and use an egg wash to achieve a golden-brown crust.
Swap Gluten for Alternative Grains and Nuts
If you’re cooking for someone on a gluten-free diet or looking for a dish that’s a bit more earthy, try a rice- or quinoa-based casserole with a crunchy nut topping. Chopped walnuts and sliced or slivered almonds are among the great ways to add texture to the top, and can also be mixed into the base.
Crumbles aren’t just for fruity desserts. They also make wonderful customizable casserole toppers. Start with the base for a standard crumble (minus most of the sugar). I use about one cup of flour, six tablespoons of cold butter, 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder, and a little sugar, salt, pepper and cayenne. Blend it with a fork, crumble with your fingers, then mix in your favorite herbs and spices. Put it on top of the casserole for the last 20-25 minutes it’s in the oven—make sure to keep the dish uncovered so the top gets beautifully toasted.
Cook a casserole to the point where you’d remove the cover or add the topping, then divide it into individual serving–size ramekins and top them with different crunchy favorites like fried onions, bread crumbs, potato chips, corn flakes or nuts. Put the ramekins on a baking sheet and put it in the oven until the casseroles begin to bubble and the toppings turn a beautiful golden brown.
Hide the Flavor Boosters
One thing holiday gatherings seem to have in common is that there’s always at least one picky eater attending. And one thing picky eaters seem to have in common is that they don’t like onions, or at least the idea of onions. In my experience, it’s the texture and intensity of a large piece of raw or cooked onion that turns people off, not the flavor. So, sneak in the allium by using a Microplane to grate the onions, so while the dish cooks they sweetly meld into the base.