The Ultimate DIY Casserole Recipe
A fairly standard skill to teach across introductory culinary programs is a basic roux, thickened by milk or broth to become a bechamel or veloute sauce. In recent years I have been helping students demonstrate this skill with a DIY casserole recipe. Students love to make their own recipes, but they are fairly novice cooks. This guideline is what I give them, but also one that I use at home for a quick and thrifty way to use up leftovers. Challenge yourself to try it with what you already have on hand.
I grew up eating casseroles (or “hotdishes” as my Minnesota family calls them) but the recipes were the same: Saurkraut Hotdish (hamburger, cream of mushroom soup, sauerkraut, egg noodles), Tuna Noodle Casserole (Tuna, cream of mushroom soup, egg noodles, cheddar cheese), or Tater Tot Hotdish (hamburger, onion, corn, cream of mushroom soup, green beans, tater tots, and cheddar cheese). I eventually found Amy Dacycyn’s Create a Dinner Casserole (The Complete Tightwad Gazette, p. 625) but still tended to stick to my family’s favorites. I rediscovered the article while searching for an inexpensive way to teach the five French mother sauces.
The focus of my assignment is for students to make a roux, and as a teacher, I’m on an even tighter budget than the Frugal Zealot. My directions have therefore changed from hers. Here are the very loose guidelines I give my students:
- 2 C mixers
- 2 C starch
- 1 ½ C binder
- ½ C extras
- Prepare a white sauce for the binder.
- Cook all starches and mixers.
- Combine and place in 8” square baking dish.
From here, students choose their own ingredients and write much more detailed instructions, including how to make a roux and how they would like their dish cooked.
Mixers are any meat (I limit my students to one cup) or vegetables. My students like ground beef, breakfast sausage (of course I only buy ground pork and make them figure out how to season it), chicken, tuna, broccoli, onions, garlic, corn, carrots, etc.
Starch favorites include rice, tater tots, shredded potatoes, mashed potatoes, broken up fettucine, or macaroni. Two cups refers to the finished measurement: Ingredients like rice or pasta will double in size when cooked.
The binder is where my students demonstrate their sauce-making skills. Amy’s recipe calls for a can of cream soup which equals about 1 1/2 cups. My students choose a fat, starch, and liquid to make their roux. Here are the basic instructions:
- Melt 1/4 C butter.
- Whisk in 1/4 C flour.
- Cook until it smells like cooked pastry; at least one minute.
- Slowly whisk in 1 1/2 cups milk.
- Bring up to barely a simmer for the mixture to thicken slightly.
The fat changes based on the recipe. Students who use meat like ground beef or bacon use the rendered fat. Liquid also changes. Almost everyone uses milk for a creamy sauce but they sometimes choose broth for savory options like a shepherd’s pie.
A few disclaimers: A roux uses equal amounts of fat and flour by weight. Flour weighs less than fat so it should technically use a greater amount. I don’t get into this with my novice cooks. Second, this makes an incredibly thick mixture. It is meant to replace condensed soup, so it is much thicker than an actual sauce. Students may be inspired by an alfredo sauce, for example, but their result will be far thicker.
Extras are ingredients that add some pizazz like crumbled bacon, seasoned breadcrumbs, or extra cheese.
I require students to use at least two teaspoons of seasonings, with no more than 1 teaspoon of that coming from salt. You may cut back on salt, but don’t skimp on seasonings.
Cooking instructions change based on your plans. In general, cover with foil (or a cookie sheet) and bake at 350 for 30-40 minutes. My short class periods have taught me that these refrigerate and freeze well but will require a longer cook time.
I hesitate to provide examples because the real fun comes from using what you have on hand. In fact, sometimes when I am short on time or budget, students write recipes for teachers instead of writing recipes that I purchase groceries for. Teachers email ingredients they would like used up and students write a detailed recipe for them. Sometimes teachers have even made the recipe and brought samples for us to try.
Nevertheless, here are some combinations that have turned out very well (or, at least been very popular):
- 1 C chopped hotdogs, 2 C cheese, 1 C dry macaroni, 1/4 C each flour and butter, 1 1/2 C milk (students mixed 1 C cheese into the sauce and sprinkled the rest on top)
- 1/2 lb hamburger, 1 chopped onion, 1 C corn, 1/4 C flour, 1 1/2 C milk, tater tots, and shredded cheddar cheese
- 1 boneless, skinless, chicken breast, 1 C frozen broccoli, 1/4 C each flour and butter, 1/2 C parmesan cheese, 1 C chicken broth, 1/2 C cream
Good luck creating your own quick, tasty, and inexpensive casseroles. I hope you love this recipe as much as high schoolers love adding bacon to everything.
What combinations would you like to try?