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Aside from convenience, what's the point of a casserole?

I really don't get it. How did these get to be so popular? I can't recall ever having something called a casserole that I didn't think would be better braised, grilled, roasted etc.

If you want braised meat, braise your meat. Why throw in all of your vegetables? Wouldn't they be better roasted and served with your meat on the plate?

Why not strain your braising liquid, reduce it, and make a proper sauce?

So my question is this:

Aside from convenience, is there any reason to make a "casserole?"

I'll save my onion soup mix and cream of mushroom soup rants for another topic....

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  1. Depends on what you mean by a casserole.

    Ironically, I just made a tuna casserole for dinner last night. Creamed mushroom soup, crushed potato chips. The real deal. I made it because it's what I grew up with the 50s and I hadn't had it in years.

    But that sorta thing aside, there are still come fabulous casseroles that combine flavors and textures into very satisfying dishes. I'm thinking lasagna, pastitsio, mac & cheese fertheluvofgod. Couldn't face the world anymore without that! Chicken and dumplings. Pot pies.

    Sometimes, even if you don't have to transport them somewhere, they're just what the doctor ordered. I think that's why they come up so frequently when someone asks "comfort food?".

    5 Replies
    1. re: rainey

      I really am trying to understand the functional reasons for putting something wet into a baking dish and putting it in the oven until "done."

      For lasagna, I'd say the only reason is to brown some cheese on top. With that in mind, I'd toss it under the broiler for 5 minutes or put it in a very high temperature oven until the top is browned and it is warm.

      Mac and cheese: perhaps to brown the top, though I'm a stovetop fan myself (just cheese, not cheese sauce).

      Enchiladas are mentioned below. I'd say the only reason to bake those is to slightly reduce the sauce and caramelize the edges.

      Something like tuna noodle casserole ---- ?? I don't know.

      What about all the rest? Aside from the tuna, the others aren't really classic "casseroles." And to tell you the truth, I couldn't really name many since I don't make them. Maybe someone else can give me a definition.

      1. re: jeremyn

        Re: Lasagna, cook the noodles.

        DT

        1. re: jeremyn

          There are many classic one-pot dishes (i.e., casseroles) from cuisines around the world. Some were created as ways of dealing with tougher cuts of meat, some to infuse complex flavors throughout a dish, and some, I suspect, to free the cook to do other work while the meal cooked.

          1. re: pikawicca

            Red beans and rice.

            The left over ham was simmered with beans all day while the woman of the house did the laundry. Ham was done on Sunday and RB&R was made on Monday.

            DT

          2. re: jeremyn

            For one thing, the slow oven cooking lets the flavours blend and meld, and improves the texture. If you try making a lasagna without baking it, the result will be far inferior to something that is cooked in the oven until bubbly.

            Compared with braising or other techniques - one purpose of the casserole, in many cultures, is to stretch your food as far as possible. When meat is the centre of the meal as a dish by itself, it's a lot more obvious when there isn't very much of it, or it's a tough, fatty cut. You can also hide a lot of old vegetables in a casserole, important late in the winter when you're down to wrinkled onions and carrots.

            And don't knock convenience - many casseroles can be assembled ahead of time (and even frozen) and stuck in the oven when you get home; great for holidays, or busy work schedules.

            I mainly like casseroles because they taste good, are warm and comforting on cold nights, smell great when cooking, and allow me to relax while dinner is cooking, rather than standing over the stove.

        2. I can freeze and reheat a casserole with more ease than having all the separate components (meat, starch, veggie). I work full-time, and have 2 young kids, so if I have to go on a business trip, I'll freeze a couple casseroles for my husband to heat up while I'm gone, or even if I have to work late and can't cook.

          That being said, I don't do tuna noodle casseroles or anything like that. I do turkey lasagna, spinach lasagna, chicken enchiladas, etc. In myhouse, anything that is put into a baking dish to be eventually baked is a casserole.

          1. Meh. I like tuna casserole, I love baked enchiladas, even the much-reviled chicken-broccoli-rice casserole is the only thing that sounds good to me (although I don't do the canned condensed soup).

            And as rainey said, lasagna, mac and cheese -- those are casseroles.

            If you're talking about the minute rice and cream of mushroom soup stuff, I don't love it either, but my grandpa used to say it was his mouth and he could haul coal in it if he wanted to. ;)

            1 Reply
            1. re: LauraGrace

              LOL, Laura. You know, I hear he got that attitude from my late father-in-law, whom I never had the pleasure to meet, but whom I hear was quite the independent thinker. His favorite dessert, or so I'm told, was to crumb the table once dinner was done and put the bread crumbs into his coffee. DH and DSIL have told me that, when they would laugh at him about it, he'd tell them sternly, "You mind your mouths, and I'll mind mine".

              ;-)

            2. Not into the onion soup mix or cream of mushroom soup stuff, but I like casseroles because the flavors have a chance to meld and mingle. There's something delicious about having the noodles or rice pick up and absorb the flavors of the sauce which you don't get when you put sauce on top of it. If not, your lasagna is just pasta w/ sauce on top, your enchiladas are just tortillas and sauce. There's nothing like a good strata where the bread has absorbed all the egg mxture and its flavors. Cooking up the egg mixture and adding it to the top of bread just isn't the same.

              10 Replies
              1. re: chowser

                Good answer. What can you do to introduce some interesting textural variation?

                And aside from lasagna and enchiladas, do you have any favorite semi-elegant, no-onion-soup-mix style casseroles that you would be proud to serve to a house guest?

                1. re: jeremyn

                  It depends on your defintion of "casserole." For brunch, I often make stratas. They're delicious, make ahead and you can make them as complicated or as simple as you like. For dinner, I'll make something like moussaka for company. It's time consuming but definitely worth the time and I've had many people who don't like eggplant who've loved it. Along the lines of a lasagne, pastitsio is good--I don't think it's more elegant but it's more unusual and, therefore, people tend to think of it as elegant. Shepard's pie or cottage pie is another one that I'll make but more for a quick dinner. Those are off the top of my head but if I think of more that I do, I'll post them.

                  As for adding textural variation, honestly, casseroles end up a mush of flavors and I think that's their purpose. At most, you can add a topping like panko crumbs or cheese but I don't think that's the point of casseroles. I think of them more as warming comfort foods. Overall, I don't think of them as elegant dinner fare.

                  1. re: chowser

                    I thought of an elegant one--my new go-to one is Coquilles St. Jacques which I made in individual ramekins. An easier version is the epicurious one:

                    http://www.epicurious.com/articlesgui...

                    I prefer Emeril's version, although didn't care for it as much with bay scallops. It's much better with sea scallops or diver scallops but unless I can find them Marine Seawatch worthy, I usually go w/ the bay scallops.

                    http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/em...

                    1. re: chowser

                      One of the first things I ever made was Coquilles St. Jacques. My mother started to learn to cook when I was in college, and I was in year two of having my own apartment, so we would talk about recipes a lot.

                      I wrote it down wrong, the part about the wine. I should have written down "white," because when I got to the liquor store, I saw just "wine," and I bought red.

                      You can guess the rest: a very purple dinner. It was absolutely wonderful, and it was just me and my girlfriend at the time, so who cared what kind of wine went into it?

                      The recipe is from Julia's French Chef Cookbook, the companion piece to her original TV series.

                    2. re: chowser

                      chowser, could you give an approximate recipe for your moussaka?

                      you're so right about pastitsio. i served it once to friends, and they were raving about how it was so much nicer (and less gloppy) than lasagna. me, I love both...but it was nice to hear :)

                      1. re: ChristinaMason

                        I posted it in this thread. It uses a lot of oil, as pointed out. I've made it with brushing the eggplant w/ oil and bakkng and it's good but not nearly as good a pan frying the eggplant.

                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/336841

                    3. re: jeremyn

                      I do a greek orzo, feta, shrimp, tomato, olive casserole that can be somewhat classy and that I also have been served as a guest in a foodie household. It's a classic flavor combo that does meld better when baked, as the orzo sucks up the tomato (and oregano!!) and the feta semi-melts/crumbles. Mmmm... may have to make this again soon.

                      1. re: sholli

                        Might you share the "recipe" for this one - here or in a separate post? This sounds like a nice change of pace for us.

                        1. re: cookie44

                          Here is the recipe found in the Gourmet cookbook: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/foo.... I'd round up on the garlic and herbs. Epicurious has several other similar dishes, some rated higher, if you search orzo, shrimp, feta, and tomato. Two warnings--use good, imported feta as I've found that some cheap stuff doesn't melt and meld well and you may want to go easy on the olives as they can be a strong presence. Enjoy.

                      2. re: jeremyn

                        Scalloped and au gratin potatoes.

                        Lobster pie.

                        Chicken Divan.

                    4. The point? The point is technological. Casseroles are extremely functional as fat-, cheese- and cream delivery devices, jeremyn. Sodium, too, if you use canned goods to make them.

                      Nawwww. Just kidding. Some are healthful. Like sholli's Greek casserole. That looks pretty nutritious.

                      Which reminds me. They also give me an excuse to eat phyllo dough. That's their most important attribute.

                      5 Replies
                      1. re: Normandie

                        What's you perspective on Macaroni with cheese sauce?

                        I grew up in the UK with the belief that everything you cooked in a casserole (= dutch oven) was a casserole. (Slight exaggeration) So a boeuf bourguigon, goulash, Stroganoff and cassoulet would meet that criterium.

                        When reheated it became known as a stew. Any remnants are later renamed to side-dish.

                        1. re: Paulustrious

                          My basic concept is also the vessel and I'd buy the individual items you describe, but oven baking is an important qualifier for me. Of course, I finish the boeuf bourguignon, the goulash and the cassoulet in the oven at a low temp myself.

                          1. re: Paulustrious

                            Paul, if I understand your question...I *do* think of macaroni and cheese as a casserole (versus a side dish, a starch, etc.).

                            To me, it's not about what you bake it in; it's about the item itself. Somehow, I grew up with the idea that a casserole is sufficient in and of itself to serve as the entree. (Note: It may not *always* been used that way--case in point, macaroni and cheese, but it would suffice for one.) Ergo, a casserole *could* be baked in a DO, a ceramic baker, a large ovenproof bowl... And in my house, growing up, we didn't consider Boeuf a la Bourguignon or Stroganoff as casseroles; they were "beef entrees". I don't know about goulash or cassoulet, since they were never served. (If we were going to have a substantial legume dish, it would have been Boston baked beans, a side...except on Sunday nights, when it was served as an entree served with brown bread.)

                            You're probably getting the point by now that in my universe, there is no science to this. It probably boils down to, "I can't tell you what a casserole is, but I knows one when I sees one." ;-)

                            1. re: Normandie

                              You have highlighted a difference in meaning between us. To me, casserole was any just about any dish cooked in a casserole. It did not really mean a meal unto itself, but just food cooked in an ceramic / glass / CI dish in an oven, normally with a lid. This was mentioned somewhere in the 'divided by a common culinary language' thread.

                              http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/615004

                              1. re: Normandie

                                My Maine family always had beans with brown bread as a meal too. It was accompanied by my great aunt's homemade relishes and bead and butter pickles.

                                My grandfather grew the beans in his garden and they fussed over the provenance of the beans they way some do fine wines. But, I have to say, those were wonderful beans wonderfully prepared. You've occasioned me enjoying the memory again some 50 years later.