A casserole or a bake (as better known in the English cuisine) is a traditional wholesome dish, usually cooked by baking in a special cookware called a casserole pan or casserole dish. The word casserole is of French origin, but the dish is prepared most popularly in the English and the American cuisines as well. Meat, vegetables, beans, cheese, fish, seafood and pasta, all make delicious casserole dishes individually or in combination with each other. Casseroles are mostly eaten as main course dishes with sauces, salads or other accompaniment dishes, though some casseroles are eaten as accompaniments to other dishes. Breakfast and brunch casseroles also feature on the list of favorite menu items in many homes. Different types of casseroles are made across different cuisines. Ragout (French), Hotpot (Asian), lasagna (Italian), Tagine (North African), Moussaka (Mediterranean), Cassoulet (French), Carbonnade (Belgian), and Shepherd Pie (English) are all popular casserole recipes prepared throughout the world with region specific ingredients and methods of preparation. Popular casserole dishes include baked ziti (a type of pasta), tuna casserole, chicken casserole, zucchini casserole, spinach casserole, potato casserole, and Mexican eggplant casserole.
History of Casserole Recipes
A casserole is a member of a class of dishes that have evolved over the last couple of centuries. The concept of cooking together a number of filling ingredients started in the first half of the 18th century when one of the earliest dishes that were cooked was rice, pounded and pressed together with other ingredients like a combination of chicken and sweetbreads. Cooking in specially designed cookware made of glass or other similar light material is a relatively new concept and thus casserole cooking in this form is considered relatively modern. The dish is characterized by serving in the same dish in which it is cooked.
Ingredients Commonly Used in Making Casserole Dishes
A casserole, as already mentioned is made using a variety of ingredients like cheese, meat, vegetables, pasta, rice and other ingredients. Chicken, fish and seafood are also hot favorites for casserole dishes. The difference between casseroles and other sumptuous dishes made using meat, vegetables, beans or pasta is that casseroles are gooier in texture. Flour, pasta or potato is used as a binder in the dish. Sauces and soups are also used for binding the casserole. White sauce and low fat cream are also used by many casserole recipes. The constituent ingredients are cooked in a cooking medium of meat or vegetable stock, or an alcoholic base like wine, rum, beer, gin, or cider. Some casseroles do not need an external cooking medium. The juices released from the constituent ingredients are used up by the dish while being cooked. The top is garnished with delicious crumb toppings.
Preparation of Casseroles
The most common way of preparing a casserole is to bake it in a casserole dish in an oven at low temperature for a long time.
A beneficial feature of the casserole dish is that it is suited for cooking at convenience:
- Casseroles can be cooked very fast if the vegetables or meat are washed , cut and prepared for baking much ahead of time
- Dehydrated herbs seem to be a better option for seasoning casseroles than their fresh counterparts which have been observed to lose their flavor owing to prolonged heating.
- For a delicious brown crust, it is better to cook the casserole without any covering. Cheese and breadcrumb toppings are favored garnishes for casserole recipes.
- If the casserole dish recommended by the recipe is not available the cook time needs to be adjusted according to the depth of the dish, for a deep dish the bake time being lesser and vice versa. If one is not sure about the amount of contents the casserole dish can hold, one should first confirm by pouring water into the dish.
- Make – ahead casseroles are mostly found to taste the best because the flavors get more time to blend. However, this always depends on the ingredients used and other factors related to the recipe. The constituent ingredients are arranged in the baking dish lined with an aluminum foil, sealed and frozen till cooked. Even cooked casseroles can be preserved intact in their wrappers once they attain room temperature after being baked and eaten at convenience. At the most, many casseroles can be preserved for not more than a couple of months under refrigeration.
A casserole maybe eaten as a main dish, a side dish, a breakfast item or a snack depending upon the ingredients used, the conventional course it is consumed as and also the size of the casserole. The dish is served in the saucepan or the casserole dish itself with accompaniments like sauces or salads.
Types of Casseroles
Here a brief description of the different types of casseroles mentioned is given:
- Ragout – this is a French stew made of meat, vegetables or a combination of both. Though a stew, it is a casserole dish because it is cooked over a low fire for a long period of time. Mushrooms, artichokes, beef, asparagus are all used in the preparation of ragouts.
- Hot Pot – sometimes referred to as Chinese fondue or steam boat, this is a Chinese stew made using meat, fish, seafood, a variety of vegetables, wantons and egg dumplings. The method of preparation which is interesting, involves cooking the dish on the table. While simmering, the ingredients are put into the hot pot and the dish is served directly from the pot as and when done.
- Lasagna – This is an Italian pasta casserole made with lasagna, the Italian pasta. It consists of layers of pasta cooked with cheese and sauce which may be a ragu, tomato or béchamel sauces. Fully boiled eggs, meatballs or sausages are the other ingredients that are used in the lasagne.
- Tagine- it is a strongly flavorful dish made by simmering meat and vegetables with spices in a special pot also called by the same name. The different North African cuisines prepare this dish in region-specific ways.
- Moussaka – this is an eggplant based casserole of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines. It is prepared in a wide variety of region specific ways.
- Cassoulet- This is essentially a bean casserole made with meat as the other main ingredient. Haricot beans and variations of pork meat are used for preparing this dish.
- Shepherd’s pie – a variation of the cottage pie, this is made with lamb meat rather than beef as used in the cottage pie recipe. Potato is another ingredient that is used in the Shepherd’s pie, at least in the traditional version.
- Carbonnade- This is a popular Belgian beef stew cooked in Belgian beer (which may be flavorful Chimay, Anchor Steam and Newcastle Brown Ale or any other) with onions. A bowl of rice, potatoes or egg noodles are partnered with this delicious stew.
Popular Variations of Casseroles
The method of preparation of a casserole is similar to the methods of preparation of a stew or a braised dish. Stewing is done by applying heat from the bottom on the stewing vessel but casseroling is done by applying heat evenly from all directions in an oven. Casseroling may also appear similar to braising but it differs in certain steps. Braised dishes do not have the cooking liquid thickened and the food being cooked is always covered.