Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
As winter approaches and the weather turns cold and blustery, our thoughts turn to warm bowls of comfort food. Savory stews, thick soups, and hearty casseroles warm our stomachs and our souls. Gooey, cheesy baked-pasta casseroles are certainly at the top of the list of favorite wintertime meals, but many home cooks shy away from them. "They're too hard, they're complicated, they take too much time!"
I have glad tidings of great joy. Not only are cheesy pasta casseroles a snap to make, but they can also be a great way of using up leftovers hiding in your refrigerator and pantry. Best of all, with just a few simple guidelines you can put together a pasta dish without a recipe. Here’s what to do. First . . .
Step 1: Select and Cook Your Pasta
What Type of Pasta Should You Use?
Fresh pasta tastes wonderful (almost like homemade), but unless you are fortunate to live near an Italian deli (or have the time to make your own) you probably have just a few varieties from which to choose. So, I'm going to assume that you are using dry pasta.
There are so many choices (and that's the fun part!) I won't list all of the possibilities (we don't have that much time). So, let's just make a list of the ones that you probably should not use in a baked pasta casserole.
Pastas to Avoid for Baked Dishes
- Thin pasta shapes: angel hair, vermicelli. These are just far too delicate. They will reduce to mush.
- Long pasta shapes: spaghetti, lasagna, fettuccini, linguine. Not impossible, but the long strands can be a bit unwieldy. Why not stick with a short-length pasta instead?
Great Pasta Options for Baked Dishes
How to Cook Your Pasta
Cooking pasta is not rocket science, but it is a bit more than simply boiling water. Many "chefs" (on television cooking shows) encourage you to salt your cooking water "like the ocean."
My friends at the food lab Serious Eats tested how much salt you should put into your pasta-cooking water. Do you really know how salty seawater is? Would you believe 35 grams of salt (3.5 percent or 2 tablespoons) in 1 liter of water?
Trust me, you don't want to do that. Daniel Gritzer at Serious Eats experimented and found that 1 percent (or about 1 1/2 teaspoons) per liter is the sweet spot. But, don't just grab your salt shaker and measure out that amount. Did you know that not all salts are created equal?
Sea salt, table salt, Diamond kosher, and Morton kosher all measure differently because they each have different size grains. "Dan the Man" did the math for us:
- Fine sea salt: 1 1/2 teaspoons
- Table salt: 1 1/2 teaspoons
- Morton coarse Kosher: 2 teaspoons
- Diamond crystal Kosher: 1 tablespoon
Cook your pasta according to the directions on the package but subtract 3 minutes from the estimated cooking time. Why? The pasta will finish cooking in the oven.
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Step 2: Prepare Some Add-Ins
Macaroni and cheese is good, but macaroni and cheese with meat and/or vegetables is great. There are so many possibilities, and those stir-ins can be the perfect way to utilize some leftovers hiding in the refrigerator. Three cups of goodies is a good amount.
Of course, any meats or vegetables that you add must be pre-cooked (raw meat will not sufficiently cook in the casserole, and hard vegetables will still be crunchy).
Cooked crumbled bacon
Cooked spinach (excess moisture squeezed out
Cooked crumbled chorizo
Cooked crumbled Italian sausage
Lightly sautéed butternut squash
Diced cooked ham
Lightly steamed broccoli
Diced cooked meatloaf
Diced cooked turkey
Oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes
Diced roast beef
Streamed green beans
Canned black beans, rinsed and drained
Shredded rotisserie chicken
Oil-packed tuna, drained
Diced fresh or canned tomatoes, drained
Step 3: Make a Sauce
I know I said there was no recipe, and truly there isn't. You just need to keep in mind a few numbers. The amount of pasta that you cooked (the dry weight) is the amount of cheese that you will use. Three-fourths of the cheese will be used to make the sauce and the remaining 25 percent will be sprinkled on top. You'll need some half and half too, 1.5 times the amount of pasta. Confused? Here's a table to help you out.
|Amount of Dry Pasta (by weight)||Amount of Cheese||Amount of Half-and-Half*|
8 ounces (use 6 in the sauce and save 2 for the top)
12 ounces (use 9 in the sauce and save 3 for the top)
16 ounces (use 12 in the sauce and save 4 for the top)
Good Melty Cheeses for the Sauce
- Monterey jack
- Pepper jack
How to Make the Cheese Sauce
Heat the half and half* in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Grab a whisk and begin to stir the cheese into the simmering pot. Go slowly, just a handful at a time. If you try to hurry the process the temperature in the pot will drop and your cheese will form a clump at the bottom. Make sure each addition of cheese is melted before you add another handful. Season the finished sauce for taste.
What If You Don't Have Half-and-Half?
Perhaps you don't want to run to the grocery store for just one item, or you live in a place where half-and-half is unheard of (my friends in Europe, for example). Here are several things that you can do to replace 1 cup of half-and-half:
- 1/2 cup whole milk plus 1/2 cup light cream
- 3/4 cup whole milk plus 1/4 cup heavy (whipping) cream
- 2/3 cup fat-free milk plus 1/3 cup heavy cream
- 4 teaspoons melted butter plus enough whole milk to equal 1 cup
Salt and pepper is the obvious choice, but there are other items on your pantry shelf that can add a pop of flavor.
Cheese and Seasoning Pairings
|If You Use This Cheese||Add This Seasoning|
several teaspoons of Dijon mustard
dash of nutmeg
dash of hot sauce
several tablespoons of basil pesto
chopped black olives
Step 4: Stir It All Together
- Preheat your oven to 325 degrees F.
- Butter the bottom and sides of an oven-safe casserole dish; stir the cooked pasta, sauce, and add-ins all together and spread evenly into the dish.
- Cover with foil and bake until it begins to bubble around the edges, 15 to 20 minutes should do it.
- Remove from the oven and remove the foil.
- Top with the reserved cheese.
Step 5: Add the Crunchy Topping
There are so many possibilities. Since you will be baking (broiling) these in the oven, this is the perfect opportunity to use up those stale crackers, chips, or dry cereal crumbs in the bottom of the box.
- 1 cup of crumbs (suggestions shown below)
- 2-4 tablespoons of unsalted melted butter or olive oil (use just enough to moisten)
- Add the crispy topping.
- Place under the broiler and bake about 3 to 4 minutes or until golden brown on top. Don't walk away from the oven. This isn't the time to take a phone call or place a load of laundry into the dryer. Stay right there are watch your dish. It can go from brown to burned in a matter of moments.
Crunchy Topping Options
Seasoned Italian bread crumbs
Panko bread crumbs
Frito corn chips
Cheetos cheese puffs
Unsweetened dry cereal
French-fried onion bits (the topping for green bean casserole)
Flavor Combination Suggestions
|Type of Cheese||Meat or Cheese Ad-Ins||Topping|
Tuna or Pulled Pork
Ham or Meatloaf
Ham, Turkey, or Rotisserie Chicken
French-fried onion bits
Seasoned Italian bread crumbs
Frito corn chips or Dorito chips
© 2019 Linda Lum