How Do You Define Casserole?

A casserole is the quintessential weeknight meal. It's usually easy to fix and easier to serve, plus most casseroles count as comfort food. But exactly what is a casserole? Do you define this one-dish wonder by its ingredients, its container, or its cooking method? Let's take a look at the casserole.

What is a casserole, exactly? By strict definition, the food takes the name of the dish in which it's baked and served. Merriam-Webster says the etymology of the word casserole can be traced from the Greek kyathos (cup) to the Old French casse, which means ladle. There's also the Latin cattia, which means ladle and pan. Eventually, the word evolved to mean a cooking vessel used over a fire (or in an oven) in which cooks combined ingredients, usually some kind of meat, grain, and sauce, to bake slowly. The food is then served directly from the same baking dish.

Today, a casserole dish is a deep dish made from glass or ceramic material safe for the oven. They can be large or small, plain or decorative. Most casserole dishes don't have lids, since casseroles tend to be baked uncovered.

Different cultures have a variety of baked, one-pot dishes that could be considered casseroles, but the French made it their own. The English adopted it in the early 18th century, and then the dish found a new home in America in the late 1800s.

Here in America, the casserole came to symbolize the efficient, inexpensive one-dish meal made to stretch ingredients and feed a lot of people. With the invention of condensed soups in 1897, the Campbell Soup Company changed the casserole game completely by adding convenience to the equation.

What is a casserole today? In a nutshell (or a cute individual CorningWare casserole dish), an American-style casserole is any dish made up of multiple ingredients that when baked together, create something all its own. Even as a side dish, a casserole is intended to be something substantial. (Personally, I have no issue making a meal out of green bean casserole.)

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While there may be an occasional exception, casseroles are savory. Sorry, no, dessert casseroles aren't a thing--they're cobblers or crisps or cake, where the main ingredient is still meant to shine instead of meld into a greater whole. (Bread pudding might be the one exception since it takes a variety of ingredients and bakes them into something else entirely.) However, casseroles are good for any meal. There's a reason, after all, why Cracker Barrel's hashbrown casserole is one of it's most popular menu items.

Generally, casseroles are a protein and a vegetable (though you can go with one or the other), plus some kind of starchy binder such as pasta or rice, sauce (where the condensed soup comes in), and some kind of cheesy or crunchy topping like breadcrumbs or fried onions.

Casseroles can be elaborate, but they can also be as easy as dumping several ingredients into a baking dish and popping it in an oven for 45 minutes. And there's plenty of middle ground; casseroles don't have to be all canned condensed soup and bags of cheese. In fact, we have several delicious dishes that are casserole recipes at their best: homemade, easy, comfort food. If you're still wondering officially what is a casserole, check out these recipes or search through our recipes for other great examples.

Teriyaki Chicken Casserole

crisper drawer; what is a casserole

This chicken casserole is packed with veggies. Instead of a creamy soup, look for Asian inspiration in the sweet and tangy sauce.

Get the recipe here.

King Ranch Hot Dish Casserole

King Ranch Hot Dish Casserole; what is a casserole
Lyndsay Burginger

Hotdish is the traditional name for a Midwestern casserole; this one mixes chicken, cheese, and tater tots for some seriously good comfort food.

Get the recipe here.

Leftover Ham Casserole

leftover-ham-casserole; what is a casserole
Lyndsay Burginger

One beautiful thing about casseroles is that they are perfect recipes in which to use up leftover ingredients from other dishes, and at the same time, the finished casserole makes for wonderful leftovers itself. This ham casserole is a great example.

Get the recipe here.

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