It’s time for everyone’s favorite comfort food – tater tot casserole. Easily adjustable, fit for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, simple to make and utterly delicious, this staple of family gatherings and bring-a-plate parties is well-loved by adults and kids alike.
We have been crazy about casseroles of all kinds since the 1800s, when a French-Canadian immigrant, Elmire Jolicoeur invented the forerunner of casserole. This early version was based on rice and filled with meat. It took almost a century until it evolved in the dish we love and devour today, the dish that takes simple cuts of meat and veggies and transforms them into delicious meals.
How to Make a Great Casserole
Casseroles in the States and in parts of Europe are usually composed of:
- all types of meat, sometimes fish (usually tuna)
- chopped vegetables
- a starchy binder like flour, potato, rice, or pasta
- cheesy or crunchy toppings
- liquid, usually broth, vegetable juice, or even alcoholic beverages like beer, wine, cider, or gin (condensed soups are a staple in US casseroles)
The beauty of this combination dish is in its simplicity. To make a casserole, all you need to do is just arrange layers of previously prepared ingredients in a dish and bake. The heat circulates, cooking the dish slowly and evenly, preventing the food from burning or sticking together.
Casseroles have been a one-dish meal since the 1950s when baking pans made of different materials became widely available on the market. The key is to use an ovenproof dish, preferably with a tight-fitting lid, made of glass, cast iron, ceramic, or any other material.
Casseroles are often served in the dish in which they were cooked in, i.e. baked, conveniently called casserole dish or casserole pan. They are consumed both as a side dish or a main dish, depending on the ingredients and personal preferences.
Basic Ingredients for a Tater Tot Casserole
A standard tater tot casserole recipe also calls for:
- One pound of lean ground beef.
Heat some vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add one chopped onion and cook for about 15 minutes, until soft and translucent. Add the meat and cook for about 10 minutes until brown, stirring frequently. Season with salt and pepper (add any spice and herbs you prefer). Drain off the grease before transferring the meat into the casserole dish.
- One can condensed soup.
Most commonly used varieties are mushroom and celery cream soup (regular or fat-free), as well as chicken and vegetable stocks(look for low-sodium options). In case you are using a cream soup, there is no need to add flour. If you are using a stock, start by adding two tablespoons of flour into a saucepan with a little heated oil. Pour in the stock, bring it to a boil and simmer for about 2 minutes. Alternatively, you can omit the flour and combine the soup with some sour cream or milk.
- A layer of grated cheese of any kind
Fold the cheese into the ready meat mix or into the soup to make it creamier. The best option is to use it as a top layer.
- Many varieties also include veggies most commonly mushrooms, beans, corn, cauliflower, carrots, etc. (2-4 cups)
- Three cups of tater tots
All ingredients can be varied to make the dish vegetarian, vegan, replace a certain ingredient with another due to allergies or personal preferences, or simply reduce the calorie count. All but the star of the show – the tater tots. Because what would be a tater tot casserole without tater tots?
The Star of the Show – Tater Tots
Tater tots are pieces of grated, deep-fried, crunchy potatoes with a cylindrical shape. They were invented in the 1950s by the Ore-Ida company, as a result of their efforts to save up pieces of leftover potatoes. Even though at first, they were not so popular, today over 70 million pounds of tater tots are consumed in the USA every year! Tater tots are literally everywhere – in school cafeterias, fast-food restaurants, supermarkets, and grocery stores.
So, for your tater tot casserole you can use frozen store-bought tots, or better yet, prepare them at home. Making your own tots will prolong the process of preparing the casserole, but there is nothing better than a casserole made with that fresh, homemade, crunchy tater tots!
You can make them by using freshly grated potatoes, cold leftover mashed potatoes, or even sweet potatoes. Mix the potatoes with ½ cup flour and two eggs. Using a spoon, transfer a dollop of the potato mixture and into a bowl filled with panko breadcrumbs. Roll it around until coated evenly, then shape it into a small, elongated ball.
Tater tots for casseroles are usually deep-fried in order to pronounce their crunchiness and, let’s be honest here, their deliciousness, but if you want to reduce the amount of fat, bake them!
Frying the tots: Heat vegetable oil (about an inch deep) in a heavy-bottomed frying pan or skillet. Cook the tots for 2-3 minutes, until golden brown. Note: If you remove them earlier, the center will remain undercooked.
Baking the tots: Heat the oven to 375 degrees F. Spray a baking sheet with some nonstick spray. Place the tots on the baking sheet and sprinkle with olive or canola oil on top to make them crispier. Bake for about 20 minutes, then turn and keep baking for 15-20 minutes more (the longer you cook them, the crunchier the tater tots will be). If you are baking previously formed and coated tots that were frozen, prolong the baking time to 30 minutes for each side.
One important note: In case you are planning to use home-cooked tots in the casserole, don’t cook them all the way through because they will overcook during baking. Another option is to add fully cooked tots, together with the cheese about 10 minutes before the dish is done.
Your perfect homemade tots, crispy on the outside and super soft on the inside, can be served with sandwiches, steaks, and burgers, or on their own with other appetizers and various dips. But the best thing you can do with them is to incorporate them in a casserole.
Making the Tater Tot Casserole
The whole process of casseroling is quite simple:
Transfer the beef and onion mixture from the skillet into a 9×13 inch baking/casserole dish. Scatter the chopped vegetables, if any. Spread the soup over and top with the frozen tater tots. cover with shredded cheese. Bake at 350 degrees until bubbly and the cheese is completely melted, for about 20-30 minutes.
However, there are a few tips and tricks that will help you master the art of preparing outstanding tater tot casserole recipes instead or ordinary ones.
Cut the vegetables into small pieces to ensure they cook easily and evenly. Add the ingredients that cook quickly (for instance, beans or broccoli) about 5 minutes before the cooking is over.
Some vegetables need to be par-cooked before adding them to the casserole to ensure that all the ingredients finish cooking at the same time. Vegetables that tend to cook slowly, like carrots or other root vegetables need to be boiled, roasted, steamed, or pan-seared in advance.
If you are using frozen vegetables, thaw them in order to get rid of the excess liquid that might make the casserole too soupy.
If you decide to replace the standard ground beef with another type of meat, cut it into small chunks and toss them in flour just before cooking. If you flour the meat too early, it will absorb the flour and change the texture of the casserole. Brown the meat first, before adding any vegetables, liquids, seasonings and herbs.
Do not add flour after cooking at any stage. If you have forgotten to use it where planned (i.e. to thicken the soup or before cooking the meat chunks), continue without it because the food will taste floury.
If you want the cheese melty instead of crispy, add it 10 – 15 minutes before the casserole is done.
The standard kitchen tools needed to pull off a decent tater tot casserole are:
-Sharp knives and cutting boards for chopping the ingredients
-Frying pan or skillet for cooking the ingredients on the stovetop
-Wooden spoon for stirring the ingredients while cooking
-Ovenproof, flameproof casserole dish.
- Use a saucepan to cook the meat. Being much deeper than a pan or skillet, it will allow you to pan-sear the veggies and cook the stock in the same oil, thus reducing the number of dirty dishes. Another option is to use the same flameproof and ovenproof casserole dish for cooking the ingredients on the stovetop and in the oven.
- Make sure the casserole dish is the right size. If it is too big, the liquid will evaporate too quickly and the food will be dry. If it is too small, the liquid will overflow. Most recipes require a 9×13 inch dish. If you are not sure, this is a general rule to follow – the dish should be three-quarters full when you are done arranging all the layers.
- Should you cover the casserole before baking or not? Uncovered casseroles will be browner and crispier, with less liquid. So, if the casserole looks ‘soupy’, leave it uncovered. However, if you have added liquid-absorbing ingredients like rice or pasta, there is no need to do it.
Casseroles have one important upside – they freeze well. Be careful though. If you put the casserole in the oven without defrosting, just extending the baking time, it will overcook. The casserole needs to be fully thawed, so transfer it to the fridge one or two days before you are ready to eat. Make sure it has achieved room temperature before placing it in the oven, to ensure it cooks evenly.
Tater Tot Casserole Recipes
Now that you know all the hacks necessary to make a perfect tater tot casserole, all you need are a few amazing recipes. Here are three less than usual suggestions to serve as inspiration: