What Is a Casserole Anyway? How Do You Define It?

We are precisely halfway through Casserole Week, but we haven't yet addressed the most basic of questions: What IS a casserole anyway? Read on for a few thoughts on the matter, and to add your own definition. How do you define a casserole?

In our casserole thread at the beginning of the week, reader Oven Mitzie asked:

I'm not sure I even understand casseroles. They are supposed to save time but I always find these recipes that have me making two or three things then dumping them into a pan together.

My questions:
• Are there truly any recipes that have minimal prep or are they supposed to be labor intensive?
• Are there any recipes that are healthful? I see so many that involve noodles, cheese and cream. But maybe that's the point? I don't know.
• Do you make, bake, freeze, then heat up later or do you make, freeze and bake to eat later?

I don't know why casseroles are so confusing to me...

So many good questions here! A few thoughts from my own year of making casseroles.

1. What IS a casserole anyway?
I like to think of a casserole as an oven-baked meal that relies on the magic of the oven to transform simple ingredients into a delicious dish that is more than the sum of its parts.

That might sound a little high-flying, but it's really what I think about casseroles. The oven is a magic box that melds, melts, and roasts disparate ingredients into a final dish that is more tasty than it would have been had it not been baked.

Also, usually a casserole is a one-dish meal, needing only a simple salad to round it out. But of course there are exceptions to everything; I make dessert casseroles, side dish casseroles, and appetizer casseroles. I also have one casserole (look for it later today!) that isn't even baked.

So there are exceptions to everything, but in the end, for me, a casserole comes from the oven, and the oven is key to the final product.

Other cookbook authors have taken the casserole to simply mean a one-dish meal, and included casseroles that cook on top of the stove. That's fine — I certainly understand that! — but I opted to keep the definition linked to the oven.

2. Casseroles can be easy or elaborate.
A lot of casseroles are very elaborate. Lasagna, cassoulet, biryani — it often takes some work just to get them in the oven. Sometimes this is just what I want to do. I love a good lasagna! But other times I just want to mix a few things together in five minutes and put it in the oven. In my mind, casseroles encompass the simplest dump-and-mix dishes as well as the elaborate, old-fashioned, and rich multi-step recipes.

3. Casseroles can be indulgent or economical with calories and fat.
The oven really is magic. I think that you can put in casseroles livened-up with herbs, lemon, roasted nuts, spices, or just a modicum of cheese and still get something totally delicious. But a shortcut to deliciousness, of course, is fat. Butter, cream cheese, and heavy cream all taste delicious, and adding them to anything will make it more tasty. I believe that casseroles can go either way.

You can make an rich, indulgent mac and cheese with a week's worth of fat (and boy will it be good!) or you can make one with silken tofu and skim milk. Honestly, given the right techniques and recipes, and the magic of a hot oven, both will be equally delicious, if different.

As far as freezing casseroles goes, the timing of baking and freezing depends completely on the type of casserole. Most casserole recipes should have instructions on this.

OK readers, your turn! What do YOU call a casserole? Is it a one-dish meal? Something baked? Something gooey? What exception do you make?

Related: It's Casserole Week at The Kitchn!

(Images: Nealey Dozier; Elizabeth Passarella)

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Faith is the executive editor of The Kitchn and the author of three cookbooks. They include Bakeless Sweets (Spring 2013) as well as The Kitchn's first cookbook, which will be published in Fall 2014. She lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband Mike.