So What Exactly Is a Casserole?

updated Oct 4, 2023
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A category so widespread that it has a dish named after it, casseroles can be surprisingly hard to define. That said, you likely have some questions in mind, such as “What is a casserole, exactly?” and “How is a casserole different from any other meal prepared in a baking dish?”

Well, the answer isn’t so straightforward. In fact, how one defines a casserole could depend on where they’re from.

Learn how to define and explore the different types of casseroles here —and get recipes for some of our favorite casseroles, from hearty hotdish to French toast casserole to Thanksgiving favorite green bean casserole and everything in between. 

Quick Overview

What Is a Casserole?

In the simplest terms, a casserole is a dish, either sweet or savory, that consists of a mix of different ingredients cooked together in the oven, typically in a baking dish with raised edges. Green bean casserole, tuna casserole, and broccoli and cheese casserole are good examples of traditional casseroles. The name casserole refers to both the meal and the baking dish in which it is often prepared.

What Qualifies as a Casserole?

A casserole is a one-pan dish usually prepared in a rectangular or square baking dish (such as a casserole dish) and cooked in the oven. As casseroles cook, their disparate ingredients meld, melt, and roast or bake into a cohesive meal. Casseroles can be simple, dump-and-mix dishes, as well as elaborate, old-fashioned, and multi-step recipes. They can be indulgent affairs rich with lots of cream, butter, and cheese.

In addition to a casserole dish, a casserole can also be prepared in other types of oven-safe vessels typically made from glass, ceramic, or enameled cast iron. It may have a lid and/or handles, but it doesn’t need either to qualify as a casserole dish. There are all sorts of different size casserole dishes, but many hold between 3 to 5 quarts and measure from 13 x 9 x 2 inches to 11 x 17 x 8 inches.

In terms of what technical qualities a dish must have in order to be considered a casserole, it really depends on who you ask. Today, there are many dishes prepared similarly to casseroles, many of which use the same vessels you’d reach for when making a casserole. That said, though, there are many people who wouldn’t categorize dishes like lasagna, shepherd’s pie, macaroni and cheese, peach cobbler, or brownies as casseroles, though they can all be made in a casserole dish.

What Are the Main Components of a Casserole?

Though it goes without saying, casseroles today are extremely subjective dishes. This means that there are many components to casseroles that are common, though not entirely required for it to be considered a casserole. That said, though, many people often think of a basic and traditional casserole as having the following main components:

  • Protein (Such as Meat or Poultry): While there are many casseroles out there that do not include meat or poultry, a lot of casseroles often consist of beef, pork, chicken, shellfish, seafood, and/or eggs. Ingredients like ground beef, diced chicken, shredded pork, and tuna are commonly used in casseroles.
  • Vegetables or Fruit: Vegetables like onions, peppers, carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and beans are commonly used in savory casseroles. Fruits like strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries are frequently used in sweet casseroles, such as French toast casserole.
  • Starchy Foods: Many casserole are often considered comfort foods, typically because these include starchy foods like potatoes, rice, pasta, and different forms of bread.
  • Cheese: Though cheese isn’t always included in a casserole, in many savory versions, it’s typically very common. This can include shredded cheese like cheddar or mozzarella, or grated cheese like parmesan.
  • Sauce and/or Other Binding Ingredient: This is also a sometimes-but-not-always ingredient when it comes to casseroles. Sauces such as gravies or cream of chicken soup often help bind the casserole together as it bakes and prevent it from drying out in the oven.

Types of Casseroles

Many casseroles are meals unto themselves, needing nothing more than a simple salad to round them out. Overall though, the types of casseroles are main dish casseroles, side-dish casseroles, breakfast casseroles, and dessert casseroles.

Main dish casseroles include hotdish, a Midwestern staple. Side-dish casseroles may include green bean casserole, mac and cheese, kugels, and gratins. Breakfast casseroles include strata, baked French toast, and bread pudding. Dessert casseroles could include Coconut Milk Bread Pudding and Raspberry Cookie Butter Baked Oatmeal.

Casserole Recipes

There are casseroles for every kitchen and appetite, whether you’re feeding a crowd or an army of one. Here are some of our favorites.

Main Dish Casserole Recipes

Side-Dish Casserole Recipes

Breakfast Casserole Recipes

Dessert Casserole Recipes