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How to Craft a Healthy Casserole

Turning a Retro Favorite Into a Modern Meal

By Robyn Webb, MS, LN ,


Cheesy Broccoli and Rice Casserole
Biscuit and Hamburger Pie
Creamy Tuna Noodle Casserole

There's nothing innately bad about the idea of a casserole: a savory one-pot entrée that can go directly from oven to dinner table. It's the traditional execution that's the problem, all that sloppy, gooey cheese and dense layers of refined carbs. So what can be done to rescue this retro favorite? We ventured into the kitchen to figure out how to keep the convenience of the casserole while ditching the extraneous fat and refined carbs. The result? Just like 1950s comfort food—updated for the 21st century.

1. Pack It In

One serious issue with old-fashioned casseroles is their reliance on fatty meats. You can get just as much flavor and far less saturated fat with 93 to 96 percent lean ground beef, lean cuts of poultry, or canned fish packed in water. (If you're sautéing meat, don't forget to drain off any fat before adding the other ingredients.) Or try subbing out half the meat for beans, which up the fiber and lower the overall fat content.

Casseroles traditionally combine that protein with a starch. Too often, however, that means white rice or white noodles. A simple switch to brown rice can give your dish a major nutritional boost. Or try different kinds of grains (below). For your vegetables, the classics work best: mild veggies like potatoes, green beans, broccoli, peas, onions, and carrots.

At a Glance: Go With the Grain

Whole Wheat Pasta Wild Rice Barley Red Quinoa

2. Sauce It Up

A casserole's sauce is what binds together the protein and starch. Usually, that means making a roux: butter and flour cooked with whole milk or cream, which adds a lot of unnecessary fat. Instead, you can use just a little flour with fat-free milk or low-fat or fat-free evaporated milk. Or no flour at all: In the Cheesy Broccoli and Rice Casserole, the starch released from the brown rice is what thickens the milk. Or, for something completely different, you can go fat free, as with the barbecue sauce in our Biscuit and Hamburger Pie.

The other treacherous casserole staple is cheese: plenty of it, and usually the nasty processed variety. Our recipes instead use small amounts of finely grated, lower-fat real cheese to make a sauce that's just as smooth. A sharper cheese will give you more flavor, as will the addition of herbs and spices.

Technique: Special Sauce

1. Instead of whole milk or cream, whisk low-fat or fat-free evaporated milk into a small amount of flour. 2. Combine the flour mixture with hot chicken broth. (This can be done on or off the stove.) 3. Heat until the sauce thickens.

3. Top It Off

A casserole's topping is typically made of gobs of cheese (yep, more cheese), with heavily buttered bread crumbs or biscuits, or those infamous canned fried onions. In other words, it's a horror show for the arteries. Update your topping by moistening bread crumbs with just a light amount of olive oil instead of the butter, plus a sprinkling of Parmesan or Romano.

A biscuit topping can be made lighter in fat and calories, too. In the Biscuit and Hamburger Pie, for example, we used low-fat buttermilk to make it fluffy, substituted olive oil for butter, and added in whole wheat flour.

Technique: Whole-Grain Bread Crumbs

1. Day-old bread is best for making crumbs. Start by tearing the bread into small pieces. You can trim the crusts off or leave them on for a more rustic crumb. 2. Using a food processor or blender, grind the bread into crumbs. 3. At this point you can mix in herbs and spices—dried oregano, thyme, and basil are typical, but feel free to experiment. Use about 1/2 tsp. per cup of crumbs. You can also add freshly ground pepper, a little kosher salt, and even a sprinkling of Parmesan. Bread crumbs can be frozen in a sealed plastic bag for up to six months.

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