If you’re here, you’re looking for some straight answers about the differences between a hotdish and a casserole. And I can assure you, you’ve come to the right place.
I'm a Minnesotan and this comfort food staple is pretty much the unofficial state cuisine of Minnesota.
So, let’s take a deep dive into this bubbling 9 x 13 pan of deliciousness, starting by sorting out what's what.
Hotdish vs. Casserole
What’s the difference between a hotdish and a casserole, you ask?
Some may say the word "casserole" refers to the name of the dish it’s cooked in, while “hotdish” is the meal itself.
Others claim that a casserole is made with lighter meat and ingredients like rice and cheese, while hotdishes rely on grains, pasta, and potatoes to keep the carb count nice and high.
My answer? The only difference between a casserole and a hotdish is where you’re from.
If you’re from Minnesota, a cozy casserole dish with a mixture of protein, starch, cheese/condensed soup/sauce, and sometimes vegetables is a hotdish.
If you’re from anywhere else, including Minnesota-adjacent states, the exact same dish is called a casserole.
To confirm my point, I ran my own poll (wildly informal and likely fraught with gaping margins of error) and posted my Sweet Potato Tater Tot Casserole recipe, above, in several social media groups. I asked folks across the United States what they call it and where they’re from.
Only Minnesotans called it hotdish.
Everyone else, including my upper Midwest neighbors from North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Iowa, called it casserole.
Alrighty then. So now that that's settled, let's clear up what in the heck a casserole, or hotdish, is anyway.
What is a Casserole?
A casserole is a one-dish meal that's baked in a large, deep dish and is commonly served at weeknight family dinners, family gatherings, and potlucks.
It's cherished for its ease of preparation and clean-up, better-the-next-day leftovers, and the ability to put pretty much anything in it and it will be goshdarn delicious.
Some definitions of casserole say it has to have a protein, starch, vegetable, cheese, and sauce. And I agree — these five essential hotdish components are a great place to start.
Especially considering that when all major components are accounted for, you can get a perfectly square meal in a single baking dish.
When it comes to building the perfect casserole, there’s a bit more you need to know.
But before we get to that, aren’t you even a little bit curious about where casseroles came from?
Where did Casseroles Come From?
Lore has it that the humble hotdish originated in the American Midwest. And that the very first mention of it was in a 1930 Minnesota church cookbook. Which is not shocking to me.
This first aforementioned casserole was a baked dish of ground beef, onions, canned vegetables, canned soup, and macaroni. Sounds about right -- I'm pretty sure I've had that.
But just because the first mention was in 1930 certainly doesn’t mean that was when casseroles were invented.
It is believed that Midwesterners have been baking up hotdishes since the 1910s as a way to stretch a pound of ground beef to support the World War I food conservation efforts.
And then something significant happened in the 1950s that would forever change the hotdish-scape: tater tots were invented. Soon after, the quintessential Minnesota tater tot hotdish was born.
My Five Basic Casse-rules
When it comes to assembling a casserole, there are some basic rules you need to know. Because making a casserole is as much about what’s in the casserole recipe as how you go about putting it together.
So, allow me to introduce my five casse-rules (hardy, har har) for building a killer main dish casserole. Or hotdish.
Note that absolutely none of them are hard-and-fast. And the most important (and unwritten) one is to cash in on this opportunity to use up any of your leftovers, almost-empty boxes of pasta, or that last handful of cheese in the fridge.
Choose your vessel wisely.
When it comes to choosing the right casserole dish, it’s important to use a casserole pan with a wide opening. Why? For the sole reason of maximizing the surface area for that ever-important top crunchy layer. More on that later.
Since your casserole will be going from the oven straight to the dinner table, a pie plate, oven-proof baking dish, cast iron skillet, or individual ramekins are all fine options.
My pick for the best casserole dish ever is an enameled cast iron Dutch oven with a lid. The cover is handy for throwing the leftovers in the fridge. And the cast iron makes it super versatile so it can go from the stove to the oven to the table.
Minimize the mush factor.
Casseroles can get a bad rap for being, how shall I say this… texturally one-note. But they don’t have to be. Here are some tips to keep your casserole from becoming mushy.
If you’re using ground beef in your casserole, be sure to drain away any excess fat or liquid after you brown it.
Use fresh ingredients when possible like par cooked vegetables, not canned. Even for your green bean casserole.
Fresh green beans with a quick blanch will ensure your beans are cooked properly in your finished product. And in a pinch, most frozen vegetables (thawed and drained) will provide better texture and flavor than canned vegetables.
Undercook your pasta, knowing it will keep cooking in the oven. Or even go no-boil if you’re making lasagna or stuffed shells. Wait, what? It’s true, you don’t have to boil your shells first, like in this No-Boil Stuffed Shells recipe, pictured below.
Go for the goo.
Every good casserole needs an even better gooey component to hold everything together. And it doesn’t need to come in a can of creamy soup. In fact, some people (like me) avoid using cream soups in their casserole dishes.
A simple cream cheese sauce is super easy to make, like the one in this creamy corn casserole. And when you add your favorite melting cheese, you’ve got all the goo you need to keep your casserole in sync.
Sorry, cream of mushroom soup. We’ll have to find something else for you to do.
Spice up the flavor.
Another ding on casseroles is that they can be bland. So don’t forget to season every step of the way.
Dry herbs and spices will hold up well during the cooking process and a finish of fresh herbs, or even just a sprinkle of green onions, at the end will brighten everything up.
Go over the top with toppings.
What happens below the equator of a casserole is pretty much up to you. But when it comes to the best part, the top, it has to be crunchy.
The beauty of a casserole is that it doesn’t really matter where the crunch comes from.
A single layer of crispy tater tots, French fried onion rings, hash browns, buttery crackers, potato chips, corn chips, corn flakes, pretzels, breadcrumbs, nuts, or chow mein noodles will all work. You see? Anything goes.
Hungry for some Hotdish Recipes?
I don’t know about you, but all this talk is making me hungry for some hotdish. Or casserole (because, you know, same diff). Here are some of our favorites.
What should you serve with a casserole?
A crisp salad or warm vegetable side dish is always nice to serve with casserole to add even more veggies to your plate and some colorful, textural relief from a golden brown, ooey-gooey baked casserole.