The Perfect Ground Beef Casserole
Some recent changes to our family’s primary source of income left me contemplating some important questions about how to stretch our food budget. So, I asked myself: If I had to make a perfect ground beef casserole tonight with what I have on hand, could I do it?
Eager to prove my prowess as a home chef, I soon found myself standing in front of our pantry in search of ingredients. All casseroles tend to share the same basic anatomy. You need protein, a vegetable or vegetables, starch, sauce, cheese, and something to sprinkle across the top to add a crunchy texture.
CHOICES OF PROTEIN
When I checked our freezer, my options were beef, chicken, pork, fish, and eggs. We also had some canned beans sitting in the pantry. I already had beef picked out in my mind, so I went with that.
However, I could have just as easily gone with one of the other options. Casseroles are meant to make our lives easier, so use what you have on hand and save yourself a trip to the grocery.
When I looked at my options for a starch, I was surprised to find so many options. We had rice, grits, instant mashed potatoes, fresh sweet potatoes, and several forms of dried noodles in the pantry.
The freezer had tater tots and french fries as well.
For this recipe, I decided to go with rotini – a.k.a. corkscrew or spiral pasta – thinking the shorter noodle would be easier to scoop out than something long like spaghetti.
I had my choice of fresh celery, green onions, Vidalia onions, garlic, mushrooms, bell peppers, and collard greens. We also had frozen peas, a frozen vegetable medley, and canned French cut green beans on hand.
Were it not for our kids’ aversion to onions, I would have gone with onions, bell peppers, and celery. However, I landed on the latter two and decided my husband and I could sprinkle some green onions on top of our servings. Though my sweet little ones aren’t into onions, they love garlic – go figure – so I’ll also be adding that to the mix.
A sauce in a casserole works as a binding agent that pulls everything together. My options here were a jar of spaghetti sauce, canned diced tomatoes in tomato juice, canned crushed tomatoes in tomato puree, a can of hearty tomato soup, a can of squash soup, and a can of V8 juice.
I went with the crushed tomatoes in tomato puree. If I had it available, I could have used cream of mushroom soup as well. That said, the acid from the tomatoes will do a lot to flavor and tenderize the beef.
Our family eats a lot of cheese, so I had Dubliner, shredded sharp cheddar, a block of white cheddar, and shredded parmesan cheese. The Dubliner melts well, but we like to use it for grilled cheese sandwiches. Being that the sharp cheddar and parm were already shredded, I landed on those.
I’m embarrassed to say, but there were numerous crunchy options to choose from. I really wish we didn’t love processed foods.
I had sour cream and onion potato chips, wavy potato chips, blue corn chips, Ritz crackers, Triscuits, Four Cheese Cheez-its, bread crumbs, and a crispy fried pickle topping to choose from. I went with the Cheez-its since my 7-year old loves em.
PUTTING THE PERFECT GROUND BEEF CASSEROLE TOGETHER
Now that I had my ingredients picked out, I was well on my way to making the perfect ground been casserole a reality. I set the meat out to thaw and came back a few hours later to chop the vegetables and boil the noodles.
My recipe was a success and showed me that, when push comes to shove, I can make our budget go a bit further. Normally, I would have just made a list and ran to the store.
By being a little flexible and adding some creativity I came up with a new recipe my family enjoyed, while also saving us some money.
A NOTE ON SOURCING MEAT
Like most American families, we have a great affinity for meat. We’ve always done what we can to buy our meats on sale. However, as prices have skyrocketed during the pandemic, we’ve been buying our beef and pork in bulk from a local farmer.
The experience has been eye-opening, and I doubt we’ll ever go back to buying pre-packaged meats from the store. Why? Four reasons.
First, freshly butchered meat tastes amazingly fresh in comparison to stuff from the supermarket.
Second, we had no idea how salty our store-bought sausage was, which says a lot since we love salty foods.
Third, our butcher tends to wrap meat in butcher paper, which has allowed us to significantly reduce our consumption of single-use plastics.
And last but not least, we save between $3 and $17 per pound, depending on the cut. We buy a quarter of a cow at a time, so we end up with a bit of everything.
It’s a little overwhelming to store an enormous pile of meat, but it’s definitely worth it.
WHAT SIZE CASSEROLE DISH?
Casserole dishes come in many shapes and sizes. I used a 9×12 Le Creuset Heritage Covered Casserole Dish. However, anything close to that size would have worked, so long as it had a lid.
Koov, whose pie plate I used for my Perfect Chess Pie recipe, makes a 9×12 ceramic casserole dish with a lid that I’m eager to try. It’s roughly half the price of the Le Creuset one and comes in some nice colors.
INGREDIENTS FOR THE PERFECT GROUND BEEF CASSEROLE
- 1 pound extra-lean ground beef
- 12 ounces of pasta
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2-4 stalks of celery
- 1-2 diced bell peppers
- 12-16 ounces crushed tomatoes in tomato puree
- 1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
- 1 cup shredded parmesan cheese
- 1 teaspoon garlic salt
- 1 cup of crushed Cheez-its
- 2-3 green onions
STEP 1: CUT VEGETABLES
Chop the bell peppers and celery. Crush the cloves of garlic. If you don’t have a crusher, just smash it with the flat side of a knife.
STEP 2: PREHEAT THE OVEN
Preheat the oven to 400℉. Grease a 9×13 inch casserole dish. I used Pam olive oil cooking spray.
STEP 3: PREPARE THE PASTA
Cook your pasta of choice according to the directions on the package. You can start step 4 while it cooks.
STEP 4: SAUTÉ THE GARLIC, PEPPERS, CELERY AND GROUND BEEF
Add the olive oil to the pan and turn on the stove to medium heat. Sautee the garlic first. Then add the celery and peppers.
Add ½ cup of water while the celery and peppers are cooking. Once the water cooks down, add the ground beef and garlic salt. Sautee until ready.
STEP 5: STIR IN THE TOMATO SAUCE
Add the tomato sauce into the pan and stir it around for a few minutes until steam starts to come off.
STEP 6: COMBINE AND FILL
In a large bowl combine the cooked pasta with the beef, vegetable, and tomato mixture and stir.
Add in one-half of the cheese and stir until distributed evenly.
Transfer the mixture to the casserole dish. Take the other half of the cheese and spread it across the top.
STEP 7: BAKE THE PERFECT GROUND BEEF CASSEROLE
Bake the casserole covered for 20-25 minutes until the cheese is melted evenly. While it is baking, crush the Cheez-its.
STEP 9: ADD THE CHEEZ-ITS AND BROIL
Remove the casserole from the oven and spread the Cheez-its across the top. Then, broil the casserole uncovered for 3-5 minutes to brown the cheese and warm the Cheez-its. Watch the oven carefully so you do not burn the casserole.
STEP 10: SERVE IMMEDIATELY
Serve the perfect ground beef casserole while it is still hot. Garnish the casserole with green onions, as desired. Salt and pepper to taste.
Prep time 30 minutes
Cooking time 30 minutes
Total 1 hour