Toppings Can Really Make Or Break Your Casserole

If you need a hearty, mid-week recipe that will use up a bunch of odd leftover ingredients, it's hard to beat the casserole. Easy and filling, casseroles often only require five basic ingredients – a protein, starch, cheese, sauce, and vegetable. However, if you want to elevate it beyond a simple dinner, all you need is a great topping. A smart topping choice can completely change the texture or taste of a casserole, making an already versatile meal even more open to those little innovations that bring so much joy to cooking. 

Smothering your casserole in breadcrumbs is a sure bet if you want some nice crunch. This is especially true if your casserole uses lots of vegetables because, without that added crispiness, your squash casserole (for example) could end up mushy. Alternatively, you may consider a mixture of grated cheddar and red Leicester, perhaps with a bit of mustard stirred in, to create a top layer of oozing, nutty dairy. This works well if your casserole incorporates red meat. The result is similar to a rich cottage pie but with the potatoes inside of the dish instead of on top. A vegetable-heavy casserole can be taken even further with crumbled bacon or sausage. Try sprinkling chorizo on a Spanish Paella-ish casserole to create a real showstopper.

Adapt your casserole to your topping to avoid burning

While toppings can elevate a casserole, there is a trade-off. There are plenty of mistakes you can make when cooking a casserole, including burning the toppings. Making this mistake nullifies any benefits and degrades the whole dish. The topping is the first thing you bite into, so if it's charcoal, that taste will carry through the rest of the dish.

An easy way around this is to adapt your baking process to the topping you've decided on. What works for lashings of cheese won't work for a sprinkling of pancetta. A cheese topping added at the beginning of the cooking process is probably the easiest to work with, especially if you prefer crispy, not gooey, cheese.

When it comes to solid toppings, such as breadcrumbs or meat, you're better off waiting until the casserole has 10 minutes left before adding them. Leaving the lid off for this last bit of cooking time ensures the toppings are nice and crisp instead of soggy. You want your breadcrumbs or crumbled meat to be toasted under the heat of the oven, not steamed!