The Truth About The Minnesota Hotdish

It's a classic that's spent most of its culinary life hidden away in America's freezer section that is the northern Midwest. But the hotdish (yup, one word!) is having a moment in pop food culture, thanks to Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and her Hot Dish House Parties, where she and her campaign workers spell hotdish as "Hot Dish" and where the campaign has been reaching out to voters with her version of the recipe, called the Taconite Tater Tot Hot Dish (via The New York Times).

A hotdish has three components: a starch, protein, and a vegetable, brought together by a creamy sauce. You might think that a hotdish is nothing more than a casserole, but that would be an error, because while all hotdishes are casseroles, not all casseroles are hotdishes (via Eater). Like that mac and cheese casserole you love? Not a hotdish.

Where did the hotdish come from?

Eater says that the word "hotdish" was first used in a 1930s Grace Lutheran Ladies Aid cookbook. But the origins of the dish probably went back a bit earlier, to the Great Depression, when the hotdish was seen as an affordable way to keep families fed, particularly when canned food was everywhere but fresh meat was scarce. An early hotdish recipe brought together ground (burger) meat, onions, celery, canned peas, canned tomato soup, and Creamettes in one dish which was then baked.

The hotdish can also be considered a descendant of the 1910s hot pot, which came about as a way to save food at home so the extras might be shipped to soldiers during World War I. Today the hotdish is the heart of an annual Minnesota Congressional Hot Dish Competition, which brings together state representatives and senators for a hotdish cookoff. The winner is decided through a blind taste test, and gets to bring home a trophy, made from a glass casserole dish.

What are hotdishes today made of?

Food blogger and North Dakota transplant Molly Yeh says hotdishes can be pulled together using any meat (ground beef, pulled chicken, chopped spam); a starch (wild rice, macaroni noodles, tater tots); a veggie (peas, celery, onions) and pulled together with cream of chicken, corn, or mushroom soup. Aside from the essentials, hotdishes are covered with a crisp topping, with one default choice being tater tots (a la Amy Klobuchar), although Eater says crisp chow mein noodles, potato chips, and fried onions also make the cut. The whole thing is then put in a preheated oven and baked. Because Klobuchar's version uses pre-cooked beef, her hotdish needs just 30 minutes in an oven set to 450.

If you're still not too sure about the hotdish, take it from Yeh, who says the Midwestern classic is "as comforting as a new fleece blanket on a cold winter day and they make excellent leftovers... but if you were to place the other ones on an x/y chart where x = how much it looks like barf, and y = how delicious it is, they would be maxed out on both accounts. That's the charm of a hotdish."