Borrowed from French cuisine, cooking “en casserole” started to gain popularity in the U.S. shortly after the turn of the 19th century. A 1907 San Francisco Call newspaper article called this cooking method “simple” and “economical,” which may be why the casserole has remained a favorite over many generations.
Traditionally, the term casserole referred to the porous earthenware dish in which food was cooked. Early U.S. casseroles dishes were rough on the outside and glazed on the inside which often resulted in a reddish interior. A stubby handle was part of the casserole, allowing for easier transport to a dining table.
Sometime in the 1950s, the American casserole began to take shape and “casserole” became the name for the food itself. This was also a time when lighter and more modern bakeware was appearing in retail stores. Homemakers were utilizing a variety of convenience foods; this made the essence of the casserole all the more appealing.
Fast forward to 1970, and the breakfast casserole began warming our mornings. These consisted of breakfast meats — ham, sausage or bacon — potatoes, cheese and eggs. It was everything we love about breakfast in one dish that needed little babysitting. One unique recipe of the era simply called for baking sliced ham or pork in applesauce to serve alongside pancakes or French toast.
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Benefits of casserole cooking
The ease and simplicity of the breakfast casserole is ideal for hectic weekend mornings, holidays or anytime you need to serve a crowd. They can be prepared the night before, refrigerated and baked the next morning. Casseroles are a great way to use leftover meat, potatoes, extra vegetables and near-stale bread. Breakfast becomes brunch when you serve the casserole with sliced tomatoes, cottage cheese, soup or salad.
Building your brunch casserole
Brunch casseroles can take on any flavor profile and combination of ingredients. Basic ingredients are a crust, eggs, meat, vegetables and cheese. Precooking some ingredients reduces moisture released when cooking a casserole. Too much moisture will result in a runny casserole.
The crust can be anything bread-related like sliced bread, tortillas or biscuits. Potatoes — sliced or hash browns — also make a good crust.
The rule of thumb for eggs is one-to-two eggs per person, depending on how thick you want your casserole. Eggs will make your casserole fluffy, but they can also turn out runny with too much extra moisture from other ingredients.
While sausage, bacon and ham are common brunch casserole meats, anything goes. Meat should be precooked and can be leftover from previous meals. Use up leftover bratwurst, bulk sausage, ground beef or steak in your casserole. You can also omit the meat and add additional eggs to the dish.
High-moisture vegetables like mushrooms, onions and bell peppers should be precooked before adding them to your casserole. These are likely culprits that may result in eggs not setting properly when baked. Dark leafy greens like spinach and kale are great tossed into the casserole mix. Leftover grilled vegetables like asparagus and zucchini make a good Italian-inspired dish.
Cheese can be mixed into your casserole ingredients or sprinkled on top at the end of baking — or both. Use a combination of cheese to build flavor. Cottage cheese, ricotta and even sour cream add to the creaminess of the casserole base.
A standard 13-by-9 inch baking dish will hold a casserole large enough to feed eight to 12 people for brunch, but plan for your guests. If you have a group of hungry teenagers, you may need two casseroles. Bake a standard casserole at 350 F for 40 to 50 minutes. The edges of the casserole should be browned, and the center should be just set. You can check for doneness by inserting a toothpick into the casserole. If it comes out clean, your dish is done.
Whether for breakfast, brunch or dinner, casseroles are a simple and economical way to feed a family or a large crowd.