A couple weeks ago, my friend Martha mentioned Tater Tot casserole on Facebook. Her son had declared it his new favorite food, but she had never tried it. By the time I left my comments, she had already received 40+ others singing the praises of the pretty tot bake. Since I am a huge fan, thought I should share the joy of cheesy potatoes with all of you 🙂
My family loves casseroles. They love food grilled, broiled, sauteed, and tossed fresh as well, but something about a deep dish of of cheesy, starchy, veggie bake is always welcome at our table. I blame my baby boomer mother who was never shy about busting out a can of Cream of Mushroom for dinner. This recipe actually started out as one of hers. I started making it again after I had Henry. It has evolved so much that we now call it “Cowboy Casserole” around here.
This version is the most complicated way I make it. Reserved for Sunday afternoons or snow days. In it’s purest form, Tater Tot casserole is: Tots, cream of mushroom soup, cheese, and ground beef. Bake until gooey. I like to stretch both the tots and hamburger by adding a lot of other yummy things like mushrooms, green beans, olives, and/or bell peppers. Feel free to rif on this recipe with your favorite add-ins. Maybe some black beans? Or stewed tomatoes? Maybe ground turkey (or veggie crumbles) instead of beef? It’s extremely flexible. I’ve used regular (parboiled, then chopped) potatoes instead of tots. I’ve used frozen french fries in a pinch!
In this example I’ve actually make TWO medium-sized casseroles so I can put one in the freezer. If you have a large casserole dish (9×13) it should all fit in one dish.
- 1 32-oz bag of tater tots
- 2-4 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 pound ground beef (I use 1/2 pound, but I think the real recipe calls for a pound)
- 1 can Cream of Mushroom soup (Campbell’s “roasted garlic” is really good)
- 1 cup sour cream
- 1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1 1/2 – 2 cups shredded cheese
- Salt & pepper
- 1 can green beans *
- 1 cup olives* (the canned black ones are fine. So are the green briney ones. Just make sure you slice them.)
- 18-20 mushrooms*, washed & quartered
- 1 small yellow onion*, medium dice
- 1-2 tsp smoked Tabasco sauce*
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. You’ll need a large frying pan, a very large mixing bowl, smallish bowl scraper, and some kind of casserole dish (9×13 or two 9×9). Grease your casserole and set aside. You’ll be making the ingredients in batches and collecting them in the large mixing bowl to combine. Once you have it all together, you’ll dump into the baking dish.
Step ONE – Mushrooms & Onions
Heat your large frying pan to medium-high. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil, onions, and mushrooms. Add a pinch of salt to help “sweat” the onions. Sautee until the mushrooms are soft and onions are translucent – about 5 minutes. (This is a good time to execute Step TWO) Move them to the mixing bowl when they are done.
Step TWO – Cans & Cheese
Now, if it’s summer and you have access to fresh green beans… use those. It’s SOOO much better with fresh. But if not, just open/drain a can of “fancy cut” green beans from the panty. Then open/drain olives. Add both to the mixing bowl.
You’ll need about 1 1/2 cups shredded cheese. That’s about 8 ounces (half pound). Shred it up while your mushrooms or ground beef are cooking. Put all but a handful into the mixing bowl when you’re done. That reserved handful will go on top of your casserole before you bake it.
Monterey Jack melts best and has a fairly neutral flavor/color so I usually use that. Except when I’m out. Like today. That’s when I use sharp white cheddar. NOTE: If YOU use a sharp cheddar, make sure you cut back the salt you use elsewhere. I forgot and it was pretty darn salty…
Step THREE – Meat & Sauce
Your frying pan should still be warm and handy. Add your ground beef to the pan and cook it up until brown throughout. I like to add a couple tablespoons of Worcestershire to the beef along with a pinch of salt and ground black pepper to give it a flavor boost.
When the meat is done cooking, turn off the heat, then add the can of mushroom soup and sour cream to the pan. You’re just warming them up in there, not really cooking them. Mix them all up with the meat until all (or mostly) combined. Add to the mixing bowl when you’re done.
Step FOUR – Assemble
Everything should be in the mixing bowl. Gently mix everything up.
Now, I’m no advocate for dirtying extra dishes so for years I’ve tried doing this part in the baking dish/casserole itself. THERE IS TOO MUCH STUFF TO FIT IN THE BAKING DISH. If you choose to mix in the casserole, it works best when you use your hands to combine. The frozen tots cool everything down to a handle-able temperature.
If you can pull out something non-frozen (like a green bean or mushroom piece), this is a good time to taste and/or adjust the flavor. I personally like a little heat in my Cowboy Casserole, so I add a couple teaspoons of Chipotle Tabasco at this point. It isn’t very spicy, so if you like things hotter, use regular Tabasco. Or 1/4 tsp of crushed pepper flakes. When it tastes good to you, pour it into your baking dish. Smooth it a little with a spoon or spatula, then top with that last handful of shredded cheese. I like to also sprinkle with a little smoked or regular paprika for a splash of color.
Bake at 375 for about an hour. Mostly you are trying to cook those tots at this point. They usually only take about 25 minutes, but in the casserole like this it is more like baking a potato. Don’t leave it in there too long though. If over cooked, The tots will lose their shape and just fall apart. Still delicious, just not as pretty. I usually check the tots for done-ness around 45 minutes, but it usually takes a full hour.
While your casserole is baking, go outside and enjoy the day with your family 😉 When you’re done playing, it will smell amazing in your house and there will be cheesy potato goodness for you all to warm up with.
POST SCRIPT: I like to put a dish of this in the freezer for emergencies (read: when I’m too lazy to prepare an actual meal) or for giving to friends when they need it. It freezes very well and only requires a little microwave time to spring back to life. Just wrap tightly with saran (foil isn’t as good) and label it well.