There are times when the simple act of preparing a meal is a restful and soothing experience all its own. On other days, stress or time constraints make it difficult or burdensome to get food on the table. Casseroles are an appealing alternative on those days, because a whole meal requires nothing more than time in the oven. Casseroles can be prepared the day before for more convenience, even if they contain chicken or other perishable ingredients.
Casseroles are modern heirs to a variety of traditional peasant dishes, slow-cooked on the hearth or in the village oven after the bread was taken out. By combining small quantities of meat or poultry in a tasty sauce with lots of filling grain or noodles, casseroles provided a frugal way turn scraps or leftovers into a satisfying meal. They still serve that purpose, though modern casseroles can just as easily be family favorites made fresh from scratch rather than from leftovers.
Any time you're preparing food in advance for later cooking, food safety becomes especially important. Microbial activity slows to a crawl in the refrigerator, but if you haven't handled your ingredients properly, it's still a risk. Cook your chicken to a food safe temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit, and ensure the chicken and any other pre-cooked ingredients are refrigerated within two hours of cooking. These rules apply whether you're using leftover chicken, a rotisserie chicken purchased for the occasion, or boneless chicken pieces you cook from scratch for the casserole.
Putting It Together
Unless your recipe calls for some of its ingredients to be cooked together, it's best to assemble make-ahead casseroles with chilled ingredients. Cook and cool your starchy ingredients, vegetables, chicken and sauce ahead of time, then layer them into the casserole or baking dish. Cover the dish tightly with plastic wrap or aluminum foil, to prevent it being contaminated by drips or debris, and refrigerate it overnight. If your casserole bakes under a crisp topping of croutons, crumbs or cheese, don't add those until the next day.
Get It Cooking
If you're baking the casserole in a ceramic or tempered glass dish, it's best to take it out of the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before you put it in the oven. That reduces the risk of your baking dish shattering when it goes from the cold fridge to the hot oven. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Top the casserole with crumbs or cheese, if needed, and slide it into the oven. Refrigerated casseroles typically require an extra five to 10 minutes of cooking time to reach a food-safe temperature of 165 F.
- The New Food Lover's Companion; Sharon Tyler Herbst, Ron Herbst
- USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service: Leftovers and Food Safety
- Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images