Casserole or hot dish? Regardless of what you call it, the best part of this meal is usually the crunchy topping that covers everything. But what does that topping consist of and does it always have to stay the same? The answer, quite simply, is you need an ingredient with a crunch and some butter to coat it in so it doesn’t burn once it is in the oven. The best part about this is that it allows room for substitution and experimentation depending on what you are looking for in flavor. So, let’s take a look at my top four favorite toppings, and what makes them great!
Panko Bread Crumbs
The first topping I want to address is panko bread crumbs. I LOVE panko. It is crunchy, I can buy multiple boxes of them and have them last for a while in the pantry, and it has a fairly neutral flavor, so no matter what you are putting into your casserole it will most likely complement it well. That’s the thing about panko, it is definitely an ingredient that is more about the texture than it is about the flavor. Think about it this way. If you were to eat a plain piece of bread with no jam or peanut butter, it wouldn’t be much of a snack. However, when you toast it and add other ingredients, it is delicious. Panko is the same way. It is pretty much devoid of flavor but packs a powerful crunch when baked on top of a casserole. This means it can be used on top of almost any casserole and do its job perfectly well. For flavor versatility reasons, panko wins as my favorite topping.
Here’s how to best prep your panko for your casserole. Most casseroles don’t take more than ½ cup to cover the dish. However, it all depends on how thickly you want to spread your crunchy topping for how much you will actually use. Before spreading the panko you have to protect it with some butter. As a rule, I always melt 1 tbsp of butter per ½ cup of panko. Once the butter is melted, I stir it into the panko crumbs until they are all coated just a little bit. It’s going to look like they are barely covered, but that’s the key. You don’t want to drench them or they won’t stay crunchy, and that defeats the whole purpose of using them.
My second topping of choice is usually Corn Flakes. Like panko, this is an ingredient that adds crunch to the dish without adding a ton of flavor on its own. They do have a little of their own flavor though, so you have to take that into consideration before dumping them on. Personally, I love to use Corn Flakes as a topping on cheesy potatoes. The little flavor that does come from the cereal pairs very well with the cheddar cheese and sour cream.
Corn Flakes do have a little more prep work than panko. Before pouring them on, they need to be reduced in size. I like to accomplish this by pouring about 2.5 cups of them into a gallon Ziploc bag, deflating the air out, and then running a rolling pin over them until they are thoroughly crushed. Corn Flakes are also slightly more susceptible to becoming soggy, so I take a different approach with the butter than I do with the panko topping. You will still want to make sure they are getting some butter coverage to prevent burning, but instead of melting the butter and mixing it directly with the Corn Flakes, you are going to spread the flakes out over your dish first. Then, once the flakes are properly distributed, you are going to take cold butter and drop tiny (and I mean tiny, like pea-sized) dollops 2 inches apart from each other throughout the dish. These will melt down as the casserole is cooking in the oven and allow for the Corn Flakes to stay at their crispiest version of themselves without getting burned.
My third choice of casserole toppings is potato chips, more specifically Ruffles. Ruffles are crispier than regular potato chips, and a lot thicker, so they hold up better to the baking process. Something to be noted about potato chips though – even though this will seem obvious to some – is that they are SALTY. For this reason, you need to really think hard about the other ingredients that are in your casserole before covering the dish in even more salt. Personally, I like to reserve potato chips for the tops of casseroles that are heavy in healthy veggies. For example, I make a Creamy Broccoli Casserole that doesn’t call for any salt. With this absence of salt, I feel like the crushed Ruffles do an excellent job of bringing flavor to the dish that might have been lacking otherwise.
I prep the potato chip topping the same way that I prep the Corn Flakes. I pour about two cups of chips into a Ziploc bag, squeeze the air out, and then crush the chips by running a rolling pin over the bag. I also apply the same butter process to the chips that I use with the Corn Flakes. I spread out the chips on top of the casserole first and then add pea-sized butter dollops two inches apart throughout the dish.
My fourth and final choice of topping is crackers. Just because it’s option number four, does not mean it is not a good option, it just brings something different to the table. Just like potato chips have that salty taste that needs to be considered, crackers have this subtle sweet flavor that can sometimes mix oddly with certain dishes. However, with other dishes it works super well. I have found that crushed crackers pair perfectly with baked Mac and Cheeses. My cracker of choice is Townhouse crackers because they are already very buttery; however, other companies would definitely work too.
Cracker topping is prepped in a combined method of the two techniques already mentioned. They have to be crushed down in a Ziploc bag with a rolling pin, just like the Corn Flakes and the Ruffles. Crackers also spread out fairly far when crushed down, so you will most likely only need to crush about half a package to ¾ of a package. Even though you are crushing the crackers the same way you did for Corn Flakes and Ruffles, you are going to use the panko method of butter melting instead of putting dollops on top of it. Just like the panko, you will most likely only need to melt down a tbsp of butter to mix with the crushed crackers. Because they are already so buttery they only need a light coating before being spread across the top of the dish.
While all four of these options make delicious casserole toppings, panko bread crumbs will always remain my favorite. It is the crunchiest and it has the least amount of extra flavor making it work with almost everything it is added to. The greatest thing about cooking casserole is that there are already so many flavors combining together. This means toppings can often be more about the texture than the taste. People underestimate the power that texture can bring to a dish, but it is definitely important when considering all the elements of a great recipe.
Usually I have all four of these ingredients stocked up in my pantry, but there have been times where I have reached for one and realized I am either out or short on the amount required. If you ever find yourself in a similar circumstance, you can consider the type of casserole you are making and reach a decision about whether any of the other four items would work as a substitute. I have found that in a pinch almost all of these options would work on a majority of different dishes, allowing easy substitutions to take place when necessary.