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Before we get too far into our hotdish series, I think we need to sit down and have a talk about what a hotdish is. Maybe you have never heard of it? That, however, would be shocking if you lived in the upper midwest. Perhaps you think it is the same thing as a casserole? Or maybe we just need to write it out so we are all on the same page. In our deep dive of the hotdish, I feel it is important to make sure that we know what we are talking about when it comes to hotdish. Today, we are going to define hotdish and distinguish it from casseroles.

Is Hotdish The Same Thing As a Casserole?

No. You will find, however, that this is not the view held by all. If you look up the word ‘hotdish’ in Webster’s Dictionary, it will point you to the word ‘casserole’.I know this Webster guy is really smart, but he has lots of words to watch over and I think he just has this one wrong. I watched a documentary on the subject of Minnesota Hotdish and they seem to indicate that it is just the name we call a casserole, as though they are synonyms to each other. I think they are wrong, as well.

All hotdishes are casseroles, but not all casseroles are hotdishes

Well, What Is A Casserole, Then?

Webster’s Dictionary defines casserole is defined as:

“a food cooked and served in a casserole”

So, according to the dictionary, a casserole is defined by the dish it is cooked in.. a casserole dish. I will go a bit further to say it is a one-pot meal that is cooked in the oven and can serve as any portion of service and can be made for any meal. It could be the main course, a side dish, or even as a dessert.

I can find several sources that point to macaroni & cheese, lasagna, shepherd’s pie, and cassoulet (A fancy French Dish)  as a casserole. The typical Minnesotan or North Dakotan might be libel to call you crazy if you called any one of these items a hotdish. They are NOT hotdishes, but they are casseroles. While a hotdish falls into the casserole family, it is definitely a different beast, but what is that difference?

Ingredients and purpose.

What Is Hotdish?

A hotdish is a kind of casserole with a specific set of ingredients and meant to be served as a main dish for either lunch or supper.

Hotdish Ingredients

I think it can be fairly easy to recognize a hotdish when you see one. It has a set of ingredients that limit it and separates it from other casseroles. The ingredients of a hotdish:

  • Cream of something soup OR, less commonly, you may see a tomato base
  • Some kind of protein, with hamburger being the most common.
  • Vegetables, but they should be sized to fit into a single bite
  • A starch, generally pasta or potato. Also, sized to fit into a single bite
  • A crispy topping. Tots, chips, or even chow mein noodles.
  • Optionally, cheese

I debated whether, or not, to include tomato-based hotdishes into my definition, as I feel that the creamed soup is more recognizable as a hotdish. When speaking to my friends (mostly professional Midwesterners), some would identify a tomato recipe as being their favorite hotdish from growing up. Additionally, my second best lady, Betty Crocker has a basic hotdish recipe that calls for a tomato base. A tomato base just has to be part of the definition.

So, when I got to thinking about a tomato base and what would separate our hotdish from say, a lasagna? I mean, a lasagna would not be recognized as a hotdish, but is generally accepted as a casserole. I would say the size of the ingredients. All ingredients should be able to fit in a single spoonful without breaking the ingredient. If it had tater tots, that could be fit on a spoon. The noodles must be able to fit in a single spoon and the carrots would be cut to all fit into a single spoonful.

I think my definition covers what most of us would define a hotdish and separate it from other casserole dishes like Maksalaatikko that are clearly not hotdishes.


Hotdish Purpose

Another way that hotdish is separated from the casserole is the purpose. While a casserole can serve any function, the hotdish is meant to be a main course at a meal. It really is meant to contain all of the needed nutrients for a meal. As we will find out in our upcoming history post, this dish really has a history that is founded in stretching ingredients to feed a large group in an economical way. It was an easier, everyday meal that filled the bellies of growing girls and boys. While a casserole purpose could really fall into many categories (main dish, side dish, breakfast, dinner, dessert), the purpose of a hotdish is clear… to fill bellies.

Dilemma of Canned and Frozen Food

Many seem to think that the soup and vegetables need to be canned or frozen, but I don’t prescribe to that. To me, the ONLY difference between green canned beans from the store and canned green beans I make as home is the quality of ingredients and process. If I am canning my own green beans, that would still qualify them as canned, right? Since I know exactly how the canned beans are made, can’t I just do that without actually canning them? Is it a necessity to relegate this dish to less than par ingredients? Do I need to have BPA added to the veggies to make them legitimate hotdish ingredients? I don’t believe so.

I do think the history and heritage of this dish lends itself to canned goods. We are going to dive deeper into the history of the hotdish in a future post, but the origins and spirit of this dish lie in ease and necessity from some difficult times in America’s past that also happened around the time of food industrialization. We, however, are going to try and use fresh ingredients. Also, we are going to work on making the elements ourselves.

Who knew that a guy could write so much about defining a hotdish? In an effort to capture the spirit of this dish, I think it necessary to write down exactly what we are talking about. Specifically, in this case, to both define a hotdish, but also to separate it from a casserole. If you don’t like my definition or don’t agree with me, let me know. I am interested in what you have to say. Also, follow my Pinterest pages and sign up to get updates straight to your mailbox!

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  1. I will go with your definition of a hotdish! 🙂 Webster can’t get it right all the time, right? Regardless of what people call it, this is one savory, satisfyingly delicious meal that my family loves!

  2. I find all of this very interesting. I’m a native-born Midwesterner, but I didn’t grow up with a hotdish tradition. Now that you’ve defined what one is, I realize that I did grow up in proximity to them, though I never heard them described by the word “hotdish”. I grew up in an ethnically Eastern European family, so I maybe didn’t grow up eating “American” food. That’s something of an exaggeration, but also true. Anyone who grew up knowing what “duck’s blood soup” is a bit off the beaten path. Anyway, hotdishes sound super-intriguing to me. I’m on the same page as you when it comes to fresh vs. canned ingredients. When I began to cook, I would often recreate the ethnic dishes that my grandmother would make, but using fresher ingredients. She never objected to it as though I were straying from the recipe. To her, what I was doing was more of an extravagance. Canned stuff was simply what she could afford, and/or what was available to her, and was less work (which was important, because she worked her butt off 24/7 for decades and decades) than prepping it from scratch.

  3. Well, I learned something new today! I had never heard the term “hotdish” before. And it’s the first time I had reflected on whether a lasagna could be considered a casserole. The thought had never crossed my mind.

    1. Yeah. It really is interesting and makes me wonder what kind of regional fare I am missing out on from all over the country just because I have no clue. Reminds me about the time I was in rural Mississippi for work and squirrel was the lunch special at the local cafe.

      ‘Hotdish’ is really something every MN and ND native has some kind of relationship with. I do think the definition of casserole, as well as hotdish, has some blurred lines. Such a little thing, Frank, but interesting to think about, IMO.

    1. A horfish might be cooked on the stove. A hotdish, however, is baked in an oven. A skillet dish would more often be cooked on the stovetop. 🙂

    2. My favorite hotdish is Ketchup Hotdish. I am from Minnesota and do call all casseroles hotdishes. Because of local hotdish pot lucks at churches and stuff. I was raised to call all casseroles hotdishes. It must depend on the region of Minnesota/Mid West a person is from.