It’s what on top that counts.

By Stacey Ballis
February 24, 2021

Winter is casserole season during the best of times, but never have comforting casseroles been more needed than right now! But let's be honest, the same thing that can make casseroles comforting can also sometimes make them a bit boring. And while you can play and adjust the contents of your favorite casseroles a little bit, you have to be careful with that experimentation lest you stray so far from the original that you lose the inherent nostalgic pleasures of the dish!

So, how can you easily reinvigorate your casserole game without abandoning your classic family recipes altogether? The secret lies in the toppings.

Why toppings are crucial to casseroles

Toppings are as integral to casseroles as what goes in the main mix of the dish. Think of the blanket of gooey browned melted mozzarella on your lasagna, or something crispy and crunchy providing textural contrast like those fried onions on the green bean casserole, or a heavier essential layer that is the essence of the dish, like the mashed potatoes on a shepherd's pie. The toppings are the things that make a casserole a casserole! A different topping on a casserole is like putting on a different scarf with your favorite sweater. You still get all the key coziness, but with a sassy new look!

So, by broadening your topping horizons, you can easily amp up your casseroles just by giving them a little bit of that extra something special! Here are 4 types of ways to update your casserole toppings with some unexpected new flavors:

Casserole Dish
Credit: Getty / Mariha-kitchen

Casserole toppings for cheese lovers

Cheesy toppings are great on casseroles, especially if the casserole itself has cheese as an ingredient like mac and cheese or lasagna. If you like a thick layer of melted cheese on top, think about adding a blend of cheeses instead of just one or using a flavored cheese like a pepper Jack or smoked cheese to bring in a bit of oomph. And if you want a great cheese crunch layer, try crumbled cheese crackers like Cheez-Its or Cheese Nips.

Casserole toppings for crunch fans

I like crumbled potato chips or French's Crispy Fried Onions on a casserole as much as the next girl, but I also like to think a little outside the box. Crumbled crackers of all styles, pretzel crumbs, unsweetened cereals like Corn Flakes or Grape Nuts, and toasted nuts are all fun ways to add some crispy and some flavor. Want serious extra flavor? Your local Asian market will have crispy fried shallots and fried garlic slices just waiting to be sprinkled on everything, casseroles included. You can also think about a savory granola-style topping, with toasted oats and nuts bringing some bonus flavor and texture. Crispy bacon bits, little crunchy cubes of pancetta, and crumbled sausage meat are great toppers too, especially for bean-based casseroles.

Casserole toppings for potato fanatics

Almost any hearty stew can become a shepherd's pie or cottage pie if you cover it with a blanket of mashed potatoes. But you can still expand your horizons. Try a mashed sweet potato topping on leftover masala curry, or a layer of Tater Tots on top of chili. Thinly sliced potatoes can crisp in the cooking to an elegant layer on top of your dishes, where cubed home fries style potatoes are great for a more rustic version. Swap out other root vegetables in your mash for extra flavor: Celery root, carrot, and parsnip all make great purees with or without potato to boost them.

Casserole toppings for toasty bread crumb fiends

Buttered breadcrumbs may be my personal favorite topping on my casseroles. That little bit of crunch, the gentle flavor, the way they enhance but don't overwhelm the dish, just perfection. But even here there is some room to experiment a little bit. Adding grated hard cheeses like Parmesan or Pecorino to bread crumb toppings can also be a great flavor addition that still keeps that crispy topping. Seasonings or seasoning blends can also add some terrific flavor to bread crumbs: Try BBQ rubs; spice blends like garam masala, ras el hanoot, vadouvan; herby additions like za'atar or herbes de Provence. Additions like almond or hazelnut meal can bring in nutty flavor without interfering with the crumb texture. Butter is great for making that crumb topping but think about bringing in other flavors like bacon fat, coconut oil, or flavored oils like garlic or lemon to add a hint of flavor that is an unexpected treat.