Thanksgiving turkey is not the same without green bean casserole on the side. But it doesn’t have to be the Campbell’s classic. There are lots of different ways to make this favourite side dish, from super quick & easy, to completely made from scratch.
What is green bean casserole?
While the very need for the question will shock some, there are lots of people who haven’t come across this dish before, even in its homeland of the US. And in case you aren’t familiar with it, green bean casserole is a side dish of green beans in a creamy mushroom sauce, with a layer of crispy onions on top. It’s baked in the oven, and is a traditional Thanksgiving side dish in many homes, but also makes an appearance at other festive meals, like Christmas dinner.
Where did it come from? Who invented it?
Campbell’s (yep, the soup company) created the original green bean casserole in the 1950’s, looking to inspire more use of their cream of mushroom soup. And wow, it sure worked! For many families the Campbell’s recipe has become synonymous with holiday feasts. But in spite of it’s simplicity, there are many different ways to make it, and many different recipes to choose from.
To help you choose the best approach, or recipe, for your green bean casserole, I’ve gone through the first twenty recipes I found on Pinterest. I’ve found out what’s consistent and popular, and what’s not, and how it varies from the Campbell’s original.
There’s a real spread of approaches across these recipes, from quick & easy, to 100% made-from-scratch, and everything in between. But regardless of which approach you take, at it’s heart green bean casserole is fundamentally the same.
Choosing your green beans
There are quick & easy and scratch-made options for every component of this dish, and the humble green bean is no exception. Your choice of bean will impact the taste, but more importantly, the texture of your casserole.
You have three choices when it comes to your beans:
- Canned green beans. These have a soft texture because they are essentially cooked during the canning process, and they rest in water in the can. And this rings true with the comments of several of the authors and their readers. In fact some authors choose canned beans because they prefer the softer texture.
- Frozen green beans are much firmer than canned, but are unlikely to be truly crunchy because they soften a little in the freezing process.
- Fresh green beans are the firmest, crunchiest bean choice, although this will obviously depend on the freshness of the beans available at your green grocer on the day. More than one reader commented they’d ended up using frozen or canned beans because the fresh beans weren’t great when they went to buy them.
Preference for a particular texture becomes apparent even amongst the authors that use fresh green beans. Some boil their beans for as long as eight minutes to ensure they’re soft enough, and others only blanch their beans for a couple of minutes, leaving them really crunchy.
Several authors offer directions for two or even all three types of beans in their recipes, but all twenty either directly nominate their preference, or it becomes clear from their commentary. Based on this, the most popular choice is fresh beans, used in eleven recipes. The only other common choice is canned beans, used by seven authors.
Preparing your green beans
Canned green beans are the simplest of the three. Open the can, drain the liquid, and mix them into your casserole. Voila! Another potential advantage of canned beans, as Jessica from Together as Family points out, is that they’re usually the cheapest option.
If you use frozen beans, all of the authors who reference them recommend defrosting them, typically in the microwave. Some, presumably those who prefer softer textured beans, go on to boil them before adding them to their casserole mix.
Unless you’re growing your own green beans, none of these choices can be regarded as made-from-scratch. But fresh beans do require the most preparation. They need to be washed, trimmed, and depending on your preference, may need to be cut into shorter lengths or lengthwise down the middle. They also need to be at least blanched in boiling water, and if you prefer softer beans, boiled for up to eight minutes.
After blanching, most authors emphasise the importance of stopping your green beans from cooking when they come out of the boiling water. This is known as shocking, and is best done with an ice water bath. Cooling your green beans quickly prevents them from over-cooking in the oven. It also preserves their colour.
And this is the other point that several authors make about using fresh green beans. Properly prepared, they maintain a vibrant green, even after baking in the oven. This is visible in many of the photos accompanying these recipes too. They really do brighten up the finished dish, especially in comparison to the recipes that use canned beans.
Don’t get me wrong though, this is in no way a judgement or a criticism. Like almost everything in cooking, personal preference is enormously important. And this is especially true with classic dishes like green bean casserole, which some people have probably eaten on one, two or more special occasions every year for most of their life. With these dishes in particular, eating is as much an emotional experience as a sensory one. So make it exactly how you like it.
Soup from scratch, or from a can?
We know that an authentic green bean casserole uses canned cream of mushroom soup, given that it was created by Campbell’s. In spite of that, these twenty recipes are split perfectly down the middle with regards to their choice of scratch-made, or canned soup.
There are a couple of reasons that some authors advocate for canned soup. One is that it’s simply more convenient, and it’s hard to argue with this. If you’re short on time, or are trying to juggle a turkey, several other side dishes and your Aunt Helen, using canned soup greatly simplifies the preparation of your green bean casserole.
There is another reason that a couple of authors and several of their readers highlight. Green bean casserole made with canned cream of mushroom soup is the flavour they grew up on. It’s a time-honoured tradition, or it’s linked to many wonderful memories, or both. As a result, for some people it would be almost sacrilegious to change.
Advocates of scratch-made soup bases also present several reasons for their choice. Some don’t like the taste of the canned soup. Some prefer the ability to tinker with the recipe to suit their family’s tastes. And some are just opposed to canned foods. One thing for certain is that making the soup base from scratch takes more time.
It may well be worth it though. The scratch-made recipes tended to have a lot more comments, with many of them glowingly positive. Quite a few readers commented they’d always had the traditional quick & easy casserole, and after making one of the scratch-made versions they got rave reviews and would never go back! Strong words, and something to consider as you plan your holiday meal.
Green Bean Casserole with canned cream of mushroom soup
The original creation by Campbell’s is a remarkably simple recipe, including only:
- Green beans
- Cream of Mushroom soup
- Half a cup of milk
- A teaspoon of soy sauce
- Fried onions on top
And of the ten authors here who use canned soup, nine use cream of mushroom. The one exception is Kristyn at Lil’ Luna, who uses cream of chicken and mushroom.
Variations on the classic
The fact that they use canned soup doesn’t mean these recipes are all the same though. There are a few interesting variations from the Campbell’s recipe:
- Six authors add cheese to their recipe, either mixed through, on top, or both. This is actually a suggested variation on the Campbell’s site as well. A cup of sharp cheddar is the most popular choice here.
- Six authors omit the soy sauce, although one replaces its umami punch with Worcestershire sauce. If you’re not familiar with it, you can find a description of Worcestershire sauce in my glossary.
- Three authors omit the milk, although all three include cheese, which will certainly help compensate.
- Two authors, Alyssa from The Recipe Critic and Tammi from My Organized Chaos, sauté some onions, garlic and mushrooms to give the canned soup an additional depth of flavour. Tammi even goes a step further with the inclusion of bacon. It’s not hard to imagine these would be great additions.
The other common variations are in the amount of milk and the amount of soy sauce (when it’s included). And as a result, none of these ten recipes are the same as the Campbell’s recipe. Some are close, but there are ten unique variations here for you to try if you’re looking to tweak the original.
Making your mushroom soup from scratch
Even though (or maybe because) canned soup inspires the dish itself, some of the ten authors of scratch-made recipes use it as a reference point for how much better theirs are. Fighting words indeed! But if we put tradition to one side for a moment, it’s not hard to imagine that a scratch-made soup could be just as good, if not better, than canned.
All ten scratch-made recipes are built on a typical white sauce/béchamel base – a roux of fat and flour, to which cream, milk or both are added. There are slightly different approaches from different authors, but the foundations are the same. Beyond that, several consistent themes appear:
- Garlic is the most commonly included aromatic ingredient, appearing in eight of the recipes. Onion is the only other aromatic, used in six of the recipes.
- Interestingly, mushrooms are only used in eight of the recipes. Jessica from Together as Family and Rachel from The Stay at Home Chef both exclude mushrooms in their casseroles.
- Six authors extend their soup with up to a cup of stock/broth, almost all using chicken.
- Four authors add some cheese, mostly on top.
- A couple of authors include a small amount of nutmeg in their sauce. This is not as surprising as it may seem, because nutmeg is a common inclusion in a béchamel sauce.
As for how these casseroles come together, eight of the authors favour fresh green beans, although many offer guidance on using frozen or canned beans if you prefer. And all ten authors include crispy onions on top of their casserole. Half of these however are homemade, which we’ll come to shortly.
What if you don’t like mushrooms?
The traditional flavour of a green bean casserole is mushroom, but if you’re not a fan of mushrooms, or have an allergy, several authors offer up alternatives or substitutions:
- Two of the scratch-made recipes, from Rachel at The Stay at Home Chef and Jessica at Together as Family, don’t use any mushrooms. Rachel’s recipe gets a flavour hit from bacon, and Jessica’s from sour cream.
- Several readers use alternative canned soups, like cream of chicken or cream of celery. There are several other varieties available too. One reader swears by cream of asparagus soup, saying it really enhances the taste of the beans. Could be something worth trying!
- Jessica from The Novice Chef suggests omitting the mushrooms from her scratch-made soup and doubling the onion, resulting in a cream of onion soup base for your casserole.
It’s not green bean casserole without fried onions!
At least, that’s the sentiment of a number of authors and many of their readers!
Overwhelmingly, whether you’re scratch-making your soup or not, the preference is for store-bought fried onions to top your casserole. And if you’re using store-bought, then almost every author agrees that French’s are the brand to reach for. In fact, Campbells agree on this point as well, and some authors even refer to this dish as French’s Green Bean Casserole.
Homemade crispy onions
In spite of this, six of the authors make their own crispy onions. If you’re keen on trying this, you have a few choices amongst these recipes, with some fried and some baked. There are different coatings too, ranging from simple flour, to breadcrumbs to a more substantial batter. It’s not hard to imagine that these could add an amazing edge to your green bean casserole. Most of these authors have included directions for their homemade crispy onions in their casserole recipe, and they sound fantastic.
But fresher isn’t always better. Jessica at The Novice Chef scratch-makes her entire casserole apart from the fried onions. She notes that she’s tried oven-baking them but finds that they are never as crispy or as flavoursome as the French’s ones. And for many people, there’s no doubt tradition and fond memory at play here again too. Sometimes you just want exactly what you grew up on!
Don’t want onions?
One last note on the fried onions. If you (or maybe more likely your kids) aren’t huge fans of the onions on top, Jill from Kitchen Fun With My 3 Sons offers some alternatives, like breadcrumbs or crushed Ritz crackers.
Baking your green bean casserole
Once you’ve got your mix of green beans and creamy sauce together, it’s baked in the oven. There are two common approaches here, and they’re very similar to what I found with my review of traditional stuffing.
The most popular approach is to bake your green bean casserole in two stages:
- The first bake is done without the fried onions (and any other toppings). This stage is longer in most cases, and is intended to heat the casserole thoroughly. A few authors cover their casserole with foil during this stage, but most don’t.
- The second stage is typically much shorter. The fried onions are added to the top of the casserole, and then it is popped back in the oven. None are covered at this stage because the goal is hot, crispy onions on top.
There’s quite a bit of variation in the times used by different authors, but the most common is twenty to twenty-five minutes for the first bake, and five minutes for the second. Unsurprisingly, these are the same times recommended by Campbell’s in their recipe. Several authors do cook their casseroles for more time, which will soften your beans more, especially if they’re fresh or frozen. So if you prefer softer beans, it may pay to lean more towards thirty or even thirty-five minutes for your first bake.
Baking it all at once
The other approach is to put the entire casserole together, toppings and all, and cook it all at once. Baking times again vary, from as little as fifteen minutes to as much as forty. Some of this is explained by differences in oven temperatures, with the shorter times for hotter ovens. As mentioned above, some is also about preference for how well cooked the green beans are when the casserole comes out of the oven. These recipes don’t cover their casserole to ensure the onions stay nice and crispy.
What temperature should your oven be?
Campbell’s recommend 350°F/175°C, and this is by far the most popular temperature amongst these recipes, being used by thirteen of the twenty authors. Four more bake their green bean casserole at 375°F/190°C. The other three choose higher temperatures again.
Making your casserole ahead of time
A number of authors note that their recipe can be made a day or two in advance, usually up to the point before the toppings go on and the dish goes in the oven. This will obviously vary a bit from recipe to recipe, but the good news is it can be done, taking off some pressure on the day. Just make sure you either allow it to warm up for half-an-hour or so after removing it from the fridge, or add a little bit of cooking time to compensate.
The essence of Green Bean Casserole
If you’re looking for the most popular approach to a green bean casserole, it’s not that simple. Based on these twenty recipes, there is no single most popular approach, but green bean casserole has essentially the same components no matter which way you choose to go:
- Cut green beans, either canned, frozen or fresh
- A creamy mushroom soup/sauce base
- And a golden, crunchy topping of crispy onions.
You have a few different approaches to choose from, depending on how much of your casserole you want to (or have time to) make from scratch:
- The ultimate quick & easy approach. Like the Campbell’s recipe, you can pull your casserole together in mere minutes with a short list of pre-prepared ingredients.
- Quick & easy with a twist. By adding or substituting a few ingredients, you can tweak the base recipe a bit to suit your tastes.
- Scratch-made soup/sauce base. Thinking of moving away from canned soup? Scratch-making your sauce is easier than you think, and opens up much more room for tinkering with your casserole.
- The ultimate scratch-made green bean casserole. If you’re really looking to go all out, you can scratch-make every element of your casserole, including the crunchy onion topping.
So there you have it – the essence of green bean casserole. From these recipes you should easily find the approach that suits you best, whether it’s super quick & easy, fully scratch-made or something in between. I’d love to hear what you choose and why in the comments below, so please feel free to jump in and leave one.