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Tuna casserole is a casserole in which tuna is the star ingredient. A casserole, of course, is a dish which consists of baked starch, vegetables, and/or meat in a typically creamy sauce. Some people think of casserole and tuna casserole in particular as a quintessential 1950s American dish, but in fact casserole has a long and illustrious history, and there are lots of ways to make tuna casserole.
One reason casserole became so popular in the 1950s is that it was easy to make from packaged foods. Many casserole recipes called for noodles, a can of tuna, a can of vegetables, and a can of creamed soup, such as cream of mushroom or cream of broccoli. These ingredients were cheap, easy to handle, and easy to get at the store, and the resulting casserole was often popular with the family, including picky eaters.
Casserole continues to be popular with cooks because it can be made in large batches and frozen for future use or refrigerated and cooked later, making it convenient for people who want something easy to cook during the week. Casseroles are also commonly on offer at potlucks, and in small communities, people may bring casseroles to the homes of people who are sick, recovering from childbirth, or mourning a family member as a friendly gesture. Tuna casserole remains a perennial favorite.
A basic tuna casserole is made with noodles or rice, tuna, vegetables, and a creamy sauce. Rotelle or fusilli pasta is a common choice of pasta shape, although one could certainly use ribbon egg noodles, penne, and a wide variety of other shapes. The tuna is classically canned, and vegetables like broccoli, carrots, peas or onions are common. Cooks may use fresh, frozen, or canned vegetables, depending on personal taste. The creamy sauce may be a simple white sauce made with roux, milk, and cheese, although one could also use red sauces or, for that matter, canned soups. Traditionally, tuna casserole is topped with a crunchy topping made by toasting bread crumbs in butter.
As a general rule of thumb, for every four cups (500 milliliters) of pasta, two cups (250 milliliters) of tuna, two cups (250 milliliters) of sauce, and two cups (250 milliliters) of vegetables are used. A heavy casserole dish should be used, allowing the casserole to heat slowly and evenly in the oven, and it should be left uncovered during the cooking process so that the topping will become crisp and crunchy. Cooking temperatures for tuna casserole vary, depending on the size of the casserole and the weight of the pan, but generally around 400 degrees Fahrenheit (204 degrees Celsius) for 20 minutes is a good place to start.
Cooks who want to freeze a tuna casserole for future consumption can mix all of the ingredients in a heavy buttered casserole dish, add the topping, and tightly cover the dish. The tuna casserole will require a longer cooking time to thaw it out as well as cooking it, and generally it will last around six months in the freezer.