Casseroles have been the crown jewel of busy family weeknight dinners since the dawn of time (or at least for the past century). They are endlessly adaptable, usually easy to throw together, and the leftovers are normally aplenty. Who doesn’t love lasagna? Or classic tuna noodle? Or even a beef enchilada casserole? Give me a 9×13 and I’ll find a way to make a delicious dinner.
Even still, while casseroles are fairly intuitive, there are still some potential pitfalls. They can be dry, mushy, or soupy. The top of a casserole can burn before the rest of it even warms through. What a pain! If you’ve been there, you’re not alone. That’s why I put together this simple guide to help you figure out why your casserole isn’t working out, and how to avoid the issue in the future.
The mistake: Noodles or rice come out mushy
What goes wrong: While the noodles, rice, or other grain that you use as the base for your casserole should be par cooked, you want to keep them shy of fully cooked before you assemble your casserole. The long baking time, and sometimes second reheating, means that you can easily end up with a total lack of texture.
How to fix it: If your recipe calls for raw noodles or grains, then you know the liquid and timing should cook them properly. But if your recipe just calls for “cooked” or “leftover” noodles or rice? Be sure to have them very al dente before they go in. So, if your pasta says on the box to cook for 9 minutes? Boil for 7 then drain and use in your dish.
The mistake: The top burns before the dish is fully heated/cooked through
What goes wrong: If your casserole has a topping that is cheesy or has some sort of crispy buttered breadcrumb or chip situation? Those things have a tendency to burn before the dish is fully cooked.
How to fix it: Be sure the casserole is either in the center rack or one step down to keep the topping from being too close to the top heating element. If the dish has a long baking time, start it with a loose covering of foil for about half the cooking time, then remove so that the top can brown during the second half. If you notice a casserole you are cooking has started to get too dark on top during the cooking, just place a piece of foil on top as a barrier.
The mistake: It comes out soupy or watery
What goes wrong: If your casserole is full of raw vegetables, you can end up with a watery mess as they release their natural juices. Many vegetables like zucchini and squashes, mushrooms, eggplant, onion, and spinach all contain a high percentage of water, whereas things like beans, peas, corn, carrots, potatoes, and root vegetables do not. Another way to judge if you have a watery vegetable is this: If it shrinks in size by more than half when you cook it on the stovetop, consider it a watery vegetable.
How to fix it: If you are going to use a watery vegetable in a casserole, you want to drive off some of the moisture before cooking. You can either par-cook those items and then drain before adding; or salt them and let them sit in a colander for half an hour, then rinse and press dry before continuing with your recipe.
The mistake: It’s bland
What goes wrong: It is always hard to adjust seasoning on a casserole, because there is no “taste and adjust seasoning” in the cooking process.
How to fix it: Some other flavor boosters can help. Try a drizzle of good olive oil or an herb oil once it’s out of the oven. Fat carries flavor, which is why so many restaurant chefs finish dishes with a twirl of extra virgin or a sprinkle of chive oil. Fresh herbs or citrus zest can also punch up flavors with a bit of welcome brightness for a long-cooked dish, as can adding some heat in the form of a dash of hot sauce, a generous pinch of minced or sliced fresh chili pepper, or a shake of red pepper flakes.
The mistake: It’s dry
What goes wrong: Sometimes the starch that’s the basis of your casserole sucks up all of the moisture in your dish.
How to fix it: Sauce it up! If you have an Italian-style casserole, serve it on a pool of heated jarred marinara. If you want a quick DIY sauce, just do this: Open a can of peeled tomatoes, crush them into their juices, season with salt and pepper and a glug of olive oil, and warm up. Another fix: Melt some butter and drizzle over the top; or season and warm some cream and use that to baste your dish. Finally, serve with a wedge of lemon or lime for squeezing, which can add some acidity balance in addition to a bright hit of flavor.
A version of this article originally appeared on MyRecipes.com