Trying to recreate Hamburger Helper is the best thing for my cooking in 2021

If you want, one of the best things I’ve done this year is embark on a journey to create the perfect homemade version of Hamburger Helper. As I was typing it out, I realized how ridiculous it sounded, but when I borrowed and misspelled a line from “Royal Tenenbaums, shortly after making this statement, I realized that it was true.

It took a few months, and a few dirtier pots, but the process was totally worth it. Like many others, the last two years have brought a lot of cooking from home. There are times when I actively rely on that new normal, perfecting challah braids and plant a green onion on my windowsill along with the rest of the country. Then there are times when I just can’t shake the feeling of being tired from previously simple tasks, such as buying groceries or Cook dinner.

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It was on one of those times that I found myself in the aisle of my local Kroger, staring at a boxed wall. pasta. All my standards for “simple” – spaghetti carbonara, cacio e pepe, aglio e olio – feeling uninterested or trying too hard and I don’t have the mental energy to look for an immediate replacement.

Almost without thinking, I took a few steps to the left and grabbed a Hamburger Helper from the shelf. I stopped at the meat counter to buy a pound of ground beef and suddenly I had a complete dinner in my basket. I probably haven’t made a Hamburger Helper since college, but that night it seemed especially good. I mean, it hits all the “comfort food” notes right, without any particular nuance. It’s cheese and rich with just a hint of pep from dehydrated vegetables and spices.

Is it good to eat? No, but amid the barrage of promises from recipe and food TikTokers — sauté dinners, five-ingredient fix, mess-free food prep — this is the platonic ideal of a one-pot meal and me I want to make it my own. I took the box out of the top of the trash and went through the ingredients list:

Rich Macaroni, Corn Starch, Salt, Modified Yogurt, Sugar. Contains 2% or less of: Tomato*, Cheddar Cheese*, Onion*, Garlic*, Citric Acid, Vegetable Oi, Buttermilk*, Whey*, Yeast Extract, Annatto Extract, Spices, Monoglycerides, Sodium Phosphate, Gum Arabic, Natural Flavors, Silicon Dioxide.

I note that anything with an asterisk next to it is dried and the process is like the beginnings of a pastry chef Video “Gourmet Makes” by Claire Saffitz, which she previously produced through Bon Appetit. In each episode, Saffitz will be tasked with recreating a popular snack or comfort food, from Ruffles to French fries. Girl Scout Cookies.

When I first came across the series in early 2020, I initially wondered why someone would spend time in the kitchen trying to recreate something so weird, but I was quickly hooked. suck. I watched Saffitz strategize and tense up on technicals. She often goes back to the experimental kitchen drawing board over and over to translate post-package lists filled with obscure ingredients into recognizable food lists.

While doing some research on the series, I came across an interview with Into the Gloss which Saffitz did. She told the publication that she remembers in a video making a delicious Oreo cake.

“I remember tasting homemade Oreos and thinking, ‘Wow, that really tastes like Oreos,’ then trying the original Oreos and thinking, ‘Oh, that tastes a bit bad,'” she said. says. “The best results can be when the homemade version tastes like you thought the original version tasted when you were a kid. That’s like peak nostalgia.”

I feel it’s a solid goal to aspire to: Make a homemade Helper Hamburger that tastes as good as the canned version did the night I became enamored with it. With this, some loose guidance:

  • Use only items available at your local supermarket
  • Keep prices affordable; I kept a (generous) $20 limit
  • Keep the dish one meal one pot

The ingredient list on the back of the box is my original guide. Canned pasta, grated cheddar cheese, white onions, minced garlic, tomato sauce, whole milk and ground beef. I follow the basic steps – make the pasta, brown and drain the beef, saute the minced onion and garlic in the same pot. I started making the sauce by whisking the ketchup, milk, and cheese over medium heat until it started to foam and thicken. The pasta is back in the pot, then the meat and a little salt and pepper.

It’s a pretty good first attempt, but it’s not quite right. Despite thickening, the sauce is still too liquid and not “lactic” enough; it’s very tomato heavy. It also needed some sort of breakthrough (probably “spices” and “natural flavors” in the original ingredients list).

Thanks to being a bit heavy-handed with Italian seasoning, the second round went too far into exotic spaghetti sauce territory, while chipotle chili powder led – perhaps unsurprisingly – with a pot of chili mac. However, smoked paprika when combined with some dried thyme and oregano leaves all the right notes.

I know that cheddar is the right cheese to use, but it alone doesn’t have the slightly tart, tangy flavor the Hamburger Helper from the box has. It’s not yogurt, it’s not a last-minute line of sour cream and, despite the clues on the box, it’s not skim milk. In the end, the right combination would end up being fresh butter, some cream, and dry buttermilk powder, which you can often find in the baking aisle by a mixture of pancakes and waffles.

The ingredient list grows, shrinks, and changes over time. I ended up skipping the elbow pasta and experimenting with the wheelie pasta. At first I just liked thinly chopped white onions, but it turns out a little red onion or even a small bit of red onion will do.

I also experimented with the process, from testing whether you really need to drain the beef (you do!) to whether the final product benefits from a bit of time in the oven ( exactly!). I finally stumbled across the right version, the one that actually tasted better than the stuff in the box, with a slightly oven-baked cheese crust and sprinkled with sliced ​​fresh scallions.

It’s not necessarily the most honest adaptation, but looking at that final iteration, I realize I’ve learned a lot. For example, ketchup, when mixed with some good beef, will have the best umami flavor. Or making a roux to thicken a sauce is almost always worth the effort. Or buttermilk powder which is my new favorite ingredient for achieving that creamy texture. But perhaps most importantly, the process reminded me that culinary inspiration can come from unexpected places. Find helpers – especially those with hamburgers. Trying to recreate Hamburger Helper is the best thing for my cooking in 2021

Bobby Allyn

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