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How to Make Homemade Hamburger Helper
Posted By Suzanne McMinn On January 3, 2010 @ 1:05 am In Homemade Mixes,Main Dishes,The Farmhouse Table | 195 Comments
As an avid cook, this is almost embarrassing, but my kids love Hamburger Helper. I don’t love Hamburger Helper. It tastes like cardboard and the ingredients list on the side of the box is enough to make you run away screaming. Who knows what that stuff is. A lot of preservatives, for one thing. There’s just nothing fresh about it. And it’s not as if you’re going through a drive-through window and picking up dinner. You still have to cook it. What makes Hamburger Helper so popular is how quick you can get it on the table and the standardization of the directions in every variety along with the cutting open of packets and throwing it in the pot. It requires little thinking, which is often what you need at the end of a long day when you’re tired and everyone is hungry.
But! I (and you) can still give the kids what they want and put a quick home-cooked meal on the table at the same time. Make your own helper! You can even make it in advance so it’s all pre-measured and ready to toss in the pot on busy nights. Just like store-bought helper, your homemade helper comes with standardized directions and “packets” to throw in the pot. Very little thinking required–but in this case, it’s much more fresh and you can feel a whole lot better about feeding it to your family.
Using actual packages of Hamburger Helper and cookbook comparisons for the types of varieties offered along with my own cooking common sense and experience, I’ve broken down some of the most popular Hamburger Helper varieties. I’m showcasing Chili Cheese here–see below for the demystification of a number of other popular flavors.
Hamburger Helper Basics: When creating your own helpers, keep in mind that most packages of Hamburger Helper include about 1 1/2 cups of pasta plus a packet of sauce seasonings, sometimes dried tomatoes, and sometimes a packet of dried cheese, depending on the variety. If there’s anything more disgusting than dried cheese, I don’t know what it is. Some varieties use rice or dried sliced potatoes instead of pasta. Whatever you’re using for the starch base in the dish–1 1/2 cups is a good rule of thumb when making homemade helpers (except for rice, which I think works better using only 1 cup). After browning and draining the ground beef (one pound), in the same skillet you add water and milk (usually about 3 cups total), seasonings, and simmer (usually about 12-20 minutes). Add cheese near the end for some varieties.
What you need to have onhand to create homemade helpers: Ground beef, various herbs and seasonings and other basic pantry items (such as sugar, salt, and corn starch), pasta, rice, potatoes, canned tomatoes, and cheese. (You can buy large bags of pre-shredded cheeses to shortcut this step, or buy blocks of cheese and pre-shred it yourself.) Some varieties also call for Fritos or nacho chips, and most call for milk because it makes a creamier sauce. (Out of fresh milk sometimes? Keep dry milk in your pantry.) I always keep a large box of dry milk in my pantry so that I’m never out of milk.
You can also freeze milk, but you can keep far more milk onhand if you make dry milk a basic pantry item. It works just fine for baking and cooking, and is even pretty good for drinking. (For drinking, dry milk tastes better if you reconstitute it then refrigerate it overnight before using. For baking and cooking, it doesn’t matter. Just reconstitute what you need and use immediately.)
The chili cheese variety (a “pasta and cheesy sauce mix”) includes elbow macaroni, chili powder, paprika, salt, garlic, corn starch, sugar, and dried cheese along with other fun stuff like preservatives and FOUR types of food colorings.
In homemade helper, you cut out the dried cheese, preservatives, and food colorings combined with the seasonings in the store-bought sauce packet. That’s the store-bought Chili Cheese Hamburger Helper packet dumped out in the white bowl in this picture:
To the store-bought helper, you add a pound of ground beef, water, and milk. It goes on the dinner table in 30 minutes.
Here’s your Homemade Chili Cheese Hamburger Helper–pre-measured pasta and your own sauce packet.
You add a pound of ground beef, water, milk, and (real!) cheese. It hits the dinner table in 30 minutes, just like the store-bought version, only better.
I’m replicating store-bought Hamburger Helper in homemade form so I’m including the sugar and salt here. (Why do you think kids like this stuff?!) You can use the sugar and salt as measured here (or in reduced measures) in your own helpers, or leave it out entirely, as per your own preferences.
How to make Homemade Chili Cheese Hamburger Helper:
1 pound ground beef
1 cup hot water
2 cups milk
1 1/2 cups elbow macaroni
1 tablespoon corn starch
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 cup cheddar cheese, shredded
Brown ground beef in a large skillet; drain.
Add hot water….
….and your homemade sauce packet (corn starch, chili powder, garlic powder, salt, sugar, and paprika).
Bring to a boil.
Cover and simmer on low about 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until pasta is tender.
In the last few minutes of cook time, stir in the cheese; cover the pot again for the final few minutes of cook time.
When the pasta is tender and the cheese is melted, turn off heat and uncover. Let mixture stand, uncovered, about five minutes. It will continue to thicken as it stands.
You can make your Homemade Hamburger Helper in advance by pre-measuring the pasta. Place in a sandwich-size baggie. Snack-size baggies are perfect for the sauce mix. The measured pasta can be used in a number of Hamburger Helper varieties. Just label the sauce mix so you’ll know what you’re picking up then grab whichever bag of pasta you need. For the cheese, you can pre-measure your shredded cheese, or just measure it as you need it.
Here’s how to put together several popular varieties and your standardized directions. Have a big family (or just big eaters)? Double or triple the recipe and use a big pot! Note: These are not amazingly inventive gourmet meals. But they are homemade lifesavers for busy days.
Step One: Brown and drain one pound of ground beef.
Step Two: Add 3 cups of liquid (water and/or milk) along with your 1 1/2 cups of pasta, sliced potatoes*, or rice (use only 1 cup of rice), the sauce packet, and sometimes tomatoes. Simmer covered. The simmer time will be approximately 12-20 minutes for most varieties. If cheese is used, stir it in during the last few minutes of cook time and put the cover back on the pot.
Step Three: Turn off heat and uncover. (Some varieties have cheese tossed on as a topping at the end instead of or in addition to being mixed in.) Let stand to thicken at least 5 minutes before serving.
*When using potatoes, slice the potatoes very thinly, like very thin potato chips. (If you find that difficult or annoying, you could finely dice the potatoes instead.) Add cook time if necessary, till the potatoes are tender. Some varieties use shredded potatoes. To save time on busy nights, you can slice, dice, or shred potatoes in advance in pre-measured quantities and freeze. Then all you have to do is take out your bag of potatoes and drop them in the skillet. (To freeze potatoes–slice, dice, or shred then blanch for about two minutes in boiling water. Drain and cool then freeze. You can also dehydrate sliced or shredded potatoes for homemade helpers.) Note: There’s a good suggestion in the comments about keeping store-bought frozen potatoes onhand as a shortcut for homemade helpers!
A number of varieties require tomatoes. (Store-bought Hamburger Helper uses dried tomatoes.) Use canned stewed or diced tomatoes for homemade helper, reducing the hot water by 1/4 cup because you’re also adding some liquid along with the tomatoes. (I use my own home-canned tomatoes.)
Feeling frisky? Use add-ins anytime you feel like taking an extra few seconds. A cup of pinto or red beans works great in chili mac, for example. Chopped peppers also work well in many varieties, as do all sorts of other vegetables. As a rule of thumb, use one cup for your add-in (if using multiple add-ins, combine them to add up to one cup). You can use more than a cup, of course, though keep in mind that you may overwhelm the dish if you use too much. When using add-ins like mushrooms, onions, peppers, etc, either saute them first separately or put them in as you brown the ground beef to saute them. Like heat? Add some ground cayenne pepper or crushed red pepper flakes to any variety for a spicier version.
In the case of stroganoff, an add-in of 1 cup of sliced fresh mushrooms is suggested. You can make stroganoff without mushrooms, but it’s just not the same. Store-bought Hamburger Helper uses dried mushrooms in their stroganoffs. If you can get your hands on some dried mushrooms, add a teaspoon (to the sauce packet) in place of the sliced, fresh mushrooms. But really. Use the fresh. It’ll only take a few minutes to prepare them, not adding much to your effort. You can even buy pre-sliced mushrooms if you prefer.
Once you get the hang of the basic principles, you can make any kind of helper you want! As you try any of these for the first time, choose an evening when you have time and add the sauce ingredients (except for the corn starch) sparingly. Taste test while you’re cooking to adjust the seasonings to your own preferences. These measurements are suggestions to get you started. Once you know how you like it, make up your own sauce packets for future use.
Chili Mac: Using 1 pound ground beef, 2 1/4 cups hot water and 1/2 cup milk, 1 1/2 cups elbow macaroni, and 1 cup stewed or diced canned tomatoes, prepare a sauce packet including 1 tablespoon corn starch, 1 tablespoon chili powder, 1 teaspoon onion powder, 1 teaspoon garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon sugar. Stir in 1/2 cup cheddar or jack cheese, shredded, near the end.
Lasagna: Using 1 pound ground beef, 2 1/4 cups hot water and 1/2 cup milk, 1 1/2 cups either lasagna broken into small pieces or small egg noodles, and 1 cup stewed or diced canned tomatoes, prepare a sauce packet including 1 tablespoon corn starch, 1 tablespoon mixed Italian herbs, 1 teaspoon onion powder, 1 teaspoon garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon sugar. Stir in 1/2 cup mozzarella, shredded, near the end, then sprinkle the top with parmesan cheese during the 5-minute standing period.
Cheesy Beef Taco: Using 1 pound ground beef, 2 1/4 cups hot water and 1/2 cup milk, 1 cup rice, and 1 cup stewed or diced canned tomatoes, prepare a sauce packet including 1 tablespoon corn starch, 1 tablespoon chili powder, 1 teaspoon onion powder, 1 teaspoon garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon sugar. Stir in 1 cup cheddar cheese, shredded, near the end, then top with another 1/2 cup cheddar plus 1 cup of Fritos during the 5-minute standing period.
Beef Stroganoff: Using 1 pound ground beef, 1 cup hot water and 2 cups milk (if you have sour cream, replace 1/2 cup of the milk with sour cream), and 1 1/2 cups small egg noodles, prepare a sauce packet including 1 tablespoon corn starch, 2 teaspoons garlic powder, 1 teaspoon onion powder, 1 teaspoon parsley, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper with an add-in of 1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms.
Potato Stroganoff: Using 1 pound ground beef, 1 cup hot water and 2 cups milk (if you have sour cream, replace 1/2 cup of the milk with sour cream), and 1 1/2 cups very thinly sliced or diced potatoes, prepare a sauce packet including 1 tablespoon corn starch, 2 teaspoons garlic powder, 1 teaspoon onion powder, 1 teaspoon parsley, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper with an add-in of 1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms.
Salisbury: Using 1 pound ground beef, 1 cup hot water and 2 cups milk, 1 1/2 cups small egg noodles, prepare a sauce packet including 1 tablespoon corn starch, 1 tablespoon onion powder, 1 teaspoon garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and a dash of Worcestershire sauce.
Cheesy Italian Shells: Using 1 pound ground beef, 3/4 cup hot water and 2 cups milk, 1 1/2 cups small pasta shells, and 1 cup stewed or diced canned tomatoes, prepare a sauce packet including 1 tablespoon corn starch, 1 tablespoon mixed Italian herbs, 1 teaspoon onion powder, 1 teaspoon garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon sugar. Stir in 1 cup cheddar, shredded, near the end.
Cheesy Jambalaya: Using 1 pound ground beef, 3/4 cup hot water and 2 cups milk, 1 cup rice, and 1 cup stewed or diced canned tomatoes, prepare a sauce packet including 1 tablespoon corn starch, 2 teaspoons chili powder, 1 teaspoon basil, 1 teaspoon onion powder, 1 teaspoon garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon sugar. Stir in 1 cup cheddar cheese, shredded, near the end.
(Added 01/15/10) I’ve had several requests for Cheeseburger Macaroni. The way I figure out how to do these is by studying the side of the box then experimenting on my own. Paprika is the “secret” ingredient to get the flavor right with this one, and heavier on the milk than water for a creamy texture.
Cheeseburger Macaroni: Using 1 pound ground beef, 1 cup hot water and 2 cups milk, 1 1/2 cups elbow macaroni, prepare a sauce packet including 1 tablespoon corn starch, 2 teaspoons paprika, 1 teaspoon onion powder, 1 teaspoon garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon sugar. Stir in 1 cup cheddar cheese, shredded, near the end. (You can toss a 1/2 cup cheddar on top at the end, too, if you want. We’re going for cheesy here!)
Homemade Lasagna Hamburger Helper.
(One of our favorites around here.)
Notice how similar the recipes are? Hamburger Helper is like a template. (This is how Betty Crocker churns out a zillion varieties.) You plug in more or less milk to control the creaminess, a certain type of pasta (or rice or potatoes), sometimes tomatoes, certain herbs/seasonings, and more or less (or no) cheese. You can make a homemade helper for any variety of Hamburger Helper that appeals to you–invent your own! Put labelled sauce packets for your family’s favorite “helpers” away in your pantry for busy days (add a little 3×5 card with directions for the water, milk, cheese, etc, per variety) and you’ll never go hungry again. (Cue the Gone with the Wind music.) When you’re tired, everybody’s hungry, and you need dinner that won’t make you think hard, grab your sauce packet and your bag of pasta (or rice or potatoes) with your little cheater 3×5 card and you’re set.
Real dinner. Real easy. Really in 30 minutes!
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