Cracking the Green Bean Casserole Code

Dorcas Tarbell restocks her 97-year-old father’s fridge from a grocery list he gives her every week. One of the items that’s often on that list is a frozen TV dinner of green bean casserole.

Thomas H. Reilly has eaten many green bean casseroles in his day, as his wife, Dorcas B. Reilly (Ms. Tarbell’s mother) invented it with her team in 1955 while working at the Campbell Soup Company test kitchen in Camden, N.J.

“One of her big jobs was developing recipes using Campbell’s products to go on the Campbell’s labels,” he said. The most famous of those recipes was, undeniably, the green bean casserole. Many home cooks still follow Ms. Reilly’s formula, while others, like me, have riffed on it over the years from Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving.

Recipe: Green Bean Casserole

Ms. Reilly’s original creation, then called Green Bean Bake, comprised six ingredients: canned cream of mushroom soup, milk, green beans, French-fried onions, black pepper and soy sauce.

Afternoons at 3, a panel of home economists who worked in the Campbell’s test kitchen would sample the day’s recipe tests and rate them from 1 to 5. Mr. Reilly said that dash of soy sauce at the end — his wife’s contribution — was what made the dish. “After that,” he said, “it was bingo.”

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According to the food historian Laura Shapiro, Ms. Reilly was “a real innovator. Nobody had added the onion rings to a casserole before she did.”

In the company’s test kitchen in Camden, N.J., home economists like Dorcas Reilly were responsible for developing the recipes that appeared on Campbell’s soup labels.Credit…Campbell Soup Company

Though the recipe itself was an innovation, the inspiration for it came from a dish the longtime food editor and writer Cecily Brownstone had eaten at a press luncheon in Florida. She tapped Campbell’s for help in creating a version of the casserole for her Associated Press column, and published the first iteration of Ms. Reilly’s recipe in April 1955.

Ms. Brownstone called the recipe “Beans and Stuff” and described it as “a simple casserole of green beans with an intriguing topping.” It included celery salt and canned cream of mushroom soup, a popular product at a time when casseroles had, as Ms. Shapiro said, “swept the nation.”

The green bean casserole met people where they were, and was simple to throw together — dump everything in a dish and bake. That it is still, according to Campbell’s, a staple on 21 million Thanksgiving tables every year is a testament to its staying power.

Ms. Reilly died in 2018, but her memory is etched into this dish’s ingredients and directions, which are immortalized on the original recipe card, now yellowed and in the collection of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, in Alexandria, Va.

A yellowing 8-by-11-inch sheet outlines the many midcentury experiments that led to today’s beloved green bean casserole.Credit…Campbell Soup Company

What makes this particular casserole click?

I cooked and tasted about 13 green bean casserole recipes to find out, and to track the dish’s path from the 1950s to today. My aim wasn’t to improve the original, but to honor its careful calibration of flavors by replicating them from scratch.


Green Bean Casserole

In the original 1955 green bean casserole recipe, the home economist Dorcas Reilly called for canned cream of mushroom soup. It is, to be clear, delicious. But almost as easy is a quick homemade sauce zhuzhed up with celery salt and nutmeg, pantry spices that make food taste good. Plus, without the mushrooms, the green beans here can fully shine. This casserole should be spoonable — and who has the extra time on Thanksgiving to hand-trim all those green beans? In November especially, it makes sense to take advantage of frozen cut green beans. In this recipe, half of the beans are simmered in broth to bring out their hyper savory flavors and the rest are baked into the casserole to maintain their color and structure. Don’t hesitate to use the store-bought French-fried onions in a can. They cannot be improved.

“What are some other cooking cliches that they say on food TV all the time? I wish there was Smellovision. I do this joke in every shoot, and it always gets cut out.” [LAUGHS] [AUDIO LOGO] “I think what’s really exciting about the next couple of days is we’re going to learn a lot about this dish across 13 or so recipes. It’s a lot of testing through different recipes, studying them, looking at history and context. So today’s episode is really about nailing my green bean casserole. One thing that’s really special about this episode of recipe quest is it’s not very common that you get to interview the actual people who were around the creation of a dish, right? Dorcas is not here with us anymore, but her daughter, Dorcas Tarbell is, and then so is her husband. I’m going to grab some lunch and then head home for this call. I’m sure you get this all the time, but I grew up eating the green bean casserole exactly the way your wife made it.” “Well, think of her very often. It was a love affair with her that went on for over 60 years. The green bean casserole was part of her life, actually. She created it, I think, in 1955.” “Wow.” “She was assigned to come up with a recipe using something that was in the pantry of most American kitchens.” “Yeah.” “What was in that pantry? Green beans.” “Do you think she knew how famous the dish would become?” “She had no idea, Eric. In 1995, the Campbell’s marketing people realized that there was a blip in the sale of cream of mushroom soup.” “Right.” “So they looked at what was creating this. Why was there this blip like around November through Christmas time?” “Every year there was.” “Every year. So they went back and they realized it was this green bean casserole recipe. It was the most requested recipe ever created and that creative food department.” “I think about recipes in this way, very deeply and how they help us remember our loved ones.” “Yeah, it’s something he likes to talk about. And he hasn’t got any peers left, so it’s nice to meet new young people. Yes.” “We do in the paper.” “Yeah, yeah.” “I’m at my desk. I’ve had a couple of days to kind of process that really lovely conversation I had with Dorcas and her father, Thomas. I’m going to take the flavor notes, the nostalgia of that dish with Dorcas in mind, honoring her and her effort. Because the mission hasn’t changed. I’m going to be aiming for simplicity with my recipe, I think. Now I need to respond to some recipe edits and write my story.” [CLACKS KEYS] [MUSIC PLAYING] “Welcome back. We’re in the studio kitchen. We’re ready to test — to cook through all these variations of green bean casserole that exist out in the world. The recipes across the board, they’re all very different. The first recipe that we’re doing is the Campbell’s recipe. This is, for the most part, the beginning of our story. But first, we’re going to cook through the original Dorcas Reilly green bean casserole as the way she intended it. It’s a dump and stir situation. It looks amazing. I love the crispy onion throughout the green beans. That’s why the Dorcas Reilly one, I find, like, really lovely. This is a cool recipe, not least because it’s so easy. [GASPS]:. That looks good. My mouth just watered. That looks so good. Mm. O.K. Man, this is a classic for a reason. That was delicious. But also, it’s July right now. Of course it’s delicious. We have amazing green beans that we got from probably some farm where the green beans are whispered to in the night. Man, the French’s onions, that experience of some of them kind of having sogged up a little in a good way and still having the crispy ones on top. You get a lot of flavor and body. Wow, so off to a great start. The original is, as we all already knew, pretty delicious. Number two — with this one, what I really am interested in is what happens when you don’t have the soy sauce or seasoning. Like, there’s no salt and pepper in this recipe. But I kind of get why. It’s for ease. It calls for four ingredients. It takes five minutes of prep. I’m really eager to see how important this canned flavor is. One thing about this is there is no fussing. It’s, like, put it in there, put it in the oven, and it’s done. Oh my god! Sorry. When you come across this, you have to eat it.” [CRUNCHES] [CHUCKLES] [BEEPS] “Ooh. That feels good. Nice.” [GASPS] “Yeah, I don’t think I’m missing seasoning. This is nice and pared down. I like it. That’s cool. Why not? This is the AllRecipes recipe. I’m interested in the cheddar cheese and what that does. There’s some cheddar cheese throughout the casserole itself. One very strange thing about this recipe is you have to, for some reason, microwave the casserole part before you put it in the dish, which seems redundant to me. But I’m sure we’ll learn something new. So this is the crispy, cheesy one. Mm. It’s not, like, discernibly cheesy. I’m not thinking there’s definitely cheese in here. I like it. I’m just confused. I don’t know why I thought or wanted the cheese flavor to be more pronounced. I’m going to keep on keeping on. Let’s go to the next one. I like this one — Taste of Home. I’m excited to try this one because it calls specifically for frozen green beans. One thing that’s, I think, significant here is the way she layers because it means that you’re not going to get just a homogeneous mixture. It’s going to have more dimension. O.K., let’s dig in. Mm. Ooh. I’m not sick of green bean casserole at all. [CHUCKLES]:: This is only our fifth one, and we have so many more to go. [LAUGHS] Whoa. The type of green bean you use really matters, and it’s just crazy how different they all are. You kind of lose the layers after it’s baked. If you don’t even have the layers in the end, what’s the point of layering it? O.K., next one. We’re on green bean casserole — I don’t remember. But the reason I picked it is because it’s the first one I saw that calls for making a classic roux. It calls for making the cream of soup from scratch. I want to know what happens when you maximize the flavors and the ingredients. When it comes to green bean casserole, the question is, is more more? We’ll find out. Hey, I just have to say, this one smells incredible. It’s not as reduced as the other ones, but it’s O.K. Let’s see what it tastes like. Wow. It’s very different from the others. But I really like it. It’s nice. Maybe it’s the bacon. Maybe I’m just, like, amazed at the flavor of bacon. I don’t think it’s what I’m looking for. But if I were to borrow anything, it’s cool how the green beans are really cooked down in a nice way. This next recipe is from Millie Peartree, whom I adore. O.K., let’s get started. Off the bat, she roasts her green beans and mushrooms. And I just think that’s a really creative, lovely way to concentrate the flavor of both of those very watery vegetables. Mm. [GASPS]: Oh my god. Wow, Millie, you freaking rock star. I want to curse right now. Wow. The other reason why this is a fancy green bean casserole is because it’s the only one really that calls for haricots verts, French green beans, which are a little more petite. I mean, look at that. Oh my god. This is a casserole.” [CRUNCHES] “[GASPS]: Did you hear that? I think that’s part of my criteria, too, the sound. Mm. I don’t know if it’s like the Southern connection or what, but that really brought me back somewhere. Sorry, I’m like short circuiting a little bit. It sort of changed a lot of things that I thought I knew. It doesn’t negate all the things that the last few recipes have taught me. But, man, this is special. So this is the Food Network version by Alton Brown. I think this is very interesting because you build the sauce in a cast-iron skillet, then bake this whole thing in the oven. So its cooking vessel becomes serving pan, which is kind of useful. The onion portion is roasted kind of dry on a sheet pan, and it’s the distinguishing factor of this recipe.” [MUSIC PLAYING] “Mm.” [CRUNCHES] “Is it better than the very first one we made? It’s not better or worse. It’s different. So this is the Sarah Jampel green bean casserole. I like this recipe because it calls for frying your own onions. This one had so many flavorings that were kind of cool. She adds a little red wine vinegar and Worcestershire sauce — not soy sauce. As this reduces and cooks down, I really feel like the mushrooms and the spices and the herbs, they’re infusing the liquid. And so what happens is, as that liquid reduces, it, too, is gaining that incredible savory flavor from the mushrooms. You’re just optimizing the flavor here. Mm. I think this one’s sort of teaching me that I wonder if there’s something that could be done to the green beans themselves. If I’m going to borrow anything, what’s really interesting about this one is it has way more heat than I thought. It adds a lot. It’s nice. This one’s from Clifford Wright. I picked this recipe because it has a lot of curve balls. It has, you know, a Ritz cracker. It has a Gruyere topping. Ah! It’s brothier. I wonder if that’s going to have a nice, like, refreshing taste. Mm! Very nicely seasoned. That bacon does a lot of work. The bacon just loses its crisp, though, so something to keep in mind. But mm. This is like a pork lover’s green bean casserole. This recipe is by Gena Hamshaw, who is a wonderful vegan cook, vegan food writer. We need to try the vegan recipes because I think it sort of helps me see what the dairy does. Mm. I think one thing that’s interesting about this recipe is all of the mushrooms. If you just, like, really reduce and cook down some mushrooms, you get a lot of flavor that way. So it’s a good option for vegans. These miso gravy smothered green beans from Kay Chun are the outlier in that there’s no baking. This one gets miso as sort of the flavoring. I think it’s really smart. It’s sort of playing with the tradition, but on its side a little bit. That’s a cool bean. Mm. This green bean taught me that, cooking the green beans longer, it gives you that flavor, that original green bean casserole flavor. I think I want a bean that’s going to be cooked a little more. I’m excited about these because they are mid-century recipes from ‘The Joy of Cooking.’ And I’m pretty sure they predate Dorcas Reilly’s recipe from 1955. I think it shows us a couple past lives of the green bean casserole we know today. And there’s still a lot to learn from the past. So I’m eager to taste these and hopefully be delighted. O.K., so I guess the paprika maybe is the pepper. Oh, we’re learning a lot here. This one’s a little more streamlined. It’s — cover it with a can of cream of tomato soup. We thought that was really interesting. O.K., let’s taste. Excited. Cool. This is what you want to eat after you’ve had a marathon of fried and greasy foods. This is so, like, comforting. I thought all the onions and peppers would sort of reduce. I thought they would melt away after an hour, but they didn’t. But I like that idea. O.K., let’s try this. That one tastes like a Bloody Mary in casserole form. It’s really bright and really light and refreshing. And I respect that. And I love this cheese little spider. [CHUCKLES] I think my main takeaways are this. Green bean wise, nothing beat the fresh green beans. But again, we’re filming this in the summer. So we have really nice green beans right now. The green beans tasted really great. Second thing is I’m definitely going to do a milk-based sauce, I think. So seasoning wise, there were a lot of options and just the seasonings in Millie’s version were incredible. I couldn’t talk when I took that first bite because it was just so special. It tasted familiar, yet like nothing I’d ever had before. That’s powerful. That’s the sign of a very delicious dish. The thing is not all of these felt like green bean casserole. I do still want it to have the classic cream of mushroom. I want it to have the French’s onions because it can’t be improved. It’s really just fine tuning the technique, which we learned across these 13 green bean casseroles. I’m going to spend the next few weeks developing my own version. We’ll see what happens. Welcome to my home. A few days later, this is my new kitchen. We just moved. But we are doing the final recipe today. It’s been a couple of weeks. So at home, I tested many versions of my own stab at green bean casserole. And the main kink that I ran into was realizing how long it takes to stem trim fresh green beans and also mushrooms. Ultimately, I found myself consistently paring back ingredients. And it was in that fine tuning and simplifying where I was able to taste the casserole much more fully. The only change I made after this test was swapping out the milk in the bechamel for cream because you kind of need some fat. So the cream actually works here and makes it feel even more like a casserole. This is the green beaniest green bean casserole. I’ve really lived with the green bean casserole and arrived at a final version that I love. Man, this is the version. This feels so good. It’s kind of the distillation of everything I’ve learned about green bean casserole these last few months. When we were tasting the many iterations in the studio, the fresh green beans did taste really good. But stemming fresh green beans, A, was horrible. B, come November, the green beans are also bad. They’re out of season. So I was thinking about how the frozen green beans could be used to their best capabilities, and I arrived at a solution, which is to really boil them down. When you really cook down a green vegetable, especially in a broth, not only does the vegetable get sweet and reach its full umami, but you also get an incredibly flavorful broth. Let’s get started. I mean, the first thing we’re going to do is preheat the oven. First of all, it’s half of these beans. And you save the other half for folding in at the end. And so what you end up with is two textures. One of the textures is kind of like the soft canned green bean type, and the other one is a just cooked green bean that has a little bit of bite but no waxiness. And I like to just pour the chicken broth over. And into here goes celery salt. I found that after I was slicing the mushrooms and sauteing them and cooking them down and then making the roux, maybe an hour had passed. And I just thought that that went against the ethos of Dorcas’s recipe. It’s a concentrated celery scent that I think really mimics the canned cream of mushroom soup flavor. Kip, do you smell this? Wow. She came here because of the celery salt. That’s so funny. So the whole recipe is going to call for a whole teaspoon. But in the braised green beans, I’m only using half just to season it. You want that celery flavor in there. And you’ll see, after this comes to a boil and starts cooking down, it’s going to smell really incredible in here. It’s going to smell like Thanksgiving. I’m also going to add a little extra salt because you want the beans to be assertively seasoned. And some black pepper. We’re going to just bring this to a boil and really cook this down. Lid on. Because it’s frozen, it’s going to take a while to come to a boil. Nice. Come to a boil. So now I’m going to start my timer. I’m going to lower the heat a little bit, actually, keep it simmering. Doesn’t it already smell good? The green beans have been boiling for about 10 minutes, so I’m going to start the roux — 2 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of flour. And this only goes for a minute or two. It will sort of turn into a paste and then sort of bubble up. And it’s going to start to brown a little bit. I’m just going to add the cream slowly. These beans probably need about 5 more minutes. But I do want to add a cup of this stock to here, because this concentrated green bean flavor — you know? Look at that. It’s so dark. And I know that this ladle is 1/4 cup, so I’m going to do 4 of these. 1/2 a teaspoon of celery salt goes into the roux as well. And 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg. So you’re just cooking it down for 5 to 7 minutes until it’s pretty thick like alfredo sauce. I’m pretty happy with that. Drain this into a little cup. O.K., so this goes right into the cream. Yum. And I’m going to also add the rest of the beans. And you just fold these together. We’re going to bake it straight in this skillet. O.K., time for the onions. The rest can go in. They taste like Funyuns, you know? But they’re a little more real. But this only goes in for 10 minutes in a 350-degree oven. Not very long. Before I clean, I want to show you — this is my little snack. [LAUGHS]: Mm. Hello. We’ve let this sit for about 15 minutes. And see how it’s shaking just a little bit? It shows how much this has thickened. This is the final green bean casserole. Am I saying it’s the ultimate one? Am I saying it’s the best? I’m not not saying that. But I don’t know. I really feel like I’ve found the soul of this dish. A recipe written as a dish once eaten — a recipe is an account of a dish. So one dish can have multiple recipes. This is one of those recipes. And — wow, that’s great. Look at that. It looks classic. But it tastes like my own.” [MUSIC PLAYING] “Mm. Mhm. I think this is a celebration not just of the green bean itself, understanding what it can do and what it can’t. I think that’s really important, the limitations of a vegetable. You should really play to its strengths. And people always say that Thanksgiving food is all mushy and brown and looks the same. Then change it. Make your own dishes. Which is actually what we’re going to do today. Kind of a mini Thanksgiving planned for me and Paolo. So I’m going to just set the table. Paolo and I will have a little bit of a Thanksgiving for two. And — that’s coming up next. Montage.” [MUSIC PLAYING] “This is our first Thanksgiving in this place. Did you take a Lactaid?” “No, I forgot.” “[LAUGHS]: That’s worth it. That’s worth it. I don’t know. This is just like a familiar kind of look for me, having this creamy green bean situation.” “Everything just felt really harmonious to me.” “Wait, can you tell that they’re frozen green beans?” “No. I mean, I think the freezing, I guess, preserve the flavor really well.” “Yeah. I didn’t tell him to say that.” “[LAUGHS]: No.” “After weeks and weeks of testing, thank you for tasting all of the iterations. And thank you for coming along this green bean casserole journey, this recipe quest.” “It tasted really good.” “Thanks. Happy Thanksgiving.” [MUSIC PLAYING]

In the original 1955 green bean casserole recipe, the home economist Dorcas Reilly called for canned cream of mushroom soup. It is, to be clear, delicious. But almost as easy is a quick homemade sauce zhuzhed up with celery salt and nutmeg, pantry spices that make food taste good. Plus, without the mushrooms, the green beans here can fully shine. This casserole should be spoonable — and who has the extra time on Thanksgiving to hand-trim all those green beans? In November especially, it makes sense to take advantage of frozen cut green beans. In this recipe, half of the beans are simmered in broth to bring out their hyper savory flavors and the rest are baked into the casserole to maintain their color and structure. Don’t hesitate to use the store-bought French-fried onions in a can. They cannot be improved.CreditCredit…David Malosh for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews.

As when a child takes apart a toy to better understand its parts, taking the extra step to make your own sauce and cook your own beans not only results in a flavor bomb but also underscores Ms. Reilly’s contribution.

Across 13 green bean casserole recipes, myriad permutations of flavors, techniques and ingredients showcase the breadth of possibilities within one dish.

Here’s what I learned:

For the sauce, focus on the “cream,” not the “mushroom.”

As delicious as fresh mushrooms concentrated to their savoriest essence can be, slicing and cooking them down is not an economical use of time, especially on Thanksgiving. Also, without the mushrooms, the green beans can fully shine.

There are other ways to arrive at savoriness, and in the spirit of midcentury American cooking, I reached into my pantry for celery salt, a quiet whisperer of umami and an ingredient in Ms. Reilly’s first version. It will make your kitchen smell like Thanksgiving incarnate, as if you’ve been chopping vegetables all day.

In lieu of the canned soup is a homemade white sauce that takes 10 minutes to prepare. It turns out that heavy cream, thickened with a simple blend of butter and flour, is supreme at carrying and amplifying gentle flavors like celery and nutmeg.

Consider the green bean. (And cook it longer!)

There’s great nostalgia in canned green beans. For many (including my brother, Kevin), if a green bean casserole doesn’t have that taste, then it’s not green bean casserole.

I managed to capture — and improve — that flavor by braising frozen cut green beans in a heavily seasoned chicken broth to bring out their vegetal nuttiness. Not only are these beans comforting and delicious, but they leave you with the most aromatic broth, an ultrasavory green bean elixir that can then intensify the creamy sauce. Canned green beans could never withstand a long simmer — they would disintegrate.

If it’s mushy brown vegetables you’re worried about, don’t worry. Half of those frozen beans are folded into the braised beans and creamy sauce right before baking to maintain their color and bite.

Eric Kim making green bean casserole, a Thanksgiving staple.

French’s crispy fried onions cannot be improved.

Don’t even try. Though homemade fried onions can be great, I wanted to stick to the spirit of the original by not fixing what isn’t broken. In this case, store-bought is just better.

Canned French-fried onions should be considered a key ingredient in their own right. They add undeniable savoriness and crunch without the extra grease (both elbow and otherwise). And let’s be real: They’re everyone’s favorite part.

That brilliant move came straight from the first version of the casserole by Ms. Reilly, who studied home economics at Drexel University in Philadelphia. After graduating in 1947, she worked for Philadelphia Electric for a couple of years, where she demonstrated how to operate electric ranges for the many women who bought them after World War II.

Did she know that just a few years later, she and her team would invent what would become one of the most famous Thanksgiving dishes in America?

“She had no idea,” her daughter said.

But look at the green bean casserole now:It’s the kind of economical home cooking you can make your own, a dish you can find everywhere. You can even buy it in the freezer aisle.

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