Hotdish, the unofficial state cuisine of Minnesota, is a comfort food staple found in households across the Upper Midwest. Incorporating a mixture of simple, thrifty ingredients and mix-it-together cooking techniques, it invokes a sense of nostalgia amongst fans. Here, now, is everything you need to know about the celebrated homespun staple known as hotdish.

What is hotdish?

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Hotdish is an anything goes one-dish meal from the Upper Midwest, but it’s especially beloved in Minnesota and North Dakota. A creamy sauce binds three essential hotdish components together: starch, protein, and vegetable. And while the rest of the country might call this a casserole, take heed — though all hotdishes are casseroles, the reverse is not true. According to How to Talk Minnesotan, hotdish is ubiquitous throughout the Gopher State:

“It can grace any table. A traditional main course, hot dish is cooked and served hot in a single baking dish and commonly appears at family reunions and church suppers. Hotdish is constructed on a base of canned cream of mushroom soup and canned vegetables. The other ingredients are as varied as the Minnesota landscape. If you sit down to something that doesn’t look like anything you’ve ever seen before, it’s probably hotdish.”

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When and how did it originate?

The documentary Minnesota Hotdish: A Love Storyspeculates the Great Depression secured hotdish as a food staple and effective, affordable way of feeding entire families, with canned food and limited meat. The word “hotdish” was first used in a 1930 Minnesotan cookbook published by the Grace Lutheran Ladies Aid. This landmark recipe called for hamburger meat, onions, celery, canned peas, canned tomato soup, and Creamettes — Minnesotan macaroni — all to be stirred together and baked.

But hotdish was likely preceded by a 1910s American dish called “hot pot.” According to the hotdish documentary, World War I marked a pivotal moment for American casseroles and thrifty one-dish meals, with the onset of the U.S. Food Administration’s “Food Will Win the War” campaign. The home front war effort called for families to conserve food so surplus food could be shipped overseas to feed soldiers and combat famine. The Food Administration published recipes for “Meatless Mondays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays.” Casseroles and hot pot soon became a popular method of stretching a pound of meat for a whole family’s dinner.

The invention of commercial tater tots, circa 1956, changed the history of hotdish forever. Since then, many Midwestern cooks have covered their hotdishes with a layer of crispy tater tots. La Choy Chow Mein noodles, potato chips, and fried onions are also commonly used hotdish toppings.

Landon Schoenefeld Makes Hot Dish Better Than Your Mom

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A high-end version of hotdish from HauteDish in Minnesota [Photo: Joy Summers/Eater Minneapolis]

What’s the appeal?

North Dakota transplant and food blogger Molly Yeh writes, “If you were to place [hotdish recipes] on an X/Y chart where X = how much it looks like barf, and Y = how delicious it is, they would be maxed out on both accounts. That’s the charm of a hotdish.”

Despite its overwhelmingly beige aesthetic, hotdish is beloved for its convenience, economy, lack of pretense, and nostalgia. Recipes are passed down through parishes and families with as much gravity as oral histories. And while people love to love it, they might love making fun of this strange obsession even more. Stand-up comedian (her specialty is hotdish humor) and author Pat Dennis wrote Hotdish to Die For, a collection of six mysteries in which hotdish is the choice weapon, and edited Hotdish Haiku. The book of poems explores native hotdish love:

Herd of Lutherans

Running to church hotdishes

Natural stampede

shutterstock 74870386.0 My Name Is Yeh Facebook

Dennis describes the dish as “a can of vegetables, can of cream of mushroom soup, white rice, and I-got-it-on-sale meat.” And while that may not be appealing, she says people love hotdish because it’s “not a food, but a memory.”

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The “Tater Tot Hotdish” song expresses the same sentiment, and goes like this:

Gonna make a tater tot hotdishGonna set my heart at easeGonna make a tater tot hotdishTo review old memoriesMy mother made a tater tot hotdishAnd Grandma made it with a touch of creamAnd even after years of fine diningI still can taste it in my dreams

Hotdish may seem remarkably mundane, but it sparks heated competition — especially among Minnesotan politicians. The Minnesota Congressional Hot Dish Competition is held annually and stakes state senators and representatives against each other in a friendly food battle that’s decided by a blind taste test. The winner takes home a plaque made from a glass casserole dish. “It’s always nice to put aside our differences and come together over some great hotdish,” Senator Al Franken commented in a release following the 2016 event. For the record, his hotdish entry this year was a “Land of 10,000 Calories Hotdish.”

One of the most fun things about making hotdish probably is naming it afterwards. Here’s a sample of some of the wackier hotdishes out there:

  • Ketchup Surprise Hotdish
  • Back of the Refrigerator Hotdish
  • Turkey Wiener Doodah Hotdish
  • Organ Meat-Cashew Hotdish
  • Gobble It Up Minnesota Hotdish
  • Suspend the Rules and Pass the Hotdish
  • Hot Tot Berbere Tator Dishinator
  • Drop It Like It’s Hotdish
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[Photo: Facebook/Meredith Raimondi]

You’ve convinced me. How do I make it?

The basic formula is meat + canned creamed soup + vegetables = hotdish. Everything is thrown into casserole dish and baked until it is steaming hot and has a golden crust on top. How to Talk Minnesotanprovides a starter recipe for generic hotdish that calls for two cans of cream of mushroom soup, one pound of cooked “pulverized meat,” and two cans of (notably nonspecific) vegetables. The ingredients are combined in a large bowl and stirred. Add a little salt to your liking and pour everything into a dish. Top that with fried onions or some Chow Mein noodles and bake it at 400 degrees “until a brown crust forms.”

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