I then recounted my monthslong journey of trying to recreate this iconic packaged food, which was the best thing for my cooking in 2021.
"Is it fine dining?" I wrote for Salon Food. "No, but amid a constant flurry of promises from recipe writers and food TikTokers — sheet pan dinners, five-ingredient fixes, no-mess food prep — here was the platonic ideal of the one-pot meal, and I wanted to make it my own."
The essay detailed my attempt to create a 100% homemade version of Hamburger Helper that captured the nostalgia inherent to this boxed brand but was made from scratch with whole supermarket ingredients. I previously detailed my process and the lessons I learned (like how buttermilk powder is a superhero ingredient, for instance), but a number of readers reached out for something more: the recipe.
You asked, I answered. This recipe takes a one-box convenience meal and turns it into a multi-ingredient dinner. Packed with surprising punches of flavor, it belongs in your winter recipe rotation.
Recipe: Copycat Hamburger Helper
Yields: 4 to 6 servings
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
- 16 ounces of elbow macaroni, reserve 1 cup of pasta water
- Olive oil
- 1 pound of ground beef
- 1/2 white onion, minced
- 2 to 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- 4 tablespoons of tomato paste
- 2 tablespoons of butter
- 2 tablespoons of flour
- 2 cups beef stock
- 3/4 cup heavy cream or half-and-half
- 1 1/2 tablespoons of buttermilk powder
- 3 teaspoons of smoked paprika
- 2 teaspoons of dried thyme
- 2 teaspoons of dried oregano
- 12 ounces of grated sharp cheddar cheese
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Scallions for garnish
1. In a large oven-safe pot, cook the elbow macaroni according to the package directions. Drain, reserving 1 cup of pasta water, and set aside.
2. Add a glug of olive oil to the pot and proceed to cook the ground beef, which has been seasoned with salt and pepper. Sauté until brown, then drain the excess grease and remove the beef from the pot. Set aside.
3. Add another glug of olive oil to the pot, and over medium heat, add the white onion and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion and garlic have softened and browned, about 4 minutes. Reduce the heat and add the tomato paste. Over medium-low heat, cook the tomato pasta until it has darkened in color slightly and begins to get fragrant, about 5 minutes.
4. To the same pot, add the butter. Stir until melted and quickly follow with the flour. Stir until the contents of the pot have formed a thick paste.
5. Add the beef stock, stirring continuously. It should produce a thick, almost gravy-like sauce. Add the cream and increase the heat until the mixture begins to simmer. Continue to whisk the sauce and add the buttermilk powder, smoked paprika, thyme and oregano.
6. While continuing to whisk, add 8 ounces of the grated sharp cheddar cheese to the mixture. Reduce the heat and stir it until the mixture is completely cohesive, free of lumps and smooth.
7. Fold the cooked pasta and ground beef into the mixture. Season generously with salt and pepper and add pasta water to the mixture 1 tablespoon at a time until the sauce has taken on a sleek, velvety consistency.
8. If finishing in the oven, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and cover the pasta with the remaining 4 ounces of shredded cheese. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the cheese has melted and started to gently bubble and brown.
9. Allow the pasta to sit for about five minutes, then divide into bowls. Top with scallions and enjoy!
Chef's note: I really appreciate the bubbling-cheese crust that comes from putting this one-pot meal into the oven. However, if you want to keep things super easy, it comes out beautifully using only the stovetop. Just disregard step eight when doing so.
Want more great food writing and recipes? Subscribe to Salon Food's newsletter.
More super simple weeknight meals:
- The viral feta pasta dish everyone's raving about is even better without pasta
- A chocolate sandwich tastes exactly as comforting as it sounds — and it's sublime
- This riff on a classic Southern pie is comfort in a bite — and the leftovers taste great for breakfast
- French-inspired lentils are the easiest cure for your winter blues — and they're impossible to mess up