Trying to recreate the Hamburger Helper was the best thing for my cook in 2021

One of the best things I’ve done this year for my cooking practice, if you like, is to embark on a journey to make the perfect home version of Hamburger Helper. As I was writing this statement, I realized how ridiculous it was, but borrowing a line from the Royal Tenenbaums right after this statement was made, I realized it was true.

It took a few months, and a few soiled pots, but the process was totally worth it. Like many people, the past two years have brought a lot of cooking from home. There were times when I was actively inclined to this new normal, perfecting choral braiding and planting green onions on my windowsill with the rest of the country. Then, there were times when I couldn’t shake off the feelings of tiredness that seemed old-fashioned to me by simple tasks, such as grocery shopping or making dinner.

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During one of those times, I found myself inside the aisles of my local Kroger restaurant, staring at a wall of packed pasta. All of my criteria for “simple”—spaghetti carbonara, cacio e pepe, aglio e olio—felt either unexciting or like too much effort, and I didn’t have the mental energy to find an alternative right away.

Almost without thinking, I walked a few steps to the left and took a box of Hamburger Helper off the shelves. I went down to the meat table for a pound of ground beef and suddenly I had a whole dinner in my basket. I may not have made a helper hamburger since college, but that night, it looked exceptionally good. I mean, it hits all the “comfort food” notes, without being particularly accurate. It’s cheesy and creamy with a bit of pepper from the dried vegetables and spices.

Is it good food? No, but amid a steady stream of promises from recipe writers and foodie TikTokers — paper-cut dinners, five-ingredient fixes, mess-free food preparation — this was the platonic model of the one-pot meal, and I wanted to make it fit my own king. I pulled out the box from the top of the trash and took a look at the ingredients list:

Rich Pasta, Corn Starch, Salt, Modified Whey, Sugar. Contains 2% or less of: Tomatoes*, Cheddar Cheese*, Onions*, Garlic*, Citric Acid, Vegetable Oil, Butter*, Whey*, Yeast Extract, Annatto Extract, Seasoning, Monoglycerides, Sodium Phosphate, Gum Arabic Natural flavor, silicon dioxide.

I noticed that anything with an asterisk next to it was dried, and the process was a bit like the beginning of one of pastry chef Claire Savitz’s “Gourmet Makes” videos, which she used to produce through Bon Appetit. In each episode, Saffitz will be tasked with recreating a junk food or comfort food, from Ruffles Potato Chips to Girl Scout Cookies.

When I first stumbled upon the series in early 2020, I initially wondered why someone would spend their time in the kitchen trying to recreate something so unique, but just as quickly as I was addicted. I watched Saffitz lay out strategy and emphasize technique. She would often return to the test kitchen drawing board more than once to translate back menus of packages full of unpronounceable ingredients into a grocery list of recognizable foods.

While doing some research on the series, I came across an interview with Into the Gloss by Saffitz. She told the publication that in one of the videos she remembers making an Oreo which turned out really well.

“I remember tasting a homemade Oreo and I thought, ‘Wow, it really tastes like Oreo,’” she said, “and then I tried the original Oreo and I thought, “Oh, it tastes kind of bad.” The best possible outcome is when you taste the homemade version the way you thought it would taste. The original when I was a kid. This is like the height of nostalgia.”

This, I felt, was a solid goal to aspire to: make a homemade hamburger helper that tastes as good as the packaged version the night you became intrigued all over again. With this came some loose tips:

  • Use only items available in your local supermarket
  • make it accessible to all; I kept a (generous) $20 cap
  • Keep the plate as a one-bowl meal

The ingredient list on the back of the box was my original guide. Packed pasta, shredded cheddar cheese, white onion, minced garlic, tomato sauce, whole milk and ground beef. I followed the basic steps – make the pasta, brown, dry the beef, and fry the minced garlic and onion in the same saucepan. I started making the sauce by whisking tomato sauce, milk, and cheese over medium heat until it started to boil and thickened. The pasta is returned to the pot followed by the meat and a pinch of salt and pepper.

It was a good first attempt, but it just didn’t quite get right. Despite its density, the sauce was still very loose and did not taste “milky” enough; It was quite heavy with tomatoes. It also needed some kind of hit (most likely “spicing” and “natural flavor” in the original ingredient list).

Thanks to being a little heavy with Italian seasoning, the second round veered too far into the territory of exotic spaghetti sauce, while chipotle chili powder—perhaps unsurprisingly—resulted in a pot of chili. However, when paired with smoked paprika with a little dried thyme and oregano, it’s all the right ingredients.

I knew cheddar was the right cheese to use, but it alone wasn’t achieving the slightly sour, tangy flavor that a helper hamburger has right out of the box. It wasn’t yogurt, it wasn’t a last minute swirl of sour cream, and despite the evidence on the can, it wasn’t fresh milk. In the end, the right combination ended up being good, fresh butter, a bit of cream and powdered milk, which you can usually find in the baking aisle next to the pancake and waffle mixture.

The ingredient list is bloated, lightweight, and has changed over time. Eventually I switched away from pasta and tried cart-style pasta. I initially stuck to a finely chopped white onion, but it turns out that a few leeks or even a small red onion worked in a pinch.

I’ve played with the process too, from experimenting with whether you really need to dehydrate the beef (you do!) to whether the end product benefits from a little time in the oven (it does!). I’ve finally found the right version, one that honestly tastes better than the stuff in the box, with a lightly oven-roasted cheese crust and a sprinkle of fresh green onions.

It’s not necessarily the most faithful adaptation, but looking at this final iteration, I knew I had learned a lot. For example, tomato paste, when mixed with a little good beef broth, has the nicest umami flavor. Or that making roux to thicken the sauce is always worth the effort. Or that milk powder is my new favorite ingredient for flavoring. But perhaps most importantly, the process made me remember that culinary inspiration can come from unexpected places. Look for helpers – especially those who have hamburgers.

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