One of the best things that I did this year for my cooking practice, if you will, was embarking on a journey to make the perfect homemade version of Hamburger Helper. As I’m typing this out, I recognize how ridiculous it sounds, but to borrow and bastardize a line from the “Royal Tenenbaums, immediately after making this statement, I realized that it was true.
It took a few months, and a few more dirtied pots, but the process was absolutely worth it. Like many folks, the last two years have brought a lot of cooking from home. There were times that I actively leaned into that new normal, perfecting my challah braiding and growing a scallion on my windowsill along with the rest of the country. Then, there were times when I couldn’t shake the feelings of fatigue that ulderlied seemingly simple tasks, like shopping for groceries or making dinner.
It was during one of those times that I found myself within the aisles of my local Kroger, staring at a wall of boxed pasta. All of my standards 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 whip up a replacement on the spot.
Almost without thinking, I took a few steps to the left and grabbed a box of Hamburger Helper from the shelves. I ducked over to the meat counter for a pound of ground beef and suddenly I had a complete dinner in my basket. I probably hadn’t made Hamburger Helper since college, but that night, it seemed exceptionally good. I mean, it hits all the right “comfort food” notes, without being particularly nuanced. It’s cheesy and creamy with just a little pep from the dehydrated vegetables and spices.
Is it fine dining? 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. I fished the box out of the top of the trash and took a glance at the ingredient list:
Enriched Macaroni, Corn Starch, Salt, Modified Whey, Sugar. Contains 2% or less of: Tomato*, Cheddar Cheese*, Onion*, Garlic*, Citric Acid, Vegetable Oi, Buttermilk*, Whey*, Yeast Extract, Annatto Extract , Spice, Monoglycerides, Sodium Phosphate, Gum Arabic, Natural Flavor, Silicon Dioxide.
I noted that anything with an asterisk next to it was dried, and the process felt a little bit like the start of one of pastry chef Claire Saffitz’s “Gourmet Makes” videos, which she used to produce through Bon Appetit. In each episode, Saffitz would be tasked with recreating a well-known junk or comfort food, ranging 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 attempting to recreate something that was so singular, but just as quickly I was hooked. I watched Saffitz strategize and stress about technique. She often went back to the test kitchen drawing board more than once in order to translate back-of-packet lists filled with unpronounceable ingredients into a grocery list of recognizable food.
In doing some research about the series, I came across an interview with Into the Gloss that Saffitz had done. She told the publication that she remembers in one video making an Oreo that turned out really well.
“I remember tasting the homemade Oreo and thinking, ‘Wow, it really tastes like an Oreo,’ and then trying the original Oreo and thinking, ‘Oh, it tastes kind of bad,'” she said. “The best possible outcome is when the homemade version tastes the way you thought the original tasted when you were a kid. That’s like peak nostalgia.”
I felt like that was a solid goal to which to aspire: Make a homemade Hamburger Helper that tastes as good as the boxed version did on the night I became re-enamored with it. With this came a few loose guidelines:
- Use only items that are available at the local supermarket
- Keep it affordable; I kept a (generous) $20 cap
- Keep the dish a one-pot meal
The ingredient list on the back of the box was my original guide. Boxed macaroni, grated cheddar cheese, white onion, minced garlic, tomato sauce, whole milk and ground beef. I followed the basic steps — make the pasta, brown and drain the beef, saute the minced garlic and onion in the same pot. I started to build a sauce by whisking the tomato sauce, milk and cheese over medium heat until it began to bubble and thicken. The pasta went back in the pot followed by the meat and a few generous pinches of salt and pepper.
It was a decent first attempt, but it wasn’t quite right. Despite being thickened, the sauce was still too loose and didn’t taste quite “lactic” enough; it was overwhelmingly tomato-heavy. It also needed some kind of punch (likely the “spice” and “natural flavor” on the original ingredient list).
Thanks to being a little heavy-handed with Italian seasoning, the second round veered too far into weird spaghetti sauce territory, while chipotle chili powder led — perhaps unsurprisingly — to a pot of chili mac. Smoked paprika, however, when paired with a little dried thyme and oregano hit all the right notes.
I knew that cheddar was the right cheese to use, but it alone wasn’t achieving the slightly sour, tangy flavor that Hamburger Helper from the box has. It wasn’t yogurt, it wasn’t a last-minute swirl of sourcream and, despite the clue on the box, it wasn’t fresh buttermilk. Ultimately, the right combination ended up being good, fresh butter, a little cream and dried buttermilk powder, which you can typically find in the baking aisle by the pancake and waffle mixes.
The ingredient list bloated, slimmed down and shifted through time. I eventually strayed from elbow macaroni and experimented with wagon wheel-shaped pasta. I’d initially stuck to thin-minced white onions, but it turns out a few shallots or even a small red onion do in a pinch.
I played around with process, too, from experimenting with whether or not you really need to drain the beef (you do!) to whether the final product benefits from a little time in the oven (it does!). I finally stumbled upon the right version, the one that honestly tasted better than the stuff from the box, with its slightly oven-browned cheese crust and a sprinkling of fresh-sliced scallions.
It’s not necessarily the most faithful adaptation, but looking at that final iteration, I realized that I’d learned a lot. For instance, tomato paste, when mixed with a little good beef stock, has the most beautiful umami flavor. Or that making a roux to thicken a sauce is almost always worth the effort. Or that buttermilk powder is my new favorite ingredient to achieve tanginess. But perhaps most importantly, the process made me remember that culinary inspiration can come from unexpected places. Look for the helpers — particularly those with hamburger.