If you’re in college or lived through some years of college and haven’t cooked a helping of Hamburger Helper, please step away, because your limo is waiting outside. We’re here to discuss poor students’ delicious foodstuffs, and the rest of you rich idiots can go eat at Taylor Grocery or whatever. Let’s brown some shit beef on the stove.
Ground beef is rather simple. Grill it, skillet it, flat fry it. That’s pretty much the range for the leftover processed gibbets of an otherwise delicious animal (it’s a cow, by the way, Braydon). Whatever the case, cook this slop on, like, three different surfaces at minimum and they’ll all yield more or less the same product: browned ground beef; strain the fat and you’re ready to roll for literally everything.
The Hamburger Helper company understands these delivery limitations, and they’re here to help — as the name implies — especially because they also apparently spent four years struggling to find meaningful sustenance in college — what do the cattle of the Sun really taste like, Odysseus?. “Here’s a pound of ground beef, or something, so what should we do with it?” Well.
Enter: a red box of Hamburger Helper, replete with full preparation instructions right there on the exterior. Let’s pause here for a moment, because Hamburger Helper enjoys something of a cultural moment about itself. Convenience, after all, is why we enjoy America so damn much right now.
Hamburger Helper as an American cultural-culinary touchstone dates back decades. My mother enjoyed it weekly as an undergrad in the 1970s at the University of Florida, while wild naked frat boys covered in shaving cream barged their way into her apartment in Gainesville, Fla.
simpler more sinister times, and she studied anthropology and mathematics in the 70s — at the height of the Vietnam War — while openly questioning why naked frat boys barging their way into her apartment was for some reason ... humorous, if not somehow acceptable.
(Mom slammed the door on him and he left, whoever he was. Good fucking riddance.)
Mom passes these episodes off as somehow boyish bonanzas while she was cooking Hamburger fucking Helper. Were she and her roommates cooking ground beef with a naked man on the front stoop today in 2018, well, lord help him because she’d castrate him with a knife on the spot. Bye, guy.
In short, my mom will eat you alive, because you’ve never correctly prepared Hamburger Helper.
Mom passed the “cook-at-home-son” Hamburger Helper grail on to me, and I’m here to do the same for you, dear beleaguered college student. Let’s change lives.
The cultural import of Hamburger Helper.
Hamburger Helper should not be dismissed as an unessential American culinary aide. Hamburger Helper in fact begins many dishes in the American palate — at least in spirit — because browned ground beef always already sits happily on our barbaric tongue. Ground beef is cheap and simple, and so it resides comfortably within most if not all American college students’ refrigerators. Or at least is should, until it’s turned black-brown from the inside out, in which case it’s time to burn down your apartment building and find new lodging. Those are the rules.
A healthy helping of Hamburger Helper serves one best in the cold months, sure, and its appeal in, say, the swamp of Gainesville, Fla. pains one’s disposition into meat/sauce sweats for about two days. Still, though, HH’s economy and simplicity fully trump those later existential difficulties, which should be easily erased by a cool shower, which you’re enjoying twice a day in the north central Florida swamp, anyway. For those of you who live above Gainesville’s latitudinal parallel, though, HH works virtually all the time.
Hamburger Helper is a common denominator.
Hamburger Helper requires the same ingredient for every box: one pound of ground beef, perhaps some milk, and warm water. We’ve already visited the land of various ground beefs before, and it’s important to say this right now: ground bison is the best ground beef on the planet, though it’s not necessarily obligatory for an HH dish. It’s admittedly expensive, but the taste and texture are well worth it. Bison burgers are far, far more worth your effort. Make those instead.
Moreover, bison keeps the leftovers better, because bison is leaner. It’s leanest. Bison is more expensive, sure, but it tastes and cooks better than chuck. This is a five-dollar box of Hamburger Helper dive-bombed with a 10-dollar pound of bison meat, after all. Treat yourself.
Either way, it’s important to brown your ground beef correctly, whatever the hell species it happens to be. All HH begins the same way: brown a pound of ground beef, then strain out the fat. This may seem easy enough, sure, but browning browning ground beef requires a certain precision. We’ll have a word about that now.
First: seasoned salt (use your best, trust me), pepper, and a healthy dose of Worcestershire sauce (soy works in a pinch). Add garlic if you want. Either way, melt down a tablespoon of salted butter to start the party and toss in the whole slab until somewhat-less-than-thoroughly browned. Keep a wooden spatula handy, because you’re almost immediately going to need to break that brick up for maximum coverage.
Browning ground beef is easy enough on its face, but there’s a special sweet spot where things turn south quickly. True, honest, acceptable ground beef finishes just before it withers and wilts into a shriveled mess. Acceptable ground beef still holds its fat, which is really the final reason we’re all here. Brown it just north of medium-well for your HH and toss that pile into a strainer in the sink.
Let it sit, let it strain, but move fast from here on out.
Construct the Hamburger Helper.
The directions on the box are self-explanatory. Strain your ground beef, throw it back into the pan, add the requisite amounts of water and milk, drop in the included noodles and seasoning and bring to boil. Cover and simmer for like 13 minutes or whatever. That’s the most outrageously culinary aspect of this entire process. It’s easier than building a Lego pirate ship with detailed directions.
GREEN BEANS, which are necessary.
Standard Hamburger Helper boxes do not call for a veggie add-in. In fact, doing so feels somehow antithetical to the spirit of HH, which is engineered to deliver a full pound of ground beef to your stomach in less than 20 minutes of preparation. BUT!
A single can of French-cut or regular sliced green beans will class up this box of HH in ways your equally broke date can’t even imagine. After all, you have a full pan there on the stove simmering away with meet and cheese and noodles, what’s a single can of green beans? I’ll tell you what it is: it’s perfect. It adds color, flavor, texture, and nutrition. ONE CAN OF GREEN BEANS, and make sure you drain that sucker before you go tainting this beautiful dish with green bean can detritus. Sheesh.
(A medley of peas, corn and carrots or otherwise also pairs well; I just happen to adore green beans.)
TATER TOTS, which aren’t necessary but will elevate you to a member of the Elect.
Before this entire process began, you preheated your oven to 450 degrees, because you’ve been anticipating baked tater tots since your last debilitating hangover. In the case of my oven, which is gas heated (no big deal), I’ve already preheated the thing to 425 or so, because it cooks hot. Like, really hot.
Anyway. You’ve constructed the best meat slop on the planet, and you need something that’s not meat slop to pair economically well with your meat slop; Tater tots are your ticket to culinary supremacy, and they always do quite well with a dash of whatever seasoning salt you’ve dropped into that there Hamburger Helper. The lingual echo will drive your penniless date nuts, if only because you’ve provided a full meal for him or her straight out of your own damn kitchen, calculus homework notwithstanding.
Do we have a real chef here to explain TUNA HELPER to you? You bet your ass we do.
Chef Kelly English has strong thoughts about Hamburger and other adjacent Helpers, and he wants you to conjure up some Tuna Helper. Here’s his prescription:
I mean it’s as easy as can be. It’s my mom’s recipe. I made it in college and it’s tasty. Preheat an oven to 375°. Pick your favorite Mac and cheese and make it per the instructions. Mix in a can of cream of mushroom and a can of drained tunafish. Put it in a baking dish and cover with cheddar. Bake for 20 minutes or until cheese is brownish and it is hot throughout. Sprinkle on canned fried onions if you are using the nice tablecloths. Eat.
We and Kelly have given you the tools, broke-ass college student. Now go forth and glutton yourselves into inactivity. You’re on a date, after all.