Homemade hamburger helper recipe made in less than 30 minutes in one pot with the BEST silky, creamy, cheesy sauce without any processed cheeses or packets!
This Homemade Hamburger Helper is the ultimate comfort food your whole family will CRAVE and it’s way better than the original! It’s a macaroni and beef pasta swaddled in a rich, silky, cheese sauce that’s made without any processed cheeses or packets but still takes just minutes to make. All the ingredients are cooked in one pot (even the pasta!), so you literally only have one pot to clean AKA nothing beats the taste, comfort or convenience. This hamburger helper recipe is also easy to customize by using ground turkey, adding different veggies, cheese, spices, pasta etc. so it’s an awesome base for whatever your heart desires. This homemade hamburger helper recipe is also a make-ahead and freezer friendly hero for all those busy weeknights. Now just whip up some garlic bread and roasted broccoli and YOU will be the dinner hero!
I love making from-scratch versions of childhood classics that taste way better than the originals without any processed ingredients. Some favorites include chicken divan, hash brown casserole, green bean casserole, chicken stroganoff, beef stroganoff, tuna casserole, King Ranch casserole, one pot chili mac, and homemade mac and cheese.
Hamburger helper RECIPE
Did you grow up eating Hamburger Helper? If you did, you will love this recipe. If you didn’t, you will love this recipe. This homemade hamburger helper isn’t a recipe that requires childhood nostalgia to earn your love – it is stand alone drool worthy all on its own from the juicy beef and al dente noodles to the rich, silky, creamy, flavorful sauce.
In traditional Hamburger Helper, the box comes with dry macaroni, a spice packet, and a powdered cheese packet, much like the blue box macaroni and cheese. To make, you brown ground beef then add beef broth, milk and the powdered packets then simmer to create a cheesy macaroni and beef pasta.
In this hamburger helper recipe, I wanted to honor the one-pot ease and the creamy sauce of the original, but ditch the powdered packets. To make hamburger helper from scratch, the ingredients are still cooked in one pot but I swapped the milk for evaporated milk plus cornstarch which creates a rich and creamy sauce as the starch is released from the pasta as it cooks. The evaporated milk also stabilizes all the cheesiness and creates incredible silkiness that doesn’t separate, curdle or become grainy.
Secondly, this homemade hamburger helper recipe uses both cheddar and gouda cheeses for maximum flavor and superior melting ability. But of course, you are welcome to use all sharp cheddar to keep it extra pantry friendly. The cheesy flavor is also enhanced by a kiss of tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, beef bouillon and hand-picked seasonings to replicate that beloved classic hamburger helper flavor – but better.
This hamburger helper recipe also swaps the macaroni noodles that can easily become mushy with more mouth pleasing cavatappi pasta. This simple change is a huge improvement over the original.
Now that we’ve nailed the taste, texture, ease and convenience of homemade hamburger helper, feel free to make it your own! You can literally make this hamburger helper recipe differently every time depending on what add-ins you choose such as broccoli, bell peppers, zucchini, green chilies, tomatoes, beans, etc. It’s a great dish to sneak in those veggies for the kids – and for you!
I hope you love this one pot hamburger helper recipe as much as us! Now I’m going to dive into detailed tips, tricks, how to make, variations, etc. so you can read on or use the “jump to recipe” button at the top of the page. Happy eating!
HAMBURGER HELPER RECIPE INGREDIENTS:
This homemade hamburger helper recipe requires pantry friendly ingredients so you can make it any time! The ingredient list might look somewhat lengthy, but almost all of the ingredients are dump and simmer – you can even use garlic powder and onion powder if you wish. Here’s what you’ll need:
FOR THE PASTA
- Recommended pasta: My favorite pasta shape for hamburger helper is cellentani. It is also known as cavatappi, amori, spirali, or tortiglione and should be sold at most grocery stores. It is a type of spiral, hollow, macaroni with scored ridges. Both the hollowness and the ridges are ideal to capture creamy sauce – and I just love the texture of the shape. It is sturdy enough for the rich, hearty sauce without becoming soggy. This also means it make makes great leftovers!
- Different pasta shapes: That being said, feel free to use other pastas but look for shapes with plenty of texture such as grooves or ridges so the sauce has something to cling to and doesn’t slip right off. Some good options are radiatori (another fav), medium shells, rotini, rigatoni, penne, fusilli, etc. Keep in mind, however, that this recipe is designed for cellentani so you may need to adjust the liquid ratio.
- Pastas to avoid: I know traditional Hamburger Helper is made with elbow macaroni, but I do not recommend this pasta – pretty much ever. It is smooth so the sauce has nothing to grip to and slips right off. Most importantly, macaroni is a small, thin pasta, so its al dente window is very narrow, meaning it is not very forgiving and is easy to overcook and become mushy, especially in this hearty pasta. Also avoid any other delicate, thin pastas such as egg noodles.
- Pastas types: You can use classic pasta, whole-wheat pasta, or gluten free pasta.
FOR THE SAUCE
- Ground beef: infuses the hamburger helper with its signature flavor. You can go pretty lean in this hamburger helper recipe because the ground beef cooks in liquid and is swaddled in creamy, cheesy sauce. Go for 90-93% lean, meaning 90% is lean and 10% is fat. The fat will give the ground beef juicy beefy flavor without all the excess grease.
- Beef broth: use low sodium beef broth so we can control the salt and so we can amplify the flavor with beef bouillon. Don’t use vegetable or chicken broth because we want/need all that beefy flavor.
- Beef bouillon: please do not skip! It is a secret ingredient that adds tons of flavor. It is essentially dehydrated vegetables, meat stock, a small portion of fat, salt, and seasonings AKA it is salt with flavor! You can use beef bouillon, bouillon powder or better than bouillon – all in equal amounts. If you are using bouillon cubes, just mash them up a bit before you add them to the liquid – don’t dissolve in water first.
- Evaporated milk: adds creaminess without the fat of heavy cream. Evaporated milk is canned, stabilized homogenized cow’s milk in which 60 percent of the water has been removed. This means it is thicker than just milk and more stable than milk or heavy cream and less likely to curdle or separate when simmered, refrigerated or frozen. We’ll mix 1 tablespoon into to evaporated milk to further thicken/creamify the sauce without having to make a roux.
- Dijon mustard: might sound odd, but I promise it is not a pronounced flavor but simply boosts the other flavors and highlights the cheddar.
- Worcestershire sauce: adds a depth of complex umami, slightly tangy flavor.
- Tomato paste: adds a hint of tomato flavor without making the hamburger helper taste “tomaty.” To store leftover tomato paste, portion it into 1 tablespoon measurements on parchment paper. Cut out the parchment paper around each tablespoon, wrap up the paste to create a bundle, add the bundles to a sealable plastic bag and freeze. Use in all your sauce recipes without having to thaw first.
- Fire roasted diced tomatoes: have been roasted which gives them a complex smokiness which I prefer to just diced tomatoes, but diced tomatoes will work if that’s all you have on hand. When using diced tomatoes in this recipe, don’t drain – just add the whole can with all the juices.
- Aromatics: one large yellow onion and 4-6 garlic cloves will do the trick. If you want to make lazy day homemade hamburger helper, swap in 1 teaspoon onion powder and 1 teaspoon garlic powder instead of the fresh ingredients.
- Carrots: 1 cup diced carrots adds a depth of flavor and subtle sweetness to balance the earthy flavors. Make sure to chop the carrots small, no larger than ¼-inch so they are tender by the time the hamburger helper is finished.
- Seasonings: smoked paprika, chili powder, dried parsley, dried oregano, dried thyme and red pepper flakes infuse the sauce with complex flavor while still allowing the cheese flavors to shine. I recommend using all 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes – it will not make your recipe taste spicy, just flavorful.
CAN I USE GROUND TURKEY?
Yes! This easy hamburger helper recipe works excellent with turkey for the same reason you can use lean ground beef – the turkey is enveloped in the liquid and then the creamy sauce so you won’t even notice you are using a lean protein.
What you will notice, however, is that the turkey tastes like turkey. If you want the turkey to taste like ground beef, then I suggest adding 2 additional teaspoons beef bouillon. I use this trick in my turkey tacos and turkey chili and it is AMAZING! It infuses the turkey with rich, beefy flavor that will blow your mind!
If you do use beef bouillon, then omit the salt called for in the recipe and add salt to taste because beef bouillon contains salt so you will likely need less salt than the recipe calls for.
FOR THE CHEESE
- Sharp cheddar: is the quintessential cheese for Hamburger Helper. It boasts sharp richness and provides the signature flavor.
- Gouda: MAKES this homemade hamburger helper recipe! It tastes similar to cheddar but is milder and smokey so it underscores the cheddar in all the right ways. Equally important, Gouda melts 1000X better than cheddar so it allows you to enhance the flavor while melting gorgeously. That being said, if you don’t have Gouda, you can use all cheddar and it will still be tasty.
How to make Hamburger Helper
This homemade hamburger helper recipe has a few ingredients, but it is still quick and easy to make in less than 30 minutes! Here’s how:
- Brown beef and onions. Brown beef, onions, carrots, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper in a large Dutch oven. This provides a complex base of flavor. You’ll want to drain most of the excess grease but keep a little for flavor. Also, please note that although these photos are taken using a very large saucepan, this recipe works much better cooked in a Dutch oven.
- Add broth and seasonings. Now we make the sauce that the pasta will cook in while the beef infuses it with flavor. To the beef/onions/carrots, add beef broth add all of the seasonings, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire, bouillon, etc.. Add half of the evaporated milk. Whisk the cornstarch with remaining evaporated milk and add to the pot. This will help make our sauce extra rich/not watery without having to add heavy cream.
- Boil pasta. Once the sauce is boiling, add the pasta and reduce to a simmer over medium-high heat for 10-12 minutes OR until al dente. Every stove and every pot cooks differently, so it is important to check your pasta at 10 minutes then frequently after that until it’s al dente. As soon as your pasta is cooked, remove it from heat so the pasta doesn’t keep cooking. At this point, your hamburger helper should still be a little “saucy.” This creates the perfect base to stir in the cheese to create the rich and creamy cheese sauce.
- Add cheeses. As far as the cheese goes, feel free to add more or less cheese. This hamburger helper recipe can be as decadently cheesy as you wish or as minimal – totally up to you! After you add the cheeses, taste and season with salt, pepper and/or red pepper flakes to taste. If you would like a saucier pasta, stir in additional beef broth – the more broth, the saucier the pasta.
- Let rest. After you stir cheese into the pasta, you have the option of topping the hamburger helper with a layer of cheese. I like to do this because then you really taste the cheese through and through and it doesn’t get lost. And of course, more cheese means more YUM. Let the past rest for 5-10 minutes to let the cheese melt and the flavor meld – then dig in!
HAMBURGER HELPER RECIPE VARIATIONS:
This hamburger helper recipe is delicious in its classic saucy, cheesiness or you can use the recipe as a base to customize it. Here are a few ideas:
- Use ground turkey. Swap the ground beef for ground turkey and add 2 extra teaspoons beef bouillon to mimic the beef flavor. Omit the salt and salt to taste.
- Use Italian sausage: mild or hot ground Italian sausage would also be tasty.
- Add bacon. Use thick cut bacon so it doesn’t get lost in the cheesiness. Stir half of the bacon into the cooked hamburger helper and sprinkle the rest on top.
- Swap cheeses. You can swap the cheddar or Gouda for Asiago, Fontina, Muenster, etc. to switch up the flavor profile
- Add veggies. This homemade hamburger helper provides a fabulous enveloping canvas for veggies such as petite peas, bell peppers, green beans, corn asparagus, zucchini, mushrooms, spinach, etc.
- Add roasted veggies. You can also stir in your favorite roasted veggies such as roasted broccoli, roasted cauliflower, roasted asparagus, roasted Brussels sprouts, etc. at the end of cooking.
- Add shredded veggies. If you really want to camouflaged the veggies, mince them in the food processor and cook with the beef – they’ll blend right in!
- Add beans. Add kidney beans and extra tomato paste to create more of a chili mac.
- Add sour cream. Add mushrooms, reduce the cheese and add ½ cup or so of sour cream to create a beef stroganoff flair.
- Add sun-dried tomatoes: purchase sun-dried tomatoes in oil, not water. They are usually located near the olives or pickles at your grocery store. Rinse the tomatoes, pat dry, chop and sauté the last couple minutes with the beef.
- Spice it up. This recipe calls for ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes which is flavorful, not spicy. If you really want to taste the heat, go for a full teaspoon.
- Mix up the flavor profile. You can completely change the flavor profile with different seasonings and add ins. Go Mexican with taco seasonings, black beans, corn and green chilies, go Cajun with Cajun seasonings and bell peppers or go Italian with Italian sausage, basil, sun-dried tomatoes and artichokes.
- Make gluten-free hamburger helper by using your favorite gluten free pasta.
- Make dairy free hamburger helper by omitting the cheese and replacing the evaporated milk with beef broth or your favorite non-dairy milk substitute. You will need less liquid (about 1 cup less) because you don’t need the extra liquid at the end to create a cheesy sauce.
- Make vegetarian hamburger helper by using vegetable broth instead of beef broth and swapping the ground beef for your favorite vegetables.
Tips for the best hamburger helper
Homemade hamburger helper is pretty straightforward, but these simple tips will instantly elevate your dish:
- Use the correct pan. Use a large Dutch oven verses a skillet for this recipe. A Dutch oven is narrower so more of the pasta is covered in the liquid for longer so it cooks more evenly. It also comfortably contains all of the ingredients for stress free simmering.
- Don’t overcook pasta! The pasta should be cooked al dente– meaning it should still be a little firm in the center/ have a “bite” to it. Every stove cooks differently and there are several factors in cooking time such as the actual pasta used, type of pot, size of pot, how vigorous a simmer etc., so you are going to want to taste the pasta often as it reaches the end of cooking to ensure it isn’t overcooked.
- Add more broth as needed. There are many variables in one pot recipes such as pot sizes and materials, actual simmering temperatures, etc. so monitor the liquid. If the pasta isn’t cooked by the time the liquid is evaporated, add additional beef broth 1/2 cup a time as needed.
- Make it saucy. After the hamburger helper is done and you would like it saucier, add additional broth ½ cup as desired.
- Shred the cheese yourself. Quality, hand shredded cheeses will taste far superior and melt beautifully for a silkier sauce. Do not use pre-bagged cheeses for sauces or your destined for grainy/gritty sauce failure. Pre-bagged cheese are coated in anti-clumping chemicals designed to prevent the cheese from clumping in the bag; these same chemicals prevent your cheese from melting gorgeously.
- Use multiple cheeses. The BEST homemade hamburger helper uses cheddar for the flavor and Gouda for its luxuriously creaminess.
- Don’t use milk. Milk can curdle when simmered and doesn’t promote silky sauces. Evaporated milk or heavy cream is always your best bet. They also create better leftovers and are more freeze friendly.
- Add the cheese slowly. Add your cheeses in multiple batches – a handful at a time, stirring until completely melted, before adding some more.
- Adjust to taste. After you’ve added the cheese but before you top with cheese, taste the hamburger helper and adjust as desired. You can add additional smoked paprika, chili powder, hot sauce, salt and/or pepper to make it the best hamburger helper recipe for YOU!
CAN I BAKE Hamburger Helper?
You can transform hamburger helper into cheesy, beefy pasta casserole if you wish. This works especially well if you plan on freezing. If you want to make a hamburger helper casserole, you will need to make it extra saucy in order for the pasta to not to dry out in the oven. This translates into more liquid and more cheese – you can’t just add the same homemade hamburger helper recipe to a 9×13 and bake.
Also, take care to cook the pasta just until al dente so it doesn’t get mushy in the oven. For an added layer of seductive creaminess, you can add a hidden layer of sour cream and provolone layer like I do in my Million Dollar Mac and Cheese recipe – drool.
TO MAKE AHEAD:
You will love that this hamburger helper recipe reheats like a champ. When making ahead, it is especially important to not overcook the pasta, to make it extra saucy and to allow it cool before storing. Reheating it gently on the stove will allow you to add additional liquid as needed to achieve the same cream consistency as when it was first made.
HOW TO REHEAT and STORE
- Storage: Let cool to room temperature. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
- Microwave: Microwave small portions for one minute, stir, then continue to heat at 30 second intervals until warmed through. You may need to add a splash of beef broth or milk to make it saucy again.
- Stove: For larger portions, reheat pasta gently on the stove. Add a splash of beef broth or milk as needed to make it saucy.
HOW TO FREEZE hamburger helper:
Hamburger helper freezes surprising well because the base is beef broth and evaporated milk. Just takes care to cook the pasta al dente or it will become mushy when thawed. To freeze:
- Let hamburger helper cool completely.
- Transfer to a freezer safe container.
- Label and freeze for up to 3 months.
- Allow to thaw completely in the refrigerator, up to 48 hours.
- Reheat per instructions.
WHAT TO SERVE WITH BEST homemade hamburger helper?
We love this homemade hamburger helper recipe with a big salad and Garlic Parmesan Butter Breadsticks. It is also delicious with any of the following:
- Salad: This creamy, cheesy hamburger helper pairs beautifully with a fresh, crunchy salad. Some of our favorites are Wedge Salad with Blue Cheese Ranch, Cucumber Tomato Salad, Apple Salad, Fall Salad, Green Bean Salad.
- Vegetables: You can skip the salad, and instead opt for cooked veggies – but we like both! Roasted Parmesan Broccoli, Roasted Parmesan Asparagus, Glazed Carrots and Sautéed Brussels Sprouts with Garlic, Lemon, Butter or Roasted Brussels Sprouts are all superb.
- Bread: Mopping up saucy hamburger helper with soft bread is a must! We love Soft and Fluffy Dinner Rolls and Garlic Bread for this purpose – and the purpose of stuffing our face. It’s also tasty with sweet cornbread (one of my favorite recipes!).
- Fruit: Bright, fresh fruit is a must either in the form of fresh grapes, melon, etc. or in fruit salad form. We love Fruit Salad with Honey Lime Vinaigrette, Winter Fruit Salad with Honey Lime Poppy Seed Vinaigrette and Berry Salad in Honey Mascarpone.
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