This easy and hearty casserole is a delicious take on the original John Wayne casserole recipe. Made with ground beef, taco seasoning, and plenty of cheese. This filling casserole is also low-carb and can easily be made gluten-free or keto.
When I first met my husband I wasn't much of a movie buff at all. In fact, I probably had only been to the movie theatre a handful of times in the past decade or so. But it didn't take long for me to get bit by the cinema bug, and soon it was an interest we shared together.
In particular Western movies were new to me. My husband, however, had been watching them with his Grandfather since he was old enough to walk. And of course, John Wayne was a frequent star in many of the Western movies we would watch.
My favorite John Wayne movie - True Grit - was one he did much later on in his career, but it brings me to tears every single time. In fact, I would say it is one of my favorite movies (Steel Magnolias is still #1 though!).
So as soon as I heard about "John Wayne Casserole" I knew I had to try it for myself! After perusing a few recipes online, I got to wondering if John Wayne really used tater tots or biscuits in his casserole. I wasn't sure if those ingredients were readily available back then, so I did some digging.
The Hunt for the Original Recipe
I soon realized that the original John Wayne Casserole was actually exceedingly simple. The recipe called for eggs, cheese, green chilies, and evaporated milk (or heavy cream). There were a few seasonings and small amounts of things of course, but the base of the recipe was much different than the ones I found in my searches.
The recipe was first submitted to a cookbook that a young woman by the name of Cara Connery put together in the 1970s to benefit the American Cancer Society. Cara contacted many celebrities and famous people, asking for their recipes for her cookbook.
John Wayne was one of many respondents, and Cara compiled the recipes she received into a book entitled "Cooking with Love From Cara and Her Friends."
As a collector of vintage cookbooks, I was aching to have this one in my collection, but I haven't been able to find a copy online. I'm praying that I'll find it at a local thrift shop someday because I'm sure it would be a treasure trove of popular vintage recipes of the time!
Why is it called John Wayne Casserole?
The original recipe that John Wayne submitted was not called "John Wayne Casserole", but it has since become known by the actor's name, rather than the recipe name itself.
My guess is that it's easier (and more interesting) to call it "John Wayne Casserole" than "Egg and Cheese Casserole."
Reasons to Love This Recipe:
- It's a time-honored recipe, having been submitted to a charity cookbook by The Duke himself - John Wayne.
- You need just a few simple ingredients to get started - no cans of biscuits or tater tots needed.
- It's a delicious taco casserole that is low in carbs and can easily be made gluten-free or keto.
- A hearty casserole that is filled with layers of ground beef and cheese, making it perfect for picky eaters.
- Shredded cheese: You'll need two types of cheese for this recipe. Both shredded cheddar cheese and Monterey Jack cheese are used. If you can't find Monterey Jack cheese, you can use mozzarella cheese or Colby jack.
- Green chilies: You'll be using canned diced chilies, but don't worry if you don't like things spicy. These are very mild and the finished casserole is not spicy at all.
- Eggs: You'll need 4 eggs for the topping. The yolks and egg whites are separated to make a fluffy, airy topping that does not taste at all eggy.
- Heavy cream: I like the mouthfeel that you get from heavy cream, but evaporated milk can easily be used. In fact, it's called for in the original recipe.
- Seasoning: The seasoning is kept pretty simple (salt and cayenne), and this works as long as you are also making it with the ground beef mixture. If you're skipping the ground beef and taco seasoning, try adding some of your favorite seasonings to taste.
- Flour: You'll need just 1 tablespoon of flour, and this is primarily used for thickening the topping. If you're gluten-free or low carb you could use arrowroot powder OR xantham gum.
- Tomatoes: A few thin slices of tomatoes on top are a classic element of the original recipe. I recommend Roma, plum, or San Marzano tomatoes since they have fewer seeds. Feel free to leave them out if you don't like tomatoes.
- Ground beef: I like to use lean ground beef, but you could use ground turkey for the meat mixture if you're looking for something a little lighter!
- Taco seasoning: This is added, along with a bit of water, to help season the beef. You can use store-bought taco seasoning or about 2-3 tablespoons of homemade taco seasoning.
The original recipe does not call for ground beef, but it is a popular addition in modern-day versions of the casserole. While I wanted to stick as much to the original as possible (no biscuits or tater tots to find here!). I did still want it to be a satisfying and filling casserole you could easily serve for dinner.
Adding a layer of seasoned ground beef adds flavor and protein, and helps fill up those hungry tummies! Best part? It's naturally low in carbs and can easily be made gluten-free.
How to Make the Original John Wayne Casserole Recipe
Before you get started, preheat the oven to 350ºF and lightly coat a 9X13 baking dish with non-stick cooking spray. This cheesy casserole comes together QUICK, so it's good to be prepped and ready to go ahead of time!
Seasoning the Taco Meat Mixture (Optional)
Heat a large skillet over medium heat and add the ground beef. Crumble and cook until no pink remains, then drain off any excess fat.
Sprinkle the ground beef with taco seasoning and ⅔ cup of water. Stir well to combine, and cook just until the "sauce" thickens.
Transfer the ground beef to the prepared baking dish, spreading it out in an even layer.
Sprinkle the diced green chilies on top of the ground beef and spread them out as evenly as possible.
Then combine the shredded cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese, add them to the baking dish, and set aside while you prepare the final layer.
Preparing the Topping
Separate the eggs, adding the egg yolks to a medium-sized bowl, and the egg whites to a separate medium-sized bowl.
Add the heavy cream, flour, cayenne, and salt to the bowl of egg yolks and whisk well until combined. Set aside.
Whipping the Egg Whites
Use an electric hand mixer (or a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment) to beat the egg whites until soft peaks form.
Once soft peaks form, add the egg whites to the egg yolk mixture and gently fold them in until they are fully combined (being careful not to deflate them).
Spread the whipped egg mixture right on top of the cheese, spreading it out in an even layer. Don't worry - it doesn't need to be perfect and it's okay if some cheese gets mixed in with the topping!
Top the casserole with very thinly sliced tomato. I like to space them out so that each serving gets at least one tomato slice. If you don't like tomatoes, just leave them out!
Baking the Casserole
Place your tomato-topped John Wayne Casserole in the preheated oven and bake for 40-50 minutes, or until hot and bubbly with golden edges.
Remove the casserole from the oven and allow for it to cool for about 5-10 minutes before slicing and serving. This gives the layers a chance to set up a bit, making it a tad less messy when it comes to serving time.
I like to serve it with steamed veggies, rice, or a crisp bell pepper salad. It really pairs well with anything you would serve with tacos or taco salad.
Storing and Reheating
- Store any leftover casserole in an airtight container, or allow the baking dish to cool and top it with aluminum foil or plastic wrap.
- To reheat in the microwave: heat several portions in 30-second intervals until completely warmed through.
- To reheat in the oven: place the cold casserole dish in a cold oven and set the heat to 350ºF. Once the oven comes to temperature, warm the casserole for 20-25 minutes, or until completely warmed through. Doing it this way prevents the cold dish from cracking during temperature shock.
With a biscuit crust: If you want to make a biscuit casserole, open up a can of biscuits and roll each one with a rolling pin to flatten it. Layer the biscuits into the bottom of the casserole dish, then layer the ground beef on top of the biscuit base, along with the remaining layers.
Using biscuit mix: Combine 1 package of biscuit mix with the required water as described in the package instruction. Pat it into the bottom of the casserole dish, and layer the ground beef on top of the biscuit layer.
With tater tots: If you want to make John Wayne Casserole with Tater tots, you can opt to include the egg topping and press the tater tots on top of that. OR you could layer the tater tots right on top of the cheese. Increase the heat to 400ºF and cook for 30-35 minutes, or until the taters are golden brown.
Ground turkey: An easy swap for this recipe is to switch up the ground beef for ground turkey. This lowers the fat and can be a little cheaper depending on the prices in your area.
Vegetarian: The original John Wayne Casserole recipe was actually vegetarian. Just skip the ground beef and taco seasoning (season to your taste) and increase the shredded cheddar cheese to a full 16 ounces. Easy peasy!
Adding toppings and fillings: If you want to add your own spin you can definitely get creative and add fillings (or toppings). Red or yellow onion, green bell peppers, red bell pepper, jalapeno peppers, cilantro, and black beans could all be tasty additions.
More Family Favorite Dinner Ideas
- Sheet Pan Smoked Sausage and Peppers
- Creamy Mushroom Chicken
- Baked Feta Pasta
- One Pan Creamy Garlic Chicken
- Instant Pot Unstuffed Cabbage Rolls
John Wayne Casserole
- 1 pound ground beef lean
- 1 package taco seasoning or 2-3 tablespoons homemade taco seasoning
- ⅔ cup water
- 16 ounces Monterey Jack cheese shredded
- 8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese shredded
- 4 ounces diced green chilies undrained
- 4 large eggs separated
- ⅔ cup heavy cream or evaporated milk
- 1 tablespoon flour (*see notes for keto and gluten free options)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 Roma tomato sliced thinly
- Preheat the oven to 350ºF and lightly coat a 9X13” baking dish with cooking spray. Set aside.
- Heat a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat, then add in the ground beef. Crumble and cook until no pink remains. Drain.
- Sprinkle the taco seasoning onto the drained ground beef, along with ⅔ cup of water. Stir well to combine, and cook just until a thickened sauce forms.
- Transfer the ground beef to the prepared baking dish, spreading it into an even layer.
- Sprinkle the diced green chilies on top of the ground beef layer, aiming to spread it out as evenly as possible.
- Combine the shredded Monterey Jack and cheddar cheese and place them on top of the ground beef and green chilies. Set aside.
- Separate the egg whites from the yolks, placing the egg whites in a medium-sized bowl, and the yolks into a separate medium-sized bowl.
- Add the heavy cream (or evaporated milk), flour, salt, and cayenne pepper to the yolks and whisk well to combine.
- Use an electric hand mixer to whip the egg whites until stiff peaks form.
- Transfer the whipped egg whites to the yolk mixture and fold it in gently until fully combined.
- Pour the egg mixture on top of the cheese into an even layer, spreading it out using the back of a spoon.
- Place the tomato slices on top of the egg layer and place the dish in the oven.
- Bake for 40-50 minutes, or until the egg layer is set and the cheese layer is fully melted and bubbly.
- Allow it to cool for 5-10 minutes before slicing and serving.
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