Creamy Beef and Shells

Food

Creamy Beef and Shells is an upgrade from your childhood favorite Hamburger Helper® meal — with so much more flavor and you’ll know exactly what’s in it (no strange additives!). This simple, family-friendly meal can be ready in 30 minutes or less and is pure comfort food! We combine rich, creamy, saucy pasta shells with perfectly seasoned ground beef and loads of melty cheese.

Love modernized Hamburger Helper meals? Us too! So we’ve created this Taco Pasta and Tuna Pasta (both of which are reader favorite recipes!). 

Overhead image of Creamy Beef and Shells in a bowl

Overhead image of Creamy Beef and Shells in a bowl

Creamy Beef and Shells

Creamy Beef and Shells is pure nostalgic, comfort food for me — we had Hamburger Helper’s version frequently growing up. And after some tweaking and testing, I’ve created a modernized, fresh take on this meal that I hope you love as much as my family does.

It’s creamy, cheesy, rich, and loaded with flavor. This is definitely a rich and indulgent meal, but when paired with some lighter, veggie-heavy sides like roasted broccoli and a quick garden salad, it’s dinnertime perfection!

QUICK TIP

Want some more side dish suggestions? Here are our favorites:

Process shots-- browning the onion and ground beef

Process shots-- browning the onion and ground beef

Creamy Beef and Shells Ingredients

There are a few ingredients that we use in this Creamy Beef and Shells recipe that are worth mentioning in a little bit of depth:

  • Tomato paste: While it might make sense you could use a different type of canned tomato product, it’s important to use tomato paste. It provides the most concentrated tomato flavor. To get the paste, tomatoes are cooked for hours to reduce the liquid content — the perfect ingredient to add loads of tomato flavor without adding extra liquid to the sauce.
  • Low-sodium chicken broth: Why use chicken broth instead of beef broth? We tested both, and testers preferred the chicken broth instead. The flavor is more subtle and less intense. Don’t worry — it won’t compete with the beefy flavor of the meat.
  • Heavy cream: We don’t recommend swapping out the heavy cream in Creamy Beef and Shells. Here’s why: the acidity of the tomato paste has the potential of breaking or curdling the sauce with less-dense substitutes (like half and half or milk). The cream balances the acidity of the tomato paste. Additionally, it adds such an incredible richness and thickness to the sauce — it’s a key ingredient!
  • Sharp Cheddar: The more aged the cheese is, the more cheesy the flavor. For a Cheddar-y dish, grab a sharp or extra-sharp Cheddar. (See “quick tip” below.)

QUICK TIP

Salt is cheese’s best friend: If your Creamy Beef and Shells don’t taste “cheesy” enough, chances are it’s a salting issue. Try adding a touch more salt and see if that doesn’t make all the world of difference.

Process shots of Creamy Beef and Shells-- Adding in tomato paste, seasonings, and chicken broth

Process shots of Creamy Beef and Shells-- Adding in tomato paste, seasonings, and chicken broth

SHORTCUTS

Creamy Beef and Shells Shortcuts

  • Get pre-diced produce. Most grocery stores sell diced yellow onions in the produce section of the store. Alternatively, frozen diced onions are often found by the other frozen veggies and can be used in this recipe.
  • Use jarred garlic or a garlic press. Instead of mincing your own garlic, use jarred to save time. Or, a garlic press will get you fresh minced garlic in a fraction of the time that hand mincing takes.
  • If you have a food processor with a grating attachment, you can have freshly grated Cheddar in a flash!

Process shots-- Adding heavy cream and cooked shells to the sauce

Process shots-- Adding heavy cream and cooked shells to the sauce

Creamy Beef and Shells Tips

  • Salt the pasta waterMake sure the pasta is well salted as it cooks — this is important to the flavor of the dish as a whole. Add the salt when the water is boiling and then wait until the water returns to a full boil before adding in the shells.
  • Cook until al dente. Cook the shells for 1 minute less than package directs since they’ll get perfectly al dente as they are tossed in the sauce.
  • Use a large pot. If the pasta is cooked in a pot too small or there isn’t enough water, the water will get too starchy and the pasta will develop a sticky texture. Allow plenty of room and plenty of water! 
  • This recipe is designed to be simple, but the one thing we highly recommend is grating your own cheese. This ensures a nice and even melt. Pre-grated cheese contains preservatives that keep the shreds from clumping together in the bag, but they also keep the cheese from melting smoothly.

Process shots of Creamy Beef and Shells-- Adding the cheese and mixing it all together.

Process shots of Creamy Beef and Shells-- Adding the cheese and mixing it all together.

Creamy Beef and Shells Toppings

Stick with me here, but a big scoop of sour cream is divine in a hot bowl of this Creamy Beef and Shells. We typically use lite or fat-free sour cream — it adds creaminess without being too rich. If you like sour cream, you’ll love it nestled in these saucy, hot pasta shells.

Beyond sour cream, if you like things extra cheesy, feel free to add an extra sprinkle of cheese over your bowl.

For a burst of freshness and to help cut through the richness, garnish your plate with some fresh chopped cilantro or thinly sliced green onions. A squeeze of lime will also add in some freshness and a touch of acidity.

Up-close overhead image of Creamy Beef and Shells

Up-close overhead image of Creamy Beef and Shells

More pasta recipes

Creamy Beef and Shells

Creamy Beef and Shells is an upgrade from your childhood favorite Hamburger Helper meal — with so much more flavor and you know exactly what’s in it. This simple, family-friendly meal can be ready in 30 minutes or less. This meal is pure comfort food — we combine rich, creamy, saucy pasta shells with perfectly seasoned ground beef and loads of melty cheese.

Creamy Beef and Shells

Creamy Beef and Shells is an upgrade from your childhood favorite Hamburger Helper meal — with so much more flavor and you know exactly what’s in it. This simple, family-friendly meal can be ready in 30 minutes or less. This meal is pure comfort food — we combine rich, creamy, saucy pasta shells with perfectly seasoned ground beef and loads of melty cheese.

Ingredients

  • 3-1/4 cups uncooked medium shells
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup (135g) finely diced yellow onion
  • Fine sea salt and pepper
  • 1 lb. (16 oz.) lean ground beef (93/7)
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic (~3-4 cloves)
  • 2 teaspoons each: paprika, cumin, chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 5 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 cup (225g) low-sodium chicken broth Note 1
  • 1 cup (225g) heavy whipping cream Note 2
  • 1-1/2 cups freshly grated sharp Cheddar cheese Note 3
  • For serving: sour cream (lite or fat-free is great!), fresh cilantro or green onions (optional)

Instructions

  • PREP: Start by dicing the onion and mincing garlic. Measure out seasonings, and set out the rest of the ingredients.

  • SHELLS: Bring a large pot of water to boiling and generously salt the water (I add 1 teaspoon fine sea salt to every 4 cups of water). Once salted water is boiling, add shells (not the whole box, just 3-1/4 cups!) and cook according to package directions, draining shells 1 minute before directed. Drain; do not rinse.

  • SAUCE: Meanwhile, add the olive oil to a large heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven; heat to medium-high. Add in onion and season to taste. (I add 1/4 teaspoon salt & pepper here.) Cook, stirring occasionally until becoming soft, about 3-5 minutes. Add in the ground beef and season again. (I add 1/2 teaspoon salt & 1/4 teaspoon pepper.) Cook, crumbling as you cook, until browned all the way through, about 5-8 minutes. (If there is excess grease, drain it off here.) Add in the garlic, seasonings, and tomato paste. Cook, stirring constantly, until very fragrant and tomato paste begins to darken, about 3-5 minutes. Reduce heat if anything is burning, but we’re adding in loads of flavor by sautéing here!

  • SAUCE: Add in the chicken broth — it should sizzle and boil. Cook until mostly all is evaporated into the meat, scraping the bottom of the pan to release any browned bits. Reduce the heat to low and add in the cream. Mix and allow sauce to come to a low simmer. Cook until slightly thickened, about 3 more minutes.

  • FINISHING: Add in the cooked pasta. Use tongs to vigorously toss the sauce with the cooked pasta until the sauce clings nicely to the pasta. Taste once more and season, adding any more salt/pepper as needed. (I typically add another 1/4 teaspoon salt.) Remove from heat. Add in cheese and stir gently until melted. Serve with a big spoonful of sour cream in each bowl and top with any fresh herbs, if using.

  • STORAGE: Store, covered, in fridge for 3-5 days.

Recipe Notes

Note 1: Chicken broth: Why use chicken broth instead of beef broth? We tested both, and testers preferred the chicken broth instead. The flavor is more subtle and less intense. If you aren’t using low sodium broth, you’ll want to greatly reduce the added salt throughout the cooking process.

Note 2: Heavy cream: We don’t recommend swapping out the heavy cream — here’s why: The acidity of the tomato paste has the potential of breaking or curdling the sauce with different substitutes (like half and half or milk). The cream balances the acidity of the tomato paste. Additionally, it adds such an incredible richness and thickness to the sauce — it’s a key ingredient!

Note 3: Sharp Cheddar: This recipe is designed to be simple, but the one thing we recommend is grating your own cheese. This ensures a nice and even melt. Pre-grated cheese contains preservatives that keep the shreds from clumping together in the bag, but they also keep the cheese from melting smoothly.

Nutrition Facts

Serving: 1serving | Calories: 601kcal | Carbohydrates: 27g | Protein: 34g | Fat: 40g | Saturated Fat: 20g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 2g | Monounsaturated Fat: 15g | Trans Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 166mg | Sodium: 365mg | Potassium: 844mg | Fiber: 3g | Sugar: 6g | Vitamin A: 1322IU | Vitamin C: 10mg | Calcium: 185mg | Iron: 4mg

We do our best to provide accurate nutritional analysis for our recipes. Our nutritional data is calculated using a third-party algorithm and may vary, based on individual cooking styles, measurements, and ingredient sizes. Please use this information for comparison purposes and consult a health professional for nutrition guidance as needed.

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