Shepherd’s Pie or Cottage Pie…which one is it?
Probably no food takes me back to my childhood faster than what we called Shepherd’s Pie. That saucy, flavorful filling of meat and veggies, those creamy mashed potatoes topping it, and its golden cheese crust are some of my best food memories. My mother made it all the time—likely because the leftovers from our Sunday Roast could be ground up and made into this homey happy pie. But wait! Shepherd’s pie is made with lamb! Shepherds don’t herd cows. So why did my mother call it that? Especially since lamb was not a particular family favorite. The real truth is the only thing that differs is the meat! You can use this recipe for either dish. Just use lamb in one, and beef in the other. To make a great one just follow the recipe and in about an hour and a half everyone will be begging for more.
How to make a great Shepherd’s OR Cottage Pie
A really great one should always start with a soffrito– onion, garlic, carrots, and celery sautéed on a low burner until it is sweet and softened. You can buy ready-made ‘soffrito’ in the supermarket where it is usually labeled ‘mirepoix’. Remember to add the garlic if you do. You can make short shrift of dicing the soffrito in the food processor. The meat is added and browned and then flour is added to thicken the sauce –cornstarch works too if you have gluten issues. To make the all-important gravy, please use all the flavorings—beef broth, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, red wine, and the beef bouillon cube. Simmer till the sauce is thickened then spread the mixture into the baking dish. It will be much easier to put the potato topping on if you cool the meat mixture. Once it is, top it with the creamiest mashed potatoes you can make. That makes spreading them easier. The final touch is the beautiful golden, extra-crispy layer of buttery parmesan cheese.
So where exactly did Cottage and Shepherd’s Pies come from?
The name “Cottage Pie” was first used around 1791. The potato, a native of South America, had only just found favor with the poorer people in Britain and Ireland It was affordable and became a staple of these cottage dwellers. Originally a pie made with any kind of meat and potato topping was called a “cottage pie”. It was just a matter of time before they realized a meaty-potato-laden dish was not only filling, it was also inexpensive. The first recipe for Shepherd’s Pie was published in Edinburgh Scotland in 1849. But it called for cooked meat of any kind, sliced rather than minced then covered with mashed potatoes and baked. Then the “Oxford Companion to Food” decreed “In keeping with the name, the meat should be mutton or lamb, and it is usually cooked meat leftover from a roast’. Lamb or beef, before refrigeration arrived, it was common to cook a Sunday Roast and then use it in various recipes all week long. Dorothy Hartley, the well-respected author of “Food in England” quotes an old verse “Vicarage Mutton” to make the point. And it also exposes the interchangeability of “shepherd’s” and “cottage” pies:
“Hot on Sunday, Cold on Monday, Hashed on Tuesday, Minced on Wednesday, Curried Thursday, Broth on Friday,
Cottage pie Saturday”.
Here’s today’s recipe and after it some other similar dishes to try.
Sheperd's or Cottage Pie
Shepherd’s Pie! That saucy, flavorful filling of meat and veggies, those creamy mashed potatoes topping it and its golden cheese crust are some of my best food memories.
- For the filling:
- 1/2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves , minced
- 1 onion , finely chopped
- 1 carrot , finely chopped
- 1 rib celery , finely chopped
- 3/4 tsp each dried thyme and rosemary (or 2 sprigs fresh thyme + 1 sprig rosemary)
- 750g (1.5 lb) ground lamb (mince) OR beef
- 1/4 cup (35g) flour , plain/all purpose
- 1/4 cup (55g) tomato paste
- 2 cups (500ml) beef stock / broth
- 1/2 cup (125ml) red wine (or water)
- 1 beef bouillon cube , crumbled
- 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- 2 dried bay leaves
- Salt and pepper
- 1 cup frozen peas
- For the Mashed Potatoes:
- 1.2kg (2.2 lb) potatoes, peeled and cut into 2.5cm / 1
- Step 1 First, Make the filling:
- Step 2 Heat oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add onion and garlic, and cook for 1 minute. Then add carrots, celery, thyme, and rosemary. Cook for 3 minutes or until softened and sweet.
- Step 3 Turn the heat up to high. Add lamb and cook, breaking it up as you go, until browned.
- Step 4 Add flour and mix in. Add tomato paste, broth, red wine, bouillon cube, Worcestershire sauce, and bay leaves. Stir well.
- Step 5 Bring to a simmer, then turn down the heat so it is simmering rapidly – I have it on medium. Cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally until it reduces to a thick gravy consistency (Note 1) (see video).
- Step 6 Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Transfer the Filling to a 1.5 liter/quart pie baking dish. Stir through peas. Cover, then refrigerate to cool for 1 – 2 hours or overnight (optional, Note 2)
- Step 7 GLUTEN FREE OPTION: Skip the flour. Use 2 tbsp of cornflour/cornstarch, and mix with a splash of water. Stir into the sauce at step 4, it will thicken as it heats. Also, skip the Worcestershire sauce, it’s not GF.
- Step 8 To make the finished dish: Preheat oven to 180C/350F.
- Step 9 Cook potatoes in boiling water for 15 minutes or until soft. Drain then return to the pot on turned off the stove. Allow to steam dry for 30 seconds or so (Note 3).
- Step 10 Add butter and mash until melted, then add milk, salt, and pepper. Mash until it’s soft and smooth (ie spreadable, but not sloppy), adjusting with a touch more milk if required.
- Step 11 Spread mash onto the pie, and use a fork to draw squiggles over the surface. Sprinkle with parmesan, and drizzle with butter.
- Step 12 Bake for 30 – 40 minutes or until deep golden on top and bubbling on the edges. Stick a knife into the middle to ensure it is piping hot.
- Step 13 Stand for 5 minutes before serving, garnished with fresh thyme leaves if desired.
- Step 14 Make ahead instructions: Fabulous for making ahead. Assemble the pie but don’t bake it. Once cool, then either refrigerate or freeze. Thaw if frozen (it will take way too long to bake from frozen) then bake as per recipe.