Shepherd’s pie (or “cottage pie,” as it is known in some regions) is a traditional meat pie topped with mashed potato instead of pastry. The mainstay of a comfort food menu in most English-speaking cold climate countries, this dish is hearty and filling. As the name suggests, it’s designed for hungry diners who have spent an extended time outside. While it is usually considered simple pub grub, the dish can lend itself to elevation and variation with different combinations of ingredients.
In England, Ireland and Scotland, shepherd’s pie was preceded by “cottage pie” which is recorded as a popular working class dish as early as the late 1700s. It was around this time that potatoes were being established as an edible crop throughout the British Isles. This agricultural development became a global phenomenon stretching from central America to central Europe, with each region putting its own spin on the dish with local ingredients. Over the years meat and potato pies of all kinds have served as a hearty dish for hard working people and a vehicle for cooks to use up leftovers from around the kitchen (most specifically from the traditional British Sunday lunch roast).
The formal term shepherd’s pie was first used in England around the middle of the 1800s — mainly to differentiate between a pie made with lamb rather than beef (this continued to be called cottage pie).
In the modern era, in the UK at least, shepherd’s pie conventionally still contains only lamb and cottage pie contains beef. These distinctions don’t really hold in North America, where any kind of minced or pulled meat filling goes.
What’s Unique about Shepherd’s Pie?
In spite of all the culturally specific variations, any dish that calls itself shepherd’s pie is always a mix of meat and potatoes.
Though it can be labor intensive to cook and assemble, shepherd’s pie freezes well. And frozen gourmet and grocery store variety versions are readily available for home cooks who don’t have the time or inclination to cook it themselves.
As you would expect from a pub grub staple, shepherd’s pie (and its variations) goes exceptionally well with certain kinds of beer, including stout, Guiness and porter. A sturdy red wine from Bordeaux or Cotes de Rhone is also complementary.
Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones is famously fond of shepherd’s pie, frequently requesting it backstage while on tour back in the day. Former wife Anita Pallenberg describes his obsession in the Victor Bockris biography Keith Richards: The Biography, and food critic Marion Kane also describes it in the Toronto Star. Working class hero indeed.
There are two main components to the dish: the filling and the mashed potato topping.
Ingredients for the filling
2 tbsp olive oil
1.5 lbs ground lamb or beef
1 large carrot, grated
1 large onion, grated
bag of frozen peas
fresh rosemary and thyme
4 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper
small can tomato puree or paste
splash of red wine
1/4 cup chicken stock
Ingredients for the mash
1.5 lbs Yukon gold or white potatoes
1/4 cup heavy cream
3 1/2 tbsp butter
salt and pepper
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Prepare the filling in a skillet, browning the meat and then simmering it with the rest of the ingredients. Prepare the mash separately by boiling the potatoes and then mashing them with the eggs and dairy.
Let everything cool slightly, then scoop the meat mixture into a deep casserole or any kind of oven safe dish. Spoon the mash over the top, spreading it with the bottom of the spoon to a depth of about 1.5 to 2 inches.
Many cooks choose the add cheese on top just before the pie hits the oven – this can be a sprinkling of grated Parmesan or some other kind of grated hard cheese that will crisp up nicely. Or you can just decorate the mash with fork marks.
Stick the pie in the oven at 400 degrees for about 18 to 20 minutes to brown the potatoes and set the pie. Let it stand for a few minutes before serving.
Serves 6 to 8 people.
Pro tip: Be careful to cook off and reduce the liquids in the filling. This will help keep the layers separate and allow the pie to set more firmly during the bake.
For a different British chef’s take on classic Shepherd’s Pie, check out Delia Smith’s version. It includes leeks, another ingredient associated with rural peasant culture in the British Isles.
This comfort food is a global phenomenon and has many regional variations.
In Chile, “pastel de papa” also contains hard-boiled eggs, raisins and olives in addition to the standard ingredients. In France, “hachis parmentier” resembles British shepherd’s pie and sometimes contains minced venison.
Topping your pie with bread crumbs turns it into Cumberland pie, a Scottish favorite.
In the UK and North America, vegetarian variations are known as shepherdess pie. These replace meat with lentils and cauliflower and may use a sweet potato mash on top. Jamie Oliver does a full on vegan version, and the Martha Stewart vegetarian version uses French lentils and Cremini mushrooms for protein.
It would be challenging to come up with a haute cuisine version of this simple working class dish. Some chefs try by using fresh ingredients like mint and peas, or high end cuts of meat. But not much can improve on this popular people’s dish.