Brit Recipes: Shepherd’s Pie, Prodigal Style

Heartwarming Shepherd's Pie

Shepherd’s Pie is basically minced (ground) meat covered and sealed with a potato lid that keeps it hot. That’s probably why this dish is a perennial favorite in British pubs: it can be made in advance and kept warm for hours, and it’s quite cheap and easy to make. Mind you, Shepherd’s Pie in pubs is often horrid, with gummy mash and a thin undercoating of mystery meat. But don’t be put off by the bland pub version of this classic cornerstone of British nosh, or by its apparent simplicity. Properly prepared, this dish is a culinary treat, perfect for a cold winter night.

The Meat and Sauce

With due respect to Stephen Sondheim, Shepherd’s Pie contains no shepherd. Originally lamb was used. And very good it is too. But, in most US supermarkets, ground lamb is hard to find; so I use ground chuck, or even a meatloaf-type combo of beef, pork, veal, or turkey. It matters not. I use just over a pound and half of ground meat.

You need to make a Bolognese-type sauce. Here’s what I do. Chop up and sauté 2 onions and carrots, then add a couple of packages of sliced mushrooms. A nice meaty shroom like Portobello would be super but good, regular button mushroom are just as good. Actually, you could make this a vegetarian dish by just using meaty mushrooms and sautéed eggplant for the filling.

Push vegetables to one side and brown the meat. Then combine and add half a cup of milk. Once the milk has been absorbed, add a can of peeled tomatoes and a couple of teaspoons of tomato puree, a teaspoon of brown sugar, and a dollop of Dijon mustard. Finish off with a few shots of Worcestershire sauce and half a cup of beef or chicken stock. (By the way, if you don’t have tomato paste, a few squirts of ketchup will do the trick.)

The key difference between this filling and a Bolognese sauce is the viscosity. You want the Shepherd’s pie filling to be nice and thick. If the sauce is too loose, you can add a dollop of cream cheese or a teaspoonful of flour, but I tend to reduce the sauce until it thickens up a treat. Cook for an hour. If a wooden spoon can stand up in the mixture, it’s ready. Add parsley or herbs to it as you wish.
Another thought: when I actually make Bolognese sauce, I often make a double amount and put half away for a Sheperd’s Pie. Then I just thicken up the sauce – et voila!

The Spuds Topping

Use whatever potatoes you normally use for mash. You’ll need about three pounds, a bit more or less won’t hurt. Start the spuds to cook in cold water. As soon as they are almost cooked, drain the water so the spuds don’t get gummy and starchy. Then mash in half a stick of butter and a little hot milk. Add a little salt and a little white pepper.

To assemble

Butter a casserole or gratin-type oven dish, spread out the meat (or meatless) mixture, and cover with an even coating of the mashed potato. Using the tines of a fork, mark and swirl up the surface of the mash. Dot with a little more butter. Recently I had some left over parmesan cheese and sprinkled that on top as well, it was a nice addition but it’s not essential. Now pop your dish into a 375 oven for about 40 minutes or until the top is golden brown. If dish isn’t brown enough, just woof it up under the broiler for a couple of minutes and that will do the trick.

Lots of hearty dishes taste better the second day, and this is true for Shepherd’s Pie — if you can wait a day! Once you’ve layered on the mash just cover and put in the fridge overnight, then proceed as above. Just give the dish an hour in the oven because it has been in the fridge.

Although a simple dish, Shepherd’s Pie is wonderful comfort food. And everyone loves it: in the prodigal household everyone wants seconds. They will in your house, too!

Check Out Our Book!

Read More at Anglotopia


  1. avatar says

    I haven’t had a real problem finding ground lamb here in America (it’s usually either American or New Zealand lamb), although it tends to be expensive. I have definitely noticed more lamb available today than even 2-3 years ago.

    I’ve become really good at throwing together a Shepherd’s Pie with the help of Colman’s Shepherd’s Pie mix (available from online British food sites) which, truth be told, is probably what the average Brit at-home cook uses.

    Simply brown the mince with chopped onion; drain; add the Colman’s Pie mix which has been mixed with water (this will make a lovely gravy); spoon mixture into a casserole dish and top with homemade mash. Pop into the oven and when thoroughly heated, sprinkle a bit of shredded cheese atop the mash. Run under the grill until melted and nicely browned.

    Shepherd’s Pie. Done.

  2. avatar says

    No fraid my family would NEVER use a packet mix for any food at all!! Although I might sneak an Oxo cube in!! Otherwise it’s very simply minced beef (not called ground in England) or lamb, onion, a little plain flour to thicken slightly, salt and freshly ground black pepper and the oxo or fresh beef stock. Could throw in a little Worcester sauce or other spices if you liked.
    That’s it! KIS!

  3. avatarMark Cochrane Jackson says

    Definitely NO tomatoes (it’s not Tattie Bolognese)! My mum’d murder you! 😉

    In fact, my mum doesn’t fry the mince, she *boils* it with sliced onions and carrots in a small amount of water (seasoned at the end). This creates a really nice gravy, once it’s reduced to the appropriate consistency so that the mash doesn’t sink when it’s put on top. It also makes the mince really moist and tender! 😛 Oh yum, I’m making myself hungry now!

    One more thing. The mash! Use floury potatoes, and mash with salt, pepper, butter and a *little* milk, so that it’s fluffy and not glutinous.

    Alright, yet another thing! Get a decent Cheddar to grate over the top (I love Scottish cheddar, like Campbelltown/Kintyre).

    P.S. Don’t forget the HP sauce!

  4. avatar says

    Jane, the Colman’s mix is nothing more than a packet of spices that you add a bit of water to for the gravy. My husband’s family (who are English and live outside London) all use this in their Shepherd’s (or Cottage) pies – which was what I based my statement on. xxx

  5. avatar says

    What a lively discussion–this one really reminds everyone of home, doesn’t it? Real comfort food.
    I agree with Jane–packets are not allowed in my house, though my mum was quite fond of them, her gravy always started life looking like instant coffee. Wouldn’t use OXO either though, that’s mostly salt which we really watch nowadays.
    Mark–I know tomatoes are not traditional (apologies to your mum), but the Americans in our household found Shepherd’s pie a bit dry and dull until we started doing it this way. Plus, it cuts down a bit on the dish’s meatiness, which is more healthy. To tell the truth, the first time we did it this way we had sauce leftover from another night but didn’t fancy spaghetti again—fusion at its best, I say.
    If you think about it, this dish is not really all-English anyway, as potatoes were carried back from the New World! As long as it tastes good and reminds you of all the right things, that’s what matters!
    Oh–Mark–yes, HP sauce, that’s the ticket! Unfortunately it’s very expensive here, must wait till my next trip to Blighty.

  6. avatarChris Hardy says

    Just thought I’d add that it’s “shepherds pie” if you use lamb mince but becomes “cottage pie” if you use beef mince. Not sure on the tomato though! Definitely worth adding garden peas to the mix along with plenty of ground black pepper.