I’ve always loved shepherd’s pie. I think we first met when I was about 7 years old at the Rose & Crown. This establishment is not in England— it’s in the England block of the world showcase at Disney’s Epcot.
The day of our meeting was cold, (for Florida), and wet, and my little soggy feet were so tired. The pie was so warm and so comforting that it managed to cure a case of nearly irreversible crankiness. And it’s no wonder— a bowl of gravy and meat, topped with a halo of mashed potatoes, could cure almost anything, I think.
In more recent years, I grew attached to one shepherd’s pie in particular, which can be found at Tea & Sympathy, a tiny restaurant in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. I still think about this place, even after moving out of New York almost 6 years ago. I still think about its mismatched teapots and teacups, the peeling wallpaper that imitates shelves of books, the tiny tables that can barely house the meal. And of course, I still think of the pies, fresh from the oven and smelling like heaven, served in large, hot, oblong ramekins alongside giant piles of buttered peas.
In my own kitchen I’ve been making my version of shepherd’s pie for years, always tweaking the recipe as I go. The recipe below is the version I managed to write down, and I think it’s just wonderful! But I’m sure I’ll continue to change it a little here and there each time I make it. There’s a lot of wiggle room for creativity and subbing with ingredients on hand, and that’s part of the fun.
But if you do stick strictly to the recipe, I think you’ll find the potatoes to be rich and creamy, with a crisped top and a golden hue from a swipe of melted butter. They’ll have just enough dairy worked in to make them sink into the filling just a little, which personally, I like. The meat will be blanketed with gravy, thick with the aroma of tomatoes and porcini mushrooms. You’ll feel like you’re wrapped in a blanket too, when you taste it. All of this studded with the fresh pop of plentiful green peas. Maybe a sprinkle garlicky of sliced chives will sit on top, if you choose, or if you remember to sprinkle them, which I only do about half the time.
I usually wrestle with whether to bake a shepherd’s pie in a large casserole dish or in little individually-sized crocks or ramekins. I go back and forth a few times while I cook up all the components— it’s part of the experience. This time I chose crocks, because I love a personal pie all to myself. Maybe you’ll wrestle with this decision as you cook, too. Good luck, and whichever decision you make is the right one.
Filling the pies.
Brushing the potato tops with melted butter.
A pie by any other name…
A cottage pie is made with ground beef, while a shepherd’s pie is made with lamb (hence, the name “shepherd’s”.)
I make this recipe with beef, but you can make it with lamb if you want to.
I make porcini powder with a spice grinder at home by whizzing up dried porcini mushrooms. It’s great on tons of things, especially any mushroom dish that needs extra oomph, or on any pizza.
The porcini powder adds a nice depth and slight bitterness but it’s optional. Leave it out, or alternatively, rehydrate dried porcini in water, chop them up, and add them in the gravy. Or, sauté any kind of mushrooms and put them in the filling. That adds a nutritional boost too.
My potato ricer is one of my favorite things because it makes such fluffy soft mashed potatoes.
My top tip for using one is rinse that thing off immediately as soon as you’re done with it– cleaning dried-on potato off a ricer is not fun!
If you don’t have one, don’t worry about it! Just mash the potatoes with a masher or any way you like to.
Baking soda aids in browning meat, tenderizing, and retaining moisture. I use it constantly for this purpose. You can skip this step, but I highly recommend trying it if you haven’t! Be sure to measure, too much baking soda will not be tasty.
Shepherd’s Pie Recipe
- Large pot, around 8 quarts
- potato ricer or potato masher
- Medium bowl
- Large saute pan
- wooden spoon or spatula
- 4 oven-proof croques OR a casserole or pie dish, around 10×10"
- pastry brush
- 2 lbs yukon gold potatoes
- 1/2 cup whole milk or buttermilk
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter divided
- 1 lb ground beef or lamb
- 1/8 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 medium yellow onion diced (around 1 cup)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1/4 teaspoon porcini powder see recipe notes for more information
- 2 tablespoons all purpose flour
- black pepper
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1.5 cups stock
- 1.5 cups frozen peas
- sliced chives for topping optional
- Fill an 8 quart pot ⅔ of the way up with cold water and salt generously. Peel the potatoes, cut into 1-2 inch cubes, and transfer to the pot.
- Bring the pot with the potatoes to a boil over high heat and boil for 10 minutes. The potatoes should be tender enough to be easily pierced with a fork, but should not be so soft that they completely fall apart when pierced.
- Drain the potatoes in a colander, and leave the pot off the heat nearby. While the potatoes are still hot, press the potato pieces through a potato ricer back into the 8 quart pot. When all of the potatoes have been riced, add the milk or buttermilk, 3 tablespoons of the butter, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt to the pot and gently fold until just combined. Set aside.
- In a medium bowl, combine the ground beef or lamb with the baking soda and 1 teaspoon of salt. Mix well with hands and set aside.
- Heat the oven to 425F.
- In a large saute pan, saute the onion with 1 tablespoon of the butter, the olive oil, and a pinch of salt over medium heat. Cook until softened, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes.
- Push the onions to the sides and add the ground beef or lamb to the pan. Push the meat out onto the pan and allow 2 minutes to brown undisturbed. Then continue to brown, breaking up with a wooden spatula or spoon and stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes more. If the mix becomes watery, turn the heat up a little to evaporate the liquid quicker.
- Add the garlic, porcini powder, flour, a few cracks black pepper, and tomato paste, and cook 1-2 minutes, stirring. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Cook, stirring, until thickened, about 5 minutes.
- Transfer the mixture to croques or a baking dish. Top with the frozen peas, followed by the mashed potatoes. Melt the remaining 1 tablespoon butter and brush on the top of the potatoes.
- Bake for 30 minutes on the center rack, then broil on the center rack for 3-4 minutes. Serve topped with chives.