The best shepherds pie

shepherds pie

Shepherds pie is my ultimate comfort food, my children adore it and it is a brilliant make-ahead meal when you have people coming over for dinner. It pains me to see how many awful shepherds pie recipe are out there so let me show you how to start making it properly. Every family has their own version; this is my Mum’s that I’ve tinkered with a little.

Don’t let the length of the recipe turn you off. Having taught this recipe in my cooking classes  multiple times, I’ve learned all the questions people have, and the misconceptions and fears they have. So I address those in my recipe, I hope it feels like I’m there with you and leaving no nervousness about how to make it.

Shepherds pie is traditionally made with leftover meat from the sunday roast with a creamy mashed potato topping. Nowadays most people cook it with minced raw meat as fewer of us are in the habit of being as thrifty with our leftovers – I also think we’re probably greedier with our roast dinners so less is left! You can make this with beef (in which case it will be called cottage pie), pork or turkey, and you can switch the mashed potato for a cauliflower mash on top if you are watching carbs.

I like this best when I make it a day or two before serving it so the flavors develop – perfect for entertaining. This is also an easy recipe to double up so you freeze a pie for another day. If you are freezing the pie, do it before you cook it in the oven. It takes a long time to defrost as it is pretty dense to allow time!

I’m on the fence about the cheese on top debate. Yes, there is an actual debate. If you do put cheese on top, be sure that it is a good strong English Cheddar. Grate it on top of the mashed potato before putting the pie in the oven so that it goes almost crispy. I don’t know any child (or grown up) who doesn’t eat the crunchy cheese bit first.

Some people also add carrots to the onion when it cooks and frozen peas to the cooked meat before topping it with the potato. Again, your call, but I grew up with my peas and carrots on the side so that’s how I make it. In America a lot of people tell me they’ve had it with sweetcorn stirred through. No comment.

Leftovers can be reheated in the microwave or oven. Or you can mush the meat in to the potato and make little cakes that you can pan fry and serve with ketchup for another lovely comforting meal.

Be sure to add Worcester sauce (pronounced wuss-ter, not wor-cess-ter). It is pretty essential as it gives the umami savoryness and saltiness that this dish needs. Sauces vary in flavor so add it gradually. In England we also sprinkle Worcester sauce on our grilled cheese on toast and I put it into pasta sauces and stews when I want an umami hit.

I like to use my beloved metal-handled Scanpan Chef’s pan to make my shepherds pie. It is the perfect size for this recipe and reduces my dish washing as I cook the meat in the pan then put the mashed potato on top and bake it in the same pan. A large oven proof Le Creuset, metal handled frying pan or enamel coated cast iron pan works well. Or you can cook your meat in a frying pan and then transfer it to a ceramic or glass lasagna dish to bake. Alternatively you can make individual pies in ramekins or small ovenproof dishes. Individual pies will take a third of the time to cook in the oven.

My favourite potato masher is an Oxo one (see equipment below for details). It gets smooth mash and is easy to hold. You could use a potato ricer to get perfectly creamy mash but it is extra cleaning up so I have to be in a perfectionist mood to feel I can justify.

Note – American measurements and translations are in brackets.

Active cooking time: 40 minutes. Hands-off cooking time: 30-40 minutes

Ingredients (serves 4-6 people):

For the base:

700g (1.5lb) minced (ground) beef or lamb, around 85% lean. If using turkey, use ground dark meat

1 large red or yellow onion

2 cloves garlic

4 sprigs fresh thyme

2 level tablespoons plain (all purpose) flour

2 tablespoons tomato purée (paste)

150ml (2 thirds of a cup) red wine

2 tablespoons Worcester sauce

1 liter (35oz) chicken stock (home made or supermarket fresh stock – or in the US made up from 4 teaspoons Better than bouillon organic chicken stock paste)

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

For the potato topping

800g-1kg (1.7-2lb) Maris Piper or Desiree potatoes (russet)

150ml (5oz or 2 thirds of a cup) milk, full fat is best but don’t buy it especially if you usually only have skimmed in the fridge

2 tablespoons butter

optional – mature Cheddar, I like Trader Joe’s Unexpected Cheddar in the US to mix into the mashed potato or sprinkle on top of the finished pie

To make:

  1. Start heating a large high-sided frying pan or Le Creuset (Dutch oven) on a medium high heat without any oil.
  2. Take the minced (ground) meat and pop it onto a piece of baking parchment or foil. Fold the foil so that one half of the foil is on the counter top and one half is on top of the meat. Then use the foil to flatten the meat into a pancake or big burger shape. Doing this increases the surface area of your meat meaning you have lots of more space to get brown and crusty and flavour packed. It also means you won’t be stood over your pan breaking a big lump of meat up (which I know from teaching in my classes is what 95% of people have done until now!).
  3. Deftly flip the pancake of meat into your pan. Then leave it on a medium high heat for 5 minutes without moving the meat. This will enable it to get a lovely golden crust which will add a ton of flavour. Don’t worry it won’t burn. Use your sense of smell to see if it is burning. If you try and keep moving it, it will never get chance to develop that delicious golden crust. Be brave. Colour = flavour and you need to leave it be for that colour to develop. Don’t feel that by continually stirring meat as it cooks you will stop it from sticking. Sticking isn’t that bad – I’d rather have meat that sticks but then goes golden brown than grey meat that doesn’t stick. The liquid we add later will pull up any bits that stick anyway.
  4. While the meat is frying, chop your onions into a small dice and slice your garlic. Keep the garlic separate from the onions as they won’t be added at the same time. See, because you’re not stood over that pan of meat you can get other jobs done and save your overall cooking time.
  5. After 5 minutes, flip the meat and start to break it up with the side of a metal spoon until you have chunks roughly an inch across.
  6. Add the chopped onion to the pan of meat and stir, then continue to cook on a medium heat so that the onions start to turn soft, golden and smell sweet. This will take around 5 minutes. Stir every minute or so.
  7. Add the garlic and thyme to the pan with the onions and meat once the onions are soft. Fry for a minute. Garlic has a much higher sugar content than onions so burns faster. That’s why we’re adding it later. Don’t worry, it won’t taste raw, it will be cooking in the sauce for ages after this.
  8. Add the flour and tomato purée (paste), stir and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring constantly.
  9. Add the wine, Worcester sauce and two thirds of the stock to the pan and stir. Bring to the boil and simmer with a lid on for 30 minutes on a medium heat. Stir every 5 minutes and add more stock if it is drying out.
  10. While your meat simmers, peel your potatoes then cut them into roughly 2 inch chunks before boiling them in salted water for around 20 minutes. This is a good time to prep your veggies that you will be serving alongside
  11. Preheat your oven to 200C (400F) if you are eating the pie straight away
  12. When your meat has been simmering for 30-40 minutes, taste it and adjust the seasoning – I usually add pepper and a splash of wine or red wine vinegar (for freshness) at this stage. The Worcester sauce is pretty salty so I rarely add salt. Texture wise, you still want a nice amount of gravy. Not soupy, but enough for some to soak into the potato as it cooks and the meat to still have a sauce. Add water if need be to get the texture right
  13. Drain your potatoes into a colander when they are soft enough for a knife to pierce them easily. Then mash them with a potato masher or potato ricer until they are smooth
  14. Using a silicone spatula, stir your warmed milk and butter (I usually do this in the microwave in a cup) into the potatoes gradually until you have a thick but smooth mash. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Feel free to add a teaspoon or two of Dijon mustard or some grated cheese at this stage too.
  15. Spoon the potato on top of the meat, don’t dump it all in the middle as it will sink. Take big spoonfulls and drop them evenly over the surface of the meat then flatten the top with a fork to rough it up or make a pattern, this adds some crunchy texture after it is cooked. You can brush the potato with beaten egg for a more golden crust. You can also top the potato with grated cheese if you’d like. If you used a big oven proof pan to cook your meat, you can spoon your potato straight on top of the meat in the same pan. If your pan isn’t big enough to hold the potato as well, spoon the meat into a ceramic or glass baking dish, I usually use a lasagna dish or spread it between two dishes depending on their size and how many people will be eating.
  16. At this stage you can tightly cover and keep the pie in the fridge for 3 days, or freeze it
  17. When you’re ready to eat the pie, place the dish on a large foil, lined baking sheet as it will probably bubble over, then place in the oven for 30-40 minutes until the top is golden and the gravy is bubbling up around the edges. If you are cooking it from the fridge it will take 15-20 minutes longer to heat. To test if it is ready, put a fork in the middle of the pan and touch the fork after you pull it out to feel that the metal is hot (and therefore the meat is hot).
  18. I let the pie sit for 10-15 minutes before serving as it. This resting time is a useful time to get your sides finished or re-heated. I love my shepherds pie piping hot with peas, carrots, mustard and ketchup.

Equipment

You can now buy the equipment I use in this recipe through my shop. I’ve spent years testing my favourite bits of equipment so rest-assured that whatever I recommend is the best tool for the job and will give you great results without cluttering your kitchen with unused tools.

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