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What is Shepherd's Pie?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Shepherd’s pie recipes were first developed in England in the mid-19th century. Recipes differ from traditional meat pies because they do not involve meat enclosed in a pastry crust. Instead, shepherd’s pie consists of a layer of ground meat and a few vegetables topped with a creamy layer of mashed potatoes. The dish is baked until the top of the potatoes forms a golden-brown crust.

The first shepherd’s pie recipes included ground lamb, a bit of onion, and perhaps some peas and carrots. The lamb produced some gravy as it was cooking. The result was almost an upside down version of potatoes with gravy. Shepherd’s pie had more substance than simple mashed potatoes, though, because of the quantity of meat in the recipe.

Other countries soon adopted shepherd’s pie, and produced two variants. Instead of ground lamb, some recipes substituted ground beef. Though traditionally this variant is called cottage pie, most in the US recognize it as shepherd’s pie. Less familiar in the US is the use of ground fish, which makes a dish correctly termed fisherman’s pie.

Additional ingredients were added as shepherd’s pie recipes evolved. A layer of cheese may top the potatoes. Canned tomatoes or tomato sauce can be added to make more gravy on the bottom of the dish. Some US recipes add a layer of corn or baked beans. Spice and herb selections vary. Though most recipes call for salt and pepper, others require the addition of basil, oregano, or nutmeg.

In most recipes for shepherd’s pie, the ground meat is pan fried before layering it in the dish. Suggestions for preparing the mashed potatoes include adding either milk or egg whites to lighten the potatoes. This prevents the potatoes from crushing the meat layer of the dish.

Traditional shepherd’s pie and cottage pie are usually baked for about 30 minutes in the oven to achieve the crisp top on the potatoes. One variant that can cut down on cooking time is a recipe by Rachel Ray, well-known chef and celebrity. She suggests broiling the shepherd’s pie for 6-8 minutes to achieve the crispy top layer.

Some are familiar with shepherd’s pie as a leftover dish. Instead of using ground meat, scraps of roast beef, a little gravy, and mashed potatoes can be used to prepare the dish. This version is an excellent way to deal with leftover roast beef and potatoes. Turkey, turkey gravy, and mashed potatoes could be substituted, or one might use leftover lamb and mashed potatoes. Also, Swiss steak can be reinvented the next night as a form of shepherd’s pie. When the meat is precooked, gravy or stock must be added so the dish remains moist.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By amypollick — On Mar 16, 2013

@anon325116: Try vegetarian ground beef substitute crumbles with a rich vegetable broth. You can use everything else in the recipe. I've found the veggie crumbles to be tasty and easy to use.

By anon325116 — On Mar 14, 2013

Is there a vegetarian recipe for this? It sounds amazing, but I can't eat meat.

By GardenTurtle — On Oct 21, 2010

@calabama71: This is the only recipe that I have for Shepherd’s Pie and it is a huge hit in my family. I have three sons and Shepherd’s Pie fills them up!

You will need: 1 ½ lb. ground beef, 1 chopped onion, 1 ½ cups veggies (carrots, corn, peas, etc.), 3 big potatoes, 1 stick of butter, ½ cup beef broth, 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce, and season to taste.

Peel your potatoes and quarter them. Boil under tender. Melt the butter in a large frying pan. Sauté the onions until they are tender. Add the vegetables of your choice to the onions. If you are using corn or peas, you need to add them last.

Add the ground beef to the vegetable mixture and cook until done. Add salt and pepper. Add the Worcestershire sauce. Add the beef broth and cook over low heat for ten minutes.

Mash your potatoes in a bowl with a little butter. Place your beef mixture in a baking dish. Spread your mashed potatoes on the top of the mixture. Cook at 400 degrees until brown, usually about 30 minutes.

By calabama71 — On Oct 21, 2010

I have never even heard of Shepherd's Pie but it sounds great. I'm not exactly sure how to go about making it. Does anyone have a fairly simple recipe that I could try?

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia...
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