How to cook the perfect shepherd’s pie

 Is this the perfect shepherd’s pie? Photograph: Dan Matthews for the Guardian

Ionce made a formal, if ever-so-slightly slurred, complaint in a Kansas City bar regarding a shepherd’s pie that arrived filled with best US chuck steak. That’s how strongly I feel about this homely lamb dish and its beefy cottage cousin, even if, according to Clarissa Dickson-Wright, they’re less “rustic inventions” than “part of the post-industrial nostalgia for the countryside”. (The older of the two, cottage pye, gets its first mention in the diary of Parson Woodforde in 1791, though without further explanation, it might refer to anything, even a cottage wrapped in pastry. After all, the good parson was said to be a man of famously prodigious appetite.)

Though they may not boast ancient pedigree, the two dishes are not as interchangeable as the likes of Martha Stewart – or indeed, and embarrassingly, the youthful me – would have you believe: just as roast lamb is not cooked in the same way as roast beef, shepherd’s and cottage pie deserve individual attention. Having tackled the latter way back in 2010, when this column was still wet behind the ears, it feels high time we gave the shepherd his moment in the spotlight. Is this one of those dishes that’s so familiar you don’t need a recipe, or is there anything new to learn about shepherd’s pie?

The meat

Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham's shepherd’s pie: best to start with raw mince, they say.
 Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham’s shepherd’s pie: best to start with raw mince, they say. Photographs: Felicity Cloake

Originally, this was a dish designed to make the Sunday roast go further – the thrifty cook could stretch out the joint until Friday with clever cooking, and such pies were, and still are, often a Monday treat. Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham regard this as a second-best option, writing in The Prawn Cocktail Yearsthat “there is no reason why a shepherd’s pie cannot also be made from a cooked lamb joint, but it turns out better and juicier when made from raw minced meat”.

Tom Kerridge and Jamie Oliver clearly disagree, because they roast meat for the purpose: Oliver a lamb shoulder, cooked long, though not particularly low, and then slowly braised in its cooking juices; and Kerridge lamb shanks. The testers are excited about these pies after I tell them how long they’ve taken to make, but confess themselves slightly thrown by their consistency, which is, they think, a bit stringy, though both lamb joints had plenty of fat on them.

Tom Kerridge’s lamb shoulder shepherd’s pie.
 Tom Kerridge’s lamb shank shepherd’s pie.

The juicier mince favoured by the Prawn Cocktail pair, Harry Eastwood’s CarnevaleRussell Brown and Jonathan Haley’s new book Well Seasoned, and The Ivy restaurant’s famous version meets with far more favour – there’s no need to bake it before use, either, as Kerridge suggests: easier to brown the lamb well in the pan before slow-simmering it. After a recommendation from my butcher, I try one recipe with goat mince instead, which has an even better flavour – mutton or hogget would no doubt have the same effect.

Even lamb mince can vary, however: Eastwood calls specifically for minced lamb shoulder, which she and my butcher explain is a fattier cut than some – and certainly better marbled, darker in colour and stronger in flavour than generic supermarket lamb mince. Whether this is down to the quality of the meat, the cut, or a bit of both is impossible to tell, because the packet stuff doesn’t specify origins, but this dish is certainly worth sourcing decent mince for: it’s never pricey (unless you go down the Ivy road and cut it with minced rib of beef, of course).

If you don’t have any lamb drippings handy to cook it in (which you’re unlikely to, unless you’re making it with leftover meat), beef dripping makes a far better, meatier substitute than oil, adding an unmistakable whiff of animal to a dish that was never really going to make the vegetarian heart sing in any case.

Jamie Oliver's shepherd’s pie has potatoes inside AND on top.
 Jamie Oliver’s shepherd’s pie has potatoes inside as well as on top.

The vegetables

You can go rogue, if you like – the Ivy puts in shallots, Oliver red onion and Kerridge goes as far as garlic, but I prefer to keep things simple with the time-honoured trinity of yellow onion, celery and carrot, the last cubed, rather than grated as Hopkinson and Bareham suggest, because testers prefer the texture – though, sadly, they’re not keen on Oliver’s swede. I think it seems rather in keeping with the spirit of the dish, though I’d be tempted to bake it first to make it less watery.

The Ivy and Eastwood both include mushrooms in their sauces, with the latter writing that many shepherd’s pies lack “depth of flavour. In poncy chef terms, it lacks umami. The mushrooms and mushroom ketchup give this recipe a savoury boost, as do the sun-dried tomatoes.” I agree with her: many recipes do indeed lack a bit of punch, but the testers aren’t keen on the texture of mushrooms here, however finely they’re chopped; and the sun-dried tomatoes, though delicious, seem to belong to another dish entirely. “Too fancy,” apparently.

Gravy flavourings

But how to add umami without mushrooms or tomato? Meat stock seems the most obvious candidate: slow simmering the mince in lamb stock, as Brown and Hayley and Eastwood recommend, will deliver more savoury flavour than Bareham and Hopkinson’s water. If you can’t find good lamb stock, then beef stock is better than nothing (the Ivy’s veal stock will be, too).

Tomatoes are also high in those all-important glutamates – the Ivy uses chopped tomatoes and tomato puree, and Eastwood, Bareham and Hopkinson ketchup, which has its fans, though I find it too sweet and vinegary. Everything ketchup touches ends up tasting of ketchup, so I’m going to use puree instead, plus a good dash of the Ivy’s Worcestershire sauce in place of the Prawn Cocktail Years’ anchovy essence and Kerridge’s red-wine vinegar, which gives his pie a tanginess that works very well with the richness of lamb and potato, but seems at odds with the culinary comfort blanket that is shepherd’s pie.

A similar simplicity also seems wise in the herbs and spices department: Eastwood’s exotic star anise, Kerridge’s mace and the Ivy’s oregano are all great options, but you can’t beat thyme and rosemary with lamb.

The mash

A good shepherd’s – or indeed cottage – pie, needs a solid, but fluffy top: too much milk or butter, and you’ll end up with a sloppy puree instead. Make sure you steam the potatoes dry before mashing, and season generously; I like Bareham and Hopkinson’s nutmeg as well as the usual salt and pepper. If you’d like to increase the vegetable content, Eastwood’s butternut squash mash is wonderful, especially with the maple syrup to play off the natural sweetness of the meat, though there should be enough savoury flavour in the filling to negate the need for added cheese (though her parmesan works better than Oliver’s cheddar, and, inspired by Kerridge, I think a hard goat’s cheese would work best of all).

Oliver lines his dish with potatoes, too, which I’m excited about – you can never have too much of a good thing – but the panel thinks it makes the dish too claggy, soaking up the gravy and blurring the satisfying distinction between molten filling and dense top. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs, if you think it needs extra crunch, but for me a shepherd’s pie needs no other adornment than its traditional crispy furrows, satisfyingly described by Dickson-Wright as “a ploughed field” of potato. And you don’t get much more rustic than that.

Perfect shepherd’s pie

Prep 15-20 min
Cook 2hr 15 min
Serves 4-6

2 tbsp good beef dripping (or lamb, if you happen to have some)
800g minced lamb, goat, hogget or mutton, preferably from the shoulder, but anyway not “lean”
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 large carrots, peeled and diced
3 celery sticks, diced
2 sprigs each rosemary and thyme, leaves picked and roughly chopped
1 tbsp flour
300ml good lamb stock (or beef stock) 
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce 
1 tbsp tomato puree
1.5kg floury potatoes
100g butter
1 tbsp whole milk
Nutmeg, to grate

Heat the fat in a large, heavy-bottomed casserole dish over a medium-high heat, then fry the meat in batches until crisp and well browned all over (not just beige). Transfer the browned meat into a bowl and repeat with the rest.

Fry the minced lamb until crisp – in dripping, rather than oil – for a fuller flavour
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 Fry the minced lamb until crisp – in dripping, rather than oil – for a fuller flavour. Photography: Dan Matthews for the Guardian.

Turn down the heat, add the onion to the pan and cook until it begins to soften. Add the carrots, celery and herbs, and cook until tender but not soft. Sprinkle over the flour and stir well to distribute, then add the stock and Worcestershire sauce, and scrape the bottom of the pan to dislodge any stuck bits.

Set the meat aside, then fry the onion, celery and carrot with a sprinkle of rosemary and thyme.
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 Set the meat aside, then fry the onion, celery and carrot with a sprinkle of rosemary and thyme.

Return the lamb to the pot, bring everything to a simmer, then cover, turn down the heat and simmer for 45 minutes. Remove the lid and simmer uncovered for a further 15 minutes, then set aside to cool.

Peel your spuds.
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 Peel your spuds.

While the meat is cooking, peel the potatoes and cut them into evenly sized chunks. Boil in well-salted water until tender, then drain well and return to the hot pan to steam dry. Mash with the butter and milk, then season with salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4.

Mash with milk, butter and nutmeg.
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 Mash with milk, butter and nutmeg.

Spoon the meat mix into a 30cm x 20cm ovenproof dish, then cover with the mash. Smooth out the top, then use a fork to make furrows over the top – do not skip this stage. Bake for about 30 minutes, until lightly golden on top, then serve with greens.

A ‘ploughed field’ of furrowed mash on top will turn extra-crisp.
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 A ‘ploughed field’ of furrowed mash on top will turn extra-crisp in the oven.

 Are shepherd’s and cottage pie interchangeable (having written this recipe without looking at my cottage pie of eight years ago, I find to my embarrassment the two are remarkably similar) and if not, what changes do you ring between the two? Mince or roast meat, tomato, Oxo cubes or sweetcorn: what’s in your favourite family recipe?

  • Photographs Dan Matthews for the Guardian. Food styling: Iona Blackshaw

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