Sunday, December 20, 2009

Recipe: Shepherd's Pie

Shepherd's pie in a cast iron skillet

In western culture, the shepherd has come to symbolize protection, guidance, and solitary perseverance. In the Christian tradition, shepherds were the go-to guys when the angels needed to spread the word about a certain important baby shower.

In my opinion, the pinnacle of Shepherd Civilization may well be the invention of shepherd's pie. Shepherd's pie (also called cottage pie), consists of a layer of minced or ground meat covered by a layer of mashed potatoes—all of which is baked in the oven until golden brown. That's pure genius.

As near as I can tell, this dish was invented in Great Britain in the 1700's (once potatoes had arrived from the new world). As we all know, however, the Incas were advanced in many ways, and I wouldn't put it past them to have hit upon the concept of this dish centuries before the Brits.

I first became acquainted with shepherd's pie in Alaska. My friend Ben made shepherd's pie about once a week (which is infinitely sensible when it's 30 below zero). The 200 pounds of potatoes left over from the kitchen's summer larder further augmented Ben's appearance of sensibility.

Carrots and onions add sweetness to complement salt
You can make shepherd's pie out of just about any type of meat. We've made it with lamb, beef, buffalo, ground turkey, leftover thanksgiving turkey, and even salmon. Sometimes it's just meat and potatoes. Other times it's full of veggies. The mashed potatoes might feature roasted garlic, chipotle sauce, or fire-roasted jalapenos. Shepherd's pie is at its best when each layer has its own distinct flavor profile, so consider varying your seasonings between the meat and the potatoes (this can be subtle: in this recipe I used garlic powder in the potatoes and onion powder in the buffalo, and salt and pepper in both).

No matter what type of meat you like in your pie, the secret to an outstandingly tasty experience is this: When you've finished browning the meat; add a bit of flour, and then some water or broth to create a quick gravy around the meat. The gravy helps alleviate any pooled fat at the bottom after roasting, keeps the meat from drying out, and provides a rich, flavorful foundation to the pie.

This recipe is a fairly traditional interpretation that uses ground buffalo and red potatoes. Just like this dish's inherent flexibility when it comes to meat, many varieties of potatoes are acceptable (including that old workhorse, the russet). I like to leave the skin on the potatoes, but you can peel them if you prefer. I added onions, carrots and peas to the meat layer in this recipe... but you can do as you like. The onions and carrots provide a nice sweetness to intensify flavor (in combination with the salt).

  • 2 pounds ground buffalo
  • 2 pounds red potatoes, halved
  • 4 carrots, cut into 1/4 inch rounds
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup frozen peas
  • 1-2 tablespoons all purpose flour (I used Bob's Red Mill gluten-free flour here)
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Granulated garlic
  • Onion powder
  • 1 stick of butter
  • 1 cup (or so) milk
  • 1/2 cup (or so) chicken or beef broth
  • Canola oil, as needed
Adding the top layer of mashed potatoes
In a large stainless steel pot, boil the potatoes in plenty of water until they are done—as you would normally for mashed potatoes. They should be tender to a fork (or you can always just taste a chunk to make sure). Drain the potatoes, and put them back in the pot with the butter. Mash them up, and add milk as needed to make them creamy. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and granulated garlic. Potatoes should be nice and flavorful—so don't skimp on the seasonings!

In a large cast iron skillet or dutch oven brown the buffalo over medium heat. Make sure to start with a shiny pan, and let it heat evenly before adding the meat. Buffalo is fairly lean, so I'd add a tablespoon or so of oil to start. When the meat is mostly browned, add salt, pepper, and onion powder to taste, as well as any vegetables or aromatics (onions and carrots in this case).

Continue cooking until the onions are beginning to caramelize, and the carrots are starting to soften (another 10 minutes, maybe). Add more oil if you need to, and then sprinkle in the flour. Mix things around, and then add water or broth until you have a small amount of gravy mingling with the browned meat. Add frozen peas and stir things around again. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and onion powder.

Ready to serve!
Smooth out the browned meat layer so it is of uniform thickness, and then spoon the mashed potatoes on top and smooth them over (this step is easier if your potatoes are thoroughly mashed, and contain a bit more liquid than normal).

Bake the shepherd's pie in the oven on 350 degrees F for 35-40 minutes, or until lightly browned on top.

 Pull from the oven, let cool 10 minutes, and serve.

And next time you encounter a shepherd, be sure to thank her or him for their contributions to society.


  1. Yes! Yummy! Did this one a few weeks ago and it was such a good winter comfort dinner. Thanks again!

  2. This is one of my all-time favorite comfort foods. Those shepherds really know their stuff.

    ; - )


  3. No, no, no. Not "(also called cottage pie)". What do shepherds shepherd? Shepherd's pie is LAMB. Cottage pie is beef. Or anything else I guess.

    Makes my English ancestor's hair stand on end. Next you'll be saying Irish stew is beef. And you DON'T want to get my Irish ancestors riled.

  4. Dear Anonymous,

    I thank you for stopping by. I hope your ancestors will accept my apologies for any unwarranted riling.

    In conducting my due diligence for this recipe, I consulted Wikipedia (NOTE: I believe it would behoove your ancestors to consider directing a portion of their freshly-riled ill will toward that lofty institution).

    Wikipedia suggests (with no less than 7 citations) that the terms "cottage pie" and "shepherd's pie" are used synonymously, regardless of which animal is on the ingredient list. "Cottage pie" has apparently been in use since the 1790's, whereas the term "shepherd's pie" arose in the 1870's.

    Wikipedia goes on to suggest that the notion that shepherd's pie implies the use of lamb *may* be an example of "folk etymology," where later generations, to whom the "shepherds eat sheep" notion seemed a matter of common sense, came to insist on the distinction.

    Now, all that said, these "later generations" were busy perfecting their meat pie taxonomy in the 1870's... and thus these alleged folk etymologists would still very likely qualify as your ancestors. Depending on how easily riled your ancestors are by lack-of-respect-for-revisionist-meat-pie-classification, I may indeed have given offense. As noted earlier, I do apologize.

    I strongly contest the accusation that I would refer to Irish Stew as beef.

    It is worth noting, however, that once again Wikipedia may be the proper target of whatever side effects result from the riling of your ancestors... as they lead off with: "Irish stew is a traditional Irish stew made from lamb, beef or mutton..."


  5. Amazing recipe!

    I'm a recent addition to the cast-iron club and I've had nothing but good results using cast iron cookware.

    I used 2.5lbs ground turkey for this recipe and it turned out great. I found that the initial cooking of the carrots/onions took longer than expected, but going by your cue of waiting for the carrots to tenderize instead of cooking for a specified time made for a wonderful dish.

    One tip I'd like to share that I ran across is to put a rimmed baking sheet under the skillet if you're putting it in the oven to catch boil-overs.

    Thanks much for this recipe.

  6. Hi Jim,

    Thanks for stopping by! Glad you liked it.

    I'm a huge fan of ignoring the clock in favor of your tastebuds... so good to hear that you had the patience to cook the carrots properly.

    Great suggestion on the sheet pan.



  7. Got to keep it Irish and simmer the meat in some guinness stout. Gives it a great flavor and nice dark color.

  8. Sounds tasty! Have to try that.

    Thanks for the tip!



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