This is a recipe I have made countless times since I started my blog. I’m not sure why I’ve never written about it, but I think my reasons are that 1.) It is very personal, and 2.) It is never quite the same each time. I just make it from memory and vary certain ingredients depending on my mood or my pantry/fridge. It is personal because my dad made Shepherd’s Pie a lot when I was a kid, and it’s one of those recipes I make when I’m really missing him (he spends most of his time in far-away lands). It’s reliable, inexpensive, I love making it, the leftovers are the best, and it is a real crowd-pleaser—everyone in my family loves it. To me, Shepherd’s Pie is the essence of comfort food and true comfort cooking.
My dad often made it with beef, but sometimes with venison or lamb. Lamb is obviously traditional—shepherd’s = those who herd sheep; lamb = baby sheep. I have made it with lamb, and love it, I’ve even used ground bison just for fun, but I usually use ground beef. You can use whatever ground meat you want, even turkey or chicken if that’s your thing. I sometimes put a layer of frozen peas between the meat and potato layer, or serve peas on the side. My dad almost always served his with our home-canned green beans—we canned a zillion mason jars of them each summer, and ate them all winter. Somehow I never grew tired of them.
Here is my most recent version; I made it to take to my grandparents’ house for dinner and, after dinner, my grandfather implored me to share it with you all. You can thank him later.
**6/6/2019 update** I decided to re-shoot the photos for this Shepherd’s Pie recipe. I’m slowly making my way through my older posts, updating recipes, SEO, and all that jazz. I love the way these photos came out. Since I posted this, many things have changed. I wrote about both my father and my grandfather in this original post, and both of those wonderful men have passed away. My father on August 21, 2018, and my grandfather on September 18th, 2018.
Making these recipes is like some sort of full immersion therapy exercise. I called this “comfort cooking” in my original post, and it still is. I love the whole process from chopping the veggies to whipping the potatoes to shoving the whole thing in the oven. But now, as much as I love it, it makes my heart ache as it floods me with memories and emotion. Both my father and grandfather were subscribed to my blog, and I’d get the sweetest emails from them after I had posted something. After I posted this one my dad sent an email titled “happiness tears” from Afghanistan, in the body he wrote just one sweet sentence: “I just woke up and got your Shepherd’s pie blog and it made me start weeping.”
This was the relationship my dad and I had. I wouldn’t say it revolved around food, but food, cooking, eating, planning meals, shopping for food together was just such a huge part of our relationship. We had a mutual love for all things food. I am so grateful to him for instilling that love in me, and I am so glad I cooked by his side from the time I could barely peek over the countertop until last summer. I watched him make Shepherd’s Pie countless times and while it makes me incredibly sad knowing I will never watch him or help him make it again, I am so glad I learned this and so many other recipes from him.
A couple notes on the recipe that I left out the first time:
This can be just a two pan meal, meaning you’ll assemble the Shepherd’s Pie in the same dish you cook the meat mixture in. So your only other pan will be your potato pan. If you do this, just make sure you start out with a nice big skillet or dutch oven (my dad used a dutch oven a lot for his, rarely did he transfer to a casserole dish).
Something else my dad did was to sometimes add about a 1/2 cup of brewed coffee to the met mixture. It adds a richness in flavor and color, but it’s totally optional. I use this trick in my Pot Roast too.
If wine isn’t your thing, feel free to add beer. A nice dark stout would be great. Or, leave the alcohol out all together. I might add a splash of vinegar just for a touch of acidity, maybe two tablespoons and I’d probably choose red wine vinegar or malt vinegar.
Make this recipe your own. I know some people add corn and peas to their Shepherd’s Pie; feel free to do that.
For the filling:
- 2 lbs ground beef
- 1 medium yellow or white onion, finely minced
- 2 stalks celery, finely diced
- 1 large carrot, or two small/medium carrots, finely diced
- 1 or 2 bay leaves
- 2-3 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and finely minced
- 1 cup wine—red, white, rosé, marsala—whatever you have open
- 1/2 cup brewed coffee (optional)
- 3 cups chicken or beef broth
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary, leaves removed and finely chopped (optional)
- a few springs fresh thyme, leaves removed and finely chopped (optional)
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste (if I’m out of tomato paste I just omit it. No big deal)
- 2 tablespoons worcestershire sauce
- 1/4 cup all purpose flour
- salt and pepper to taste (the salt will depend greatly on the saltiness of your broth, so just taste and adjust as needed)
- about 1 cup frozen peas (optional)
For the potatoes:
- 2 1/2 – 3 lbs (about 6) yukon gold potatoes, peeled and chopped into large chunks
- 1 stick butter
- 4 ounces cream cheese
- 1/2 to 1 cup milk (you might not need the whole cup)
- 3 whole cloves of garlic, peeled
- 2 bay leaves
- salt and pepper to taste
For the topping (optional):
- 1 cup of grated, really sharp white cheddar
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
First, get your potatoes going. Add your peeled, chopped potatoes, whole peeled garlic cloves, and bay leaves to a large pot of generously salted water. Bring to a boil and simmer gently for about 30 minutes until very, very tender. (you can get the meat mixture cooking while you’re waiting).
Once potatoes are tender, drain in a colander, remove bay leaves but leave the garlic, add potatoes back to pot and add butter and cream cheese. Let sit until the butter and cream cheese soften a bit.
Then, with a hand mixer or potato masher, mix or mash until all potatoes are mashed. My dad always used a hand mixer and made the creamiest mashed potatoes. Then, add milk in stages while mashing until you reach the desired consistency. You want a nice soft mash, but not so soupy you won’t be able to scoop it out later. 1/2 to 3/4 cup milk should be plenty. Taste potatoes for salt, and add salt and pepper to taste. Usually a teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper are sufficient, but taste your food! It should taste the way you want it to taste!
In a large skillet over medium heat, cook ground beef until most of the pink is gone, about 10 minutes. Then, add carrot, celery, onion, garlic, rosemary, bay leaves, and season with a big pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Cook this mixture for about 10 minutes. If your beef is really fatty, scoop out excess fat. This is optional, and really depends on your meat choice.
Next, add tomato paste and stir to combine. Then sprinkle flour over meat mixture and stir until you don’t see white anymore. Add wine and stock and coffee if using and cook for about 15-20 minutes over medium heat, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom. The mixture will thicken. It should be a thick, gravy-like consistency.
Either assemble your Shepherd’s Pie in the dish you’ve cooked your meat mixture in or spray a 2 quart casserole dish with non-stick spray. Transfer meat to baking dish and spread into an even layer. If using peas, add them now. Just an even layer on top will do.
Next, add potatoes. I place large spoonfuls all around the top of the meat mixture, then I use a rubber spatula to spread it out, almost like frosting a cake, making sure to seal the edges. Sometimes I make too many potatoes. If you have this “problem” just put them in a dish and refrigerate them for another time. Having too many mashed potatoes is never a problem in my book.
Now, if you really want to take it over the top, and if you have an uncontrollable passion for melted, bubbly cheese like I do, add a layer of cheese to the top. My dad did not do this.
Place casserole dish on a rimmed sheet tray in case it bubbles over, and place in preheated oven until cheese bubbles and browns a bit. Should take about 20 minutes, but keep an eye on it. Take it out when it looks brown and bubbly.
Here are some other Dad-inspired and/or Dad-approved recipes:
Simple Pot Roast (I’ll be re-shooting photos for this one too. It is one of my most popular recipes here on the blog and among my family and friends)