Is There A Difference Between Shepherd's Pie And Cottage Pie?

There are many traditional Irish dishes that everyone should try, such as black pudding and soda bread, but perhaps one of the country's most comforting offerings is shepherd's pie. You might have had a version of it while traveling across the United Kingdom or at an eatery here in the United States. It's not quite a pie and doesn't use a crust like the chicken pot pie you might be accustomed to, but it does incorporate ground meat and vegetables topped with mashed potatoes in a casserole-style dish to get a similar effect.

Like most dishes and accompanying recipes, there are versions of shepherd's pie that use alternative ingredients and different cooking techniques. However, if the recipe steers too far away from the core ingredients, then it might be considered a different dish entirely. Some might use the terms shepherd's pie and cottage pie interchangeably, but there is a difference between the two and it lies in the meat and gravy. Sure, they're both very similar hearty dishes, but shepherd's pie relies on ground or minced lamb while cottage pie swaps in beef.

What is shepherd's pie?

The origins of shepherd's pie date back to the late 1800s with one of its first mentions by name occurring in an 1877 English cookbook that gives Scotland the credit for its creation. But some people might argue that Ireland is responsible for coming up with the comforting meal. In any case, it was meant to be a humble dish that shepherds could make to use up leftovers like meat, stew, and veggies, hence its name. Today, it's certainly a popular dish across the U.K. and can be found at eateries in the U.S., too, especially at Irish pubs and restaurants.

A traditional shepherd's pie will have a base made of vegetables like carrots, peas, onions, and sometimes corn combined with ground lamb and gravy. The gravy is commonly made with the juices from the lamb, thickened with flour, and combined with herbs like rosemary or thyme, tomato paste or ketchup for tang, and sometimes a dash of Worcestershire sauce. Occasionally, a recipe might incorporate broth into the gravy. After it's cooked, it goes in a casserole or pie dish and is topped with mashed or sliced potatoes. Some variations will add shredded cheddar cheese on top, which is delicious, but not necessarily authentic to original recipes.

What is cottage pie?

These days, shepherd's pie is probably more familiar so it might come as a surprise that cottage pie has actually been around longer. In fact, the dish dates back to the 1790s in England. It was also created to finish leftover meats and use affordable ingredients like potatoes. The dish, which is common in both England and Ireland, gets its name from the lower-class people who lived in cottages around the country. It eventually turned into a staple of cuisine across the U.K. and in other parts of the world, like the shepherd's pie we previously mentioned.

For the most part, cottage pie recipes will have many of the same ingredients as shepherd's pie. The base will also consist of veggies such as carrots, peas, and onions, but it will have ground beef rather than lamb. Beef broth or stock is then combined with the core ingredients to create the gravy. It's also served in a baking, casserole, or pie dish and topped with mashed potatoes. There are many modern takes on the dish, like Tasting Table's beef and cauliflower cottage pie that swaps the mashed potatoes for cauliflower and shredded cheddar cheese. 

Shepherd's pie must include ground lamb meat

The main difference between shepherd's pie and cottage pie is the meat used in the dish. An authentic shepherd's pie must feature ground lamb, which is a popular protein across the U.K., where the dish originated. Lamb has a rich and gamey flavor that melds well with the vegetal flavors of carrots and peas and the creamy mashed potatoes. If lamb is not used in the recipe, then it's something different. 

That's the case with cottage pie, which includes ground beef instead of lamb. This is a good option if you don't like the taste of lamb or can't find it at your local grocery store — just don't claim that it's shepherd's pie. Using lean beef is best so there's not too much rendered fat in the pan, and you might consider these cooking tips for ground beef if you don't eat the protein often. Lastly, if the dish uses larger beef or other meat chunks rather than ground options, it's another rendition of the dish called Cumberland pie.

Cottage pie leans on a gravy made from beef broth or stock

The only other subtle difference between the two casseroles is the type of gravy used. Since cottage pie often uses lean ground beef, most recipes call for some beef broth or stock along with the flour, butter, and other additions that make up the gravy. Some recipes might also have you remove some of the beef juices before adding in the broth or stock to get more flavor and achieve the proper consistency. 

In comparison, many traditional recipes for shepherd's pie simply make the gravy without stock. They rely on the fat instead, using flour as a thickener and adding in aromatics. However, when you look at recipes for shepherd's pie online, many variations also require some sort of broth or stock just like cottage pie recipes do — so this might be more of a similarity than a difference in most modern-day renditions. Interested in the differences between other Irish delicacies? Then you might want to check out the differences between white and black pudding.