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Feb 10, 2011 07:21 PM

Definition of Shepherd's Pie

A few days ago I was reading a book, by an American author, that had a recipe for 'Shepherd's Pie' and was amused to see it used minced beef. Then I happened to catch an episode of Rachel Ray where she described a Shepherd's Pie as being made with any ground meat and topped with potato mash. This really, really bugged me. Being the nerdy, pedantic wordsmith that I am, I just have to say it...
The only meat in a Shepherd's Pie is LAMB (hence the 'shepherd' reference).
Cottage Pie is made with minced BEEF.
Anything else would be called a potato-topped pie.

There. Now I feel better.

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  1. i have to say that i have never had a shepherd's pie with lamb, however, that sounds INCREDIBLE! mine is a leftover beef (or pork, but i've never used chicken and have never ever never had leftover lamb. is that even possible?) mixed with veggies in a sauce topped with mashed potatoes and then smothered in cheese to make it extra heart healthy.

    16 Replies
    1. re: raygunclan

      SORRY RAY Meant to post this to Billy33
      Oh dear. What would Jane Austen say?
      Your use of "minced" indicates to us all here in the USA that you are British. Us folks, we all, and I surely am trying to indicate as many American slang uses as possible, Yes we do "it with ground ) beef. It is cheaper than ground lamb here. heck ground lamb you would have to order special from a custom butcher. Ground beef here is cheap meat.
      Which I suspect the "meat" in Shepard's pie is. My knowledge of food history is that Shepherd's Pie was a use of Leftovers. Leftover potatoes, leftover Sunday roast, etc.
      The likelihood of a shepherd using a lamb vs using (gasp! shall I say it?) really tough mutton is well, unique.

      1. re: Quine

        But the scottish shepherds did use leftover mutton (which IS lamb), right? ... some kind of root vegetable (potatoes or carrots or turnips) which was probably the only abundant vegetable in Scotland back in the old days...some herbs and for liquid, maybe mead or wine? David Rosengarten did an episode on Shepherd's Pie way back when his show "Taste" was on the Food Network (in the good old days of Food Network!) and depicted the dish in this way, with a bunch of Scottish shepherds out in the ancient fields.

        1. re: Val

          "leftover mutton (which IS lamb), right?" Well, it was a lamb.

          Same creature, sure, but the difference between mutton and lamb is a matter of age and flavor. Mutton is from a fully mature sheep, lamb is 4-12 month old when slaughtered.

          Mutton is strongly flavored, sorta tough and not very popular in the US. That has something to do with it being used as a cheap food product in the military, probably during WW I and II, and after a steady diet of it, you never want to have it on your dinner table again, trust me. It just never caught on here.

          Oddly enough, and as a cultural nomeclature I don't fully understand, I see "Goat for Mutton" advertised at my local big supermarket, sold mostly to the Caribbean community here. So, is it goat or mutton? Turns out that it's indeed goat, which is far better than mutton.

          1. re: bushwickgirl

            maybe in the Caribbean community "mutton" is the term for a particular dish - like "stew" or something.....

            i had mutton for the first time at a BBQ jjoint in Austin. It was delicious and tender, but of course smoked and sauced so it just tasted like lamb to me - not a stronger flavor than any other lamb i've had because it was disguised by other flavors.

            1. re: mariacarmen

              I've noticed that in some Latino markets around LA County "mutton" is sometimes used as the English label for both lamb and goat; though the two meats are to my taste quite different, I think the Mexicans (for instance) tend to use them interchangeably. I've had birria made from goat in some restaurants, lamb in others.

              1. re: Will Owen

                I've had that same experience with birria. and agree with you that the tastes are quite dissimilar.

                1. re: Will Owen

                  Will, can you discuss the differences in depth? I've always thought of goat as having the flavor of "lamb plus" but probably couldn't tell the difference unless I were to do a side by side tasting.

                  Mr Taster

                  1. re: Mr Taster

                    I think lamb has a much more distinct taste than goat. I love them both but I would never mistake one for the other.

                    1. re: c oliver

                      Same here. Love them both, too. The flavours are totally different from one another. To me goat tastes barnyardy in a good way (!) whereas lamb has a more delicate, albeit at times slightly gamey (depending on the age) flavour. We just had braised goat with paparadelle at a lovely southern Italian restaurant the other night - it was unbelievably tender and incredibly delicious (yet barnyardy!).

                      Whenever I see mention of Shepherd's Pie I think lamb. The best I have ever had has definitely been in Scotland and England.

                      1. re: chefathome

                        I could not improve on chefathome's explanation, though I would add that goat lends itself to very rich preparations perhaps more than lamb does, throwing that "goatyness" up against spices and sauces in birria de chivo, or in Indian curry dishes. We found ourselves at a surprisingly good Indian buffet one afternoon and I visited the goat curry enough times to begin getting self-conscious about it, except that I was not alone. Every time they brought a new pan out of the kitchen there was immediately a new line!

                        I would certainly adore that goat with pappardelle. Braised old overshoes with pappardelle would probably be edible, and I've already got rabbit and beef shanks on my to-do list for future reference, so I may as well add goat.

                        1. re: Will Owen

                          Not to worry.... Goat curry and goat roti are staples in the islands. To the point that any Fete {Party} or Lime{Get together} in Trinidad is not complete without souse or a goat curry .


                          1. re: Duppie

                            We're heading back to Rio in a couple of months. I can buy whole goat legs at the butcher around the corner. (He cuts them in 2-3" pieces on his band saw.) This is giving me some ideas.

                            1. re: c oliver

                              The least expensive goat at Halal (and Indian) markets is shoulder cut, while frozen, into cubes. It works well for various stews, provided you don't mind fishing out odd sizes of bone.

                              1. re: paulj

                                … and shoulder is about the best meat on any grazing or browsing animal. Now I know why those goat curries always yield a pile of bones on the edge of my plate! But, damn, it's worth the trouble.

            2. re: Quine

              Hi Quine, I'm actually in New Zealand. Hence the easy availability of sheep meat. Sorry, when i say 'lamb' in this context, I mean general sheep meat of any age, not necessarily baby sheep.

          2. Yes, Billy33, in a pedantic sense, you are certainly correct. But "Shepards Pie" is a term that has been used for a very long time to describe just about anything that has a meat base topped with either mashed potatoes, a pie crust, biscuits, etc. and baked in the oven to finish. Ambiguity is alive and well. When folks ask questions about Shepards Pie I try to help by explaining my responses in that way so they understand where, if anywhere at all, they might have become confused. "Tin Lizzie" is a type of quilting machine, but the old Model "T" Ford is still affectionately know by that colloquialism. I remember when "pot" was something you cooked in; today it's something they smoke.

            1. In the US lamb, especially ground (minced), is rare enough that few of us would have ever made a true Shepherd's pie. So the distinction between using beef and using lamb is more of a British one than an American one.

              I was just looking at the Wiki article, and there was something about the Cottage Pie originally being made with shingled slice of potato, hence the Cottage name.

              It also suggests that the 'shepherds = lamb' connection may be a case of 'folk etymology',

              Also that Irish and Canadians don't make the lamb v beef distinction.

              So if you are in London and see Shepherd's Pie on the menu, expect lamb or mutton. If in other English speaking countries, don't count on it; it may be beef.

              The Wiki article even has a link to a Chow tread

              By the way, in Mexico, tacos al pastor are not made with lamb, though there might a circuitous link to Lebanese lamb shwarma. And the Italian hunter's chicken is not necessarily made with items that a hunter would find. The connection between professions and food names can be tenuous.

              9 Replies
              1. re: paulj

                Still loving Wiki as a valid source and I adore being chowhound stalked. Wiki says..

                Why use a lamb? Since Shepard's or Cottage Pie , is still a recipe where left over meat., gravy and potatoes are used, mutton is the meat. Roasted if young enough, braised if not. Several days later, fill-up pie.
                Lambs, unless born dead, were a profit. Too old sheep, mutton, were food.

                  1. re: paulj

                    "And the Italian hunter's chicken is not necessarily made with items that a hunter would find." It's a common error (see the recipe in "Joy of Cooking") to think "cacciatore" means "hunter". The proper name is "cacciatora" and it refers to something made at the hearth, or on the home fire. Same root as "focaccia", which was originally baked at the fire instead of in an oven.

                    BTW, ground lamb is something I've always found fairly easily here in the US. It was in most of the supermarkets in Nashville; it's a little less common here in LA County, oddly enough, but can be found at most Armenian or Middle Eastern markets, such as Jon's. I usually make my Shepherd's Pie from leftover roast lamb, though, which I believe was its original version.

                    1. re: Will Owen

                      Are you daring to question the accuracy of Joy? Everything I know about cooking comes from there! :)

                      By the way, Joy's recipe for shepherd's pie is: prepare Hash, top with mashed potatoes, bake.
                      (1970s edition)

                      1. re: paulj

                        The newer Joy, 1997, with a lot more international cookery, has a longer shepherds pie recipe in the lamb section, with a note about the beef alternative name. In that book it's an exotic dish like Jamaican goat curry.

                        1. re: paulj

                          I wasn't questioning the accuracy of the recipe, which is a very good one, but Mrs. Becker's comment about how odd it is Italian hunters can find mushrooms and tomatoes so close at hand.

                          I am avoiding the new, improved version, by the way; I don't consider it the business of "Joy" to BE improved beyond its proper scope as a sort of Larousse Gastronomique of, by and for Middle America. I have 500+ other cookbooks for all the fancy stuff.

                        2. re: Will Owen

                          and that was exactly how Fabio was pronouncing it - "cacciatora" - thanks for that explanation.

                          tho i'm trying to find something online that correlates cacciatora with something made at the hearth - i just want to see the root of the word.... so "caccia" has something to do with open fire?

                          ETA - i just looked up "caccia" on an italian-to-english translation site and it says "hunting".... i'm not trying to argue or prove you wrong, i really want to know!

                            1. re: c oliver

                              that link says what I (and apparently many others) have always believed the word cacciatore or cacciatora mans - related to hunting. i would like to see something that says what WO is saying - that it relates to open hearth cooking. maybe it's that hunters, being out in the field, cooked their quarry of the day over an open fire.... again, not trying to argue, just trying to find out.....

                      2. Yes!!! I have been pushing this for ages - being a nerdy, pedantic wordsmith myself on occasion.

                        I try to remind people that a shepherd herds sheep - therefore the pie would contain lamb, not beef.

                        I'm glad you feel better - I'm glad I'm not alone.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: TheHuntress

                          Harters taught me just this. actually, i knew that Shepherds Pie was lamb but I didn't know that when you use beef it was called Cottage Pie - that's what Harters taught me. I have almost always made it with ground or minced (finely chopped roasted) lamb. Delish!

                        2. Here's a link to the more authoritative FoodTimeLine entry for Shepherd's pie (with focus on British usage)
                          The last recipe adds "Tinned ox-tails, ox cheek, kidney, &c., may take the place of the beef or mutton."

                          10 Replies
                          1. re: paulj

                            Can,,,oh wait for it...a recipe old enough, that even "tinned" Is science fiction? I bet!

                            OK, any economic folks out there? Would you kill a lamb? As a Shepard? Make it into a pie?
                            Let's face it folks Cottage or shepherd pie was a left over of Sunday Roast. Stillborn or died a few hours later lamb, but definitely a mutton dish. I suspect even in the UK,Mutton is a difficult find.

                            1. re: Quine

                              Having grown up with Shepard's Pie I always understood it to be made with lamb or mutton originally but because of the scarcity and expense of lamb rarely saw it prepared with anything other than leftover beef roast,hamburger and at times chicken, but that's a whole different animal.

                              1. re: Quine

                                Depends where you live. Mutton is not that hard to find in my bit of London. Neither is goat.

                                1. re: greedygirl

                                  Goat was never a problem in south Florida probably because of the large Latin and West Indian population. Lamb always came from New Zealand in those days thus the cost factor and can't remember much mutton but then again never really looked.

                                2. re: Quine

                                  Nope, mutton's not all difficult to find in the UK. Not as easy as lamb, of course, but not difficult. My regular supplier always has both - minced lamb at £10 a kilo and minced mutton at £8.91 per kilo.

                                  What *is" difficult to find is hogget.

                                  1. re: Harters

                                    By Hogget are you referring to veal? As a child I remember that term bandied about not so much as a meat source but more as in veal shanks for stock.

                                    1. re: Duppie

                                      Hogget is mature lamb - older than regular lamb but not quite mutton.

                                      1. re: Duppie

                                        From memory, in the UK, lamb is defined as under 12 months old, hogget as 12 -24 months, mutton anything older.

                                        1. re: Harters

                                          Good to know. Thanks and I can see why it would be hard to find simply because in America at least very few lamb make it past their 8'th month.

                                  2. re: paulj

                                    Curiously the earliest 'shepherds pie' recipe that FoodTimeLIne can find is from a book published in Philadelphia in 1886. That one combines the potatoes with some flour to make a soft dough that is rolled and put on top of the meat.

                                    An 1894 London book prefers putting the mashed potatoes on the bottom as well as on top, to better protect the meat. Even the 'Tinned meat, shepherds pie' from the same book envelops the meat with potato.

                                    Anyone every had shepherds pie made with canned mutton?