The Difference Between Shepherd's Pie And Cottage Pie Comes Down To The Meat

Ground beef, chopped vegetables, and mashed potatoes: most people associate this combination of ingredients with shepherd's pie. While similar, shepherd's pie is actually something else. There's a good chance the dish you've been calling a shepherd's pie is actually a cottage pie. What primarily sets the two apart is the type of meat in the filling. Both are made with ground meat, but in shepherd's pie, lamb is used, while cottage pie calls for beef instead. 


Differences between shepherd's pie and cottage pie also lie in the sauce. Cottage pie calls for beef gravy, while true shepherd's pie relies only on the liquid produced by the lamb during the cooking process. Both dishes are topped with potatoes, usually mashed, sometimes sliced, and although much less common, you'll even find recipes for these pies with tater tots or Hasselback potatoes as the topping. While you might be able to top your cottage pie with a variety of spuds, as soon as you swap the beef for lamb, it becomes a shepherd's pie.

How the distinction came about

Even though they're similar, cottage pie and shepherd's pie technically belong to two different cuisines and were created centuries apart. Cottage pie came first, during the 18th century. Now considered part of both British and Irish culinary traditions, history suggests that cottage pie was originally conceived by the British because it's made with beef, which wasn't a staple in Ireland at the time. Contrary to popular belief, corned beef and beef in general, were only reserved for the wealthy or for special occasions in Ireland, making it unlikely for a beef-based dish like cottage pie to have origins on the Emerald Isle.


Shepherd's pie on the other hand more closely aligns with Irish history. The dish was born out of necessity in the mid-19th century as a way to make leftover meat stretch. Since beef wasn't affordable or common, this leftover meat would've most likely been lamb or mutton, the meat of an older sheep. It was named shepherd's pie because of sheep herding communities who often ate it. If you make the dish with beef, therefore, it doesn't make much sense (at least historically) to call it shepherd's pie.

What about Cumberland pie?

If you've mistakenly referred to any sort of meat pie as shepherd's pie, there's a chance that you've also made Cumberland pie without even realizing it. Cumberland pie, another British dish, looks similar to shepherd's pie, but more closely resembles cottage pie in terms of ingredients. Like cottage pie, Cumberland pie is made with beef, however, the beef isn't ground. Instead, it's simply cut up. When it comes to the potatoes, Cumberland pie calls for mashing them, as you would for a shepherd's pie, but it's also topped with bread crumbs and shredded cheese.


As if it weren't confusing enough, there's also a French version of the dish called Hachis Parmentier. It contains the ground beef of a cottage pie, but rather than beef gravy or lamb drippings, the sauce is made with red wine. In addition to the layer of potatoes on top, Hachis Parmentier also has one on the bottom. The difference might seem minor, but you'll definitely be able to taste the difference between the many versions.