The Difference Between Shepherd's And Cottage Pie Is In The Filling

No one would blame you for confusing shepherd's pie with cottage pie; both are meat-filled, casserole-like dishes that were created somewhere in the United Kingdom, so it's understandable that the difference isn't always super obvious. But it turns out the key to distinguishing between the two lies in what exactly they're filled with.

Both are hearty, comforting dishes topped with potatoes, but whereas shepherd's pie is filled with ground lamb meat, cottage pie is filled with ground beef. Casserole-style dishes like these have been around forever, and they remain incredibly popular, perhaps because they're easy to throw together and promote a shared eating experience. You don't need lots of fancy kitchen tools or technical knowledge to craft your own shepherd's or cottage pie, but knowing the difference between the two is important before you tackle one for your next family dinner — especially if you want to stay true to each dish's roots.

What is a shepherd's pie?

So, what's really in a shepherd's pie? That depends on your region. The traditional shepherd's pie can be traced back to Scotland and contained beef and turnips, but the more popular lamb version was an Irish creation. The dish was likely around for years before receiving its name, but the recipe as most people know it originated from a cookbook published in 1877. That foundational pie remains almost unchanged today: It's a layered dish with mashed potatoes topping lamb meat and vegetables.

The classic shepherd's pie recipe can seem intimidating, but it's actually quite simple to make. It incorporates veggies like peas, carrots, and onions, as well as spices like rosemary and thyme. These vegetables and herbs are sautéed and cooked with the lamb, placed in the bottom of a casserole dish, and topped with mashed Russet potatoes. If you're interested in tackling the French version of a shepherd's pie, known as "Hachis Parmentier," you'll need to sandwich your lamb and veggie mixture between two layers of mashed potatoes.

So what's a cottage pie, then?

The cottage pie is a close relative of the shepherd's pie, but the primary distinction is that the former is made with ground beef, not lamb. Like shepherd's pie, cottage pie originates from 18th-century British cookbooks and was typically made using sliced and boiled potatoes with a beef stew-like mixture in between. Today's recipes for this dish may still feature sliced potatoes, but many opt for the mashed variety instead, which could be why the casserole is commonly confused with shepherd's pie.

That said, cottage pies also contain several different ingredients besides ground beef that their shepherd relatives don't possess. Some of the more notable additions in a savory cottage pie recipe are beef broth and Worcestershire sauce. While both dishes use vegetables like carrots and onions, the cottage pie doesn't have peas, as you might see in the shepherd version. In the end, both are delicious, filling casseroles perfect for chilly fall or winter nights, but knowing their distinctions is important when deciding which one you'd rather make.