What's The Difference Between Shepherd's Pie And Pot Pie?

When you hear the word "pie," your thoughts might automatically turn to the iconic classic — apple pie — or perhaps a slightly less ubiquitous pie such as cherry, blueberry, pecan, or pumpkin. But there is an entire subsect of pie often ignored: savory pies. A comfort food favorite that has nourished generations, savory pies are hearty, relatively nutritious, and absolutely delectable. Their flaky, butter pie crust is typically stuffed with a stew of sorts that often contains meats and vegetables. Of all the varieties, the two savory pies that often garner the most attention are probably chicken pot pie and shepherd's pie. While the two are sometimes conflated, there are actually myriad differences that can help distinguish between the delicious pies. 

At its core, a pie must involve a "crust" of sorts, and a chicken pot pie can actually be made with the same store-bought crust you might use for a quick apple pie. Of course, pie shells or crusts are also easy to make at home.

What is pot pie?

NPR notes that the pot pie can be traced to the meat pies of yore throughout Europe that often used meats and poultry in leftover pie crust. And before the European iteration, the original can be traced back to the Roman empire, when the pies were served at events, banquets, and weddings (via Taste Atlas). Many also enjoyed individual or hand pies in addition to the larger, family-sized pies. The pies were economical and filling, making them an excellent option for that time. 

According to Pie Bar, the proteins that were often baked into pot pies in Europe included lamb, venison, pork, and a variety of birds or poultry. The first published pot pie recipe was included in a 1796 cookbook. Fast forward to the 1950s, and the frozen variation became a massive hit for families across the United States. Eater notes that the modern American chicken pot pie was popularized by Betty Groff and is a landmark of Lancaster, Pennsylvania cooking. Since then, variations of pot pie have originated in Greece, Spain, and a multitude of other countries, all utilizing different crusts, proteins, vegetables, and sauces. When thinking of chicken pot pie, you might consider Marie Callender, the stalwart pie producer that trafficks in rich, hearty pies at their restaurants and in the freezer aisle of grocery stores. The flaky, buttery crust on top remains crisp, while the walls and base soften in conjunction with the rich, creamy sauce. Delicious!

What is shepherd's pie?

Shepherd's pie, on the other hand, is Irish or English in origin and is a hearty beef stew that is topped with creamy mashed potatoes before being put in the broiler. Chowhound notes that the history of shepherd's pie is a bit trickier to track. The dish originated in Ireland before becoming "shared" with England due to wars and religious conflicts. At the time, many impoverished families used potatoes as often as possible, and the British influence on Ireland resulted in a preponderance of beef consumption. It is said that in the 18th century, "cottage pie" was invented, potentially in order to use leftover ingredients, such as leftover meat from a roast, vegetable scraps, and some potatoes. Some original variations also potentially contained lamb or mutton. But a cottage pie (coined because it was often eaten by Irish families living in cottages) was typically made with lamb, while shepherd's pie often skewed toward beef — the more affluent option at the time.

Taste of Home notes, though, that the dish may have actually originated in Scotland. The outlet also highlights that the word "pie" comes from the bird "magpie," a bird known for collecting a hodgepodge of items and storing them in its nest. This speaks to the variety of proteins, vegetables, sauces, and crusts that these pies contain. Nowadays, there are even vegetarian or vegan versions, variations with cheese, and some with pie crust.

What are the differences?

The mashed potatoes on a shepherd's pie form a "topping" or "crust," but there is traditionally no actual pastry, which is a clear distinction between the shepherd's pie and the pot pie. Furthermore, most shepherd's pies are made with beef, pork, or lamb, while the majority of pot pies are made with chicken. Another distinction is the gravy or sauce. While a shepherd's pie is often teeming with a brown, beef stew-like concoction under its mashed potato hat, a chicken pot pie is usually marked by a white, rich sauce that ensconces the chicken, peas, carrots, and other vegetables. Of course, as noted by Chowhound, both of these delicious pies originated as a means to use leftover food, so certainly feel free to whip them up if you happen to have any leftover mashed potatoes, pie crust, chicken, beef, lamb, or veggies in the fridge.

Many restaurants make pot pies and shepherd's pies to this day, and you can find a myriad of frozen varieties in most grocery stores. You can also make them at home! A perfect meal for autumn and winter, pot pies and shepherd's pies are exceptionally delicious on blistering cold nights — no matter which one you prefer.