Our Best Shepherd's Pie

February  5, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten. Prop Stylist: Megan Hedgpeth. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog.
Author Notes

A massive casserole of meat and vegetables, topped with a mashed-potato crust, shepherd’s pie is ideal for chilly nights when you’re feeding a crowd. The traditional British version is made with ground lamb, a fatty, gamey-flavored meat that really holds its own in the dish. American recipes tend to favor milder ground beef (in the U.K., if made with beef, this recipe is often called “cottage pie”). Ultimately, when it comes to deciding which meat to use when making shepherd’s pie, the choice is completely up to you. You could even swap in half of each.

One major difference between this shepherd’s pie and classic recipes is the addition of legumes. Though they aren’t a traditional ingredient, we swapped in tender French green lentils for half of the ground meat. Not only do lentils add bonus texture and flavor to the casserole, they’re significantly cheaper (at my local supermarket, it was $10.99 per pound for ground beef and lamb, compared to $4.19 per pound for lentils), not to mention more sustainable (lentils produce nearly 30 and 40 times fewer greenhouse gasses per kilogram of food consumed than beef and lamb respectively).

Of course, it’s not shepherd’s pie without a mountain of fluffy mashed potatoes on top. Yukon Gold potatoes have super-creamy flesh, which makes them ideal for mashing. Russet potatoes on the other hand, are much starchier—great for baked potatoes, but they simply don’t boil as nicely as Yukon Golds. And while you could make a topping of just potatoes, if you’re not already a member of the Parsnip Appreciation Club, it’s high time. Like a flavor hybrid between a carrot and potato, parsnips add some much-needed sweetness to balance the dish. —Rebecca Firkser

Test Kitchen Notes

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  • Prep time 35 minutes
  • Cook time 1 hour 40 minutes
  • Serves 8
  • Filling
  • 1/2 cup French green lentils
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 pound ground beef or lamb (I like using 15 to 20% fat)
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 ounces mushrooms, such as shitake, crimini, or button, sliced
  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, finely chopped
  • 1 large fennel bulb (stems and fronds included), finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons chopped thyme leaves
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup dry red wine, optional
  • 2 cups low-sodium vegetable stock
  • 1 cup fresh or frozen peas
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • Topping
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 pounds (about 4 to 5 medium) Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 1 pound (about 2 to 3 medium) parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup whole milk, plus more as needed
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
  • Freshly ground black pepper
In This Recipe
  1. Cook the lentils in a medium saucepan of salted, boiling water until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain, transfer to a bowl, and set aside.
  2. Heat the oil in a deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the beef or lamb and cook, undisturbed, for 3 minutes (less stirring means more browning). Use a wooden spoon or spatula to break up the meat into small pieces, and continue to cook until browned and mostly cooked, another 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the meat to a plate and set aside.
  3. There should be a decent amount of fat in the pan, but if it’s dry, add another splash of oil. Add the mushrooms and cook undisturbed for 3 minutes (again, we’re browning here!), then toss and let sit again for 2 to 3 minutes until all the mushrooms are charred. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in the onion, carrot, and fennel and sauté until they’re just starting to brown, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
  4. Stir in the thyme and tomato paste and cook, stirring frequently, until the paste darkens in color, about 90 seconds, then sprinkle the flour on top. Cook for 1 minute, then add the wine. Bring the mixture to a gentle boil, then lower to medium-low and let the wine reduce, about 5 minutes. (If you’re the skipping wine, just move onto the next step.)
  5. Stir in the cooked meat and lentils, followed by the stock, peas, and Worcestershire sauce. Turn up the heat to bring the mixture to a boil, then lower to medium-low to reduce until the mixture has thickened to the consistency of ragu, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer to a 2-quart baking dish and heat the oven to 400°F.
  6. While the filling simmers, make the topping: bring a large pot of salted water to a boil (I estimate 1 tablespoon of kosher salt per quart of water). Add the potatoes and parsnips and cook until a paring knife easily pierces both vegetables, about 15 minutes. Drain into a colander then return to the pot and mash until smooth. Melt the butter in a small saucepan, then slowly whisk in the milk. Stir the butter mixture and sour cream into the mashed potatoes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  7. Top the filling with the potato-parsnip mixture: To prevent the filling from bubbling through the topping, start from the outside of the dish to seal in the mixture. Use an offset spatula to swoop and swirl, like frosting a cake. Place the baking dish on a rimmed sheet pan and bake for about 25 minutes, or until the topping has started to brown. Turn on the broiler for 2 to 3 minutes to further brown the topping if you want. Let cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.

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Rebecca Firkser is a freelance food writer and recipe developer. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, among them Food52, TASTE, Edible Manhattan, Extra Crispy, The Strategist, and Bon Appetit's Healthyish. She contributed recipes and words to the book "Breakfast: The Most Important Book About the Best Meal of the Day." Once upon a time, she studied theatre design and art history at Smith College, so if you need a last-minute avocado costume or want to talk about Wayne Thiebaud's cakes, she's your girl.