Full of delicious flavors and textures, this traditional cottage pie recipe is a warm, comforting, classic English dish. This savory pie is made in layers consisting of a ground beef and vegetable filling cooked in a delicious gravy which is then topped off with creamy mashed potatoes. The final dish is sprinkled with shredded Cheddar cheese and is baked in the oven until bubbly and golden brown. It is also a perfectly elegant meal to make ahead of time for a larger crowd, any time of year.
What is cottage pie?
Deeply rooted in British culinary traditions, cottage pie or shepherd’s pie is a rustic dish originating from England. It dates back to the 18th century when the people of Great Britain made a dish consisting of leftover meat and vegetables together with mashed potatoes in order not to waste food.
Often the terms cottage pie and shepherd’s pie get used interchangeably. But what’s the difference between cottage pie and shepherds pie? The main difference is the type of meat used. Shepherds herd sheep, so a shepherd’s pie uses ground lamb or lamb mince whereas cottage pie mainly uses ground beef.
But no matter how it’s called, the basic idea of the dish remains the same. It is a layered casserole dish or a savory pie, but with potatoes instead of a pastry topping. An easy to make dish with humble ingredients that are economical, perfect to make ahead of time, re-heats well, is freezer friendly, but above all, a real crowd pleaser.
Cottage pie ingredients and substitutions
- Ground beef: This cottage pie recipe is made with ground beef (or beef mince). As an alternative you can use either ground lamb (to make a more authentic Shepherd’s pie) or ground pork, chicken or turkey.
- Garlic and onion: The flavorbase of this cottage pie filling. You can substitute the garlic cloves by using garlic powder if you prefer. Otherwise use a minimum of 2 garlic cloves for maximum flavor. Use 1 yellow onion finely diced.
- Carrots and peas: Use either fresh or frozen carrots and peas. In this recipe I used finely diced fresh carrots and frozen peas. Just make sure to cut the carrots in equal (and small) pieces to allow for equal cooking. No need to defrost the peas before adding them to the filling. Don’t use canned carrots and peas as they will become too mushy in the filling after cooking and provide less taste.
- Tomato paste: Both tomato paste or tomato purée is fine. Just don’t add too much of either as you are not making a tomato sauce. For this recipe, 2 tablespoons is more than enough. We use tomato paste to thicken the gravy and to add extra flavor. You can use ketchup as an alternative.
- Red wine: Red wine is used to cook the beef filling and to add depth of flavor. It is also used to keep the meat moist while cooking. Any full bodied dry red wine will do. As an alcohol free alternative you can use water or broth.
- Broth: Use either beef or chicken broth. My preference here is beef broth to keep the same flavor profile as the meat.
- Worcestershire sauce: Adds a sweet, savory and tangy flavor to the sauce. And what is a good old classic British meal without its iconic Worcestershire sauce? If you don’t have it at home, don’t worry. As an alternative you can use either soy sauce or balsamic vinegar.
- Olive oil: Olive oil is used to fry the ground beef and vegetables. You can also use butter or any other oil you prefer.
- Seasoning: Apart from salt and pepper, I use bay leaves to add even more depth of flavor as well as dried thyme which gives a wonderful aroma to the filling.
- Garnish: Green onions, spring onions or parsley to sprinkle over the dish just before serving.
Mashed potatoes ingredients
- Potatoes: Starchy potatoes are best for making a great mash. Examples are russet or Yukon gold.
- Milk: Gently heated milk makes the potatoes absorb the milk faster giving a much smoother consistency to the mash.
- Butter: Use unsalted butter so you can later control the amount of salt in the dish. Don’t skip on the butter as it adds flavor while making sure the potato mash doesn’t dry out but instead becomes rich, creamy and velvety smooth.
- Cheese: Adding shredded cheese is rather a thing from the present and not very traditional, but it does provide some extra taste, so why not? Use cheese for the topping as well as for mixing in with the mashed potatoes, either Cheddar, Emmental, Gruyere or Gouda for the best results.
- Seasoning: Salt and pepper with optionally a pinch of nutmeg is all you need.
How to make cottage pie – step by step
Note: All the exact quantities of the ingredients can be found in the recipe card at the bottom of this post.
Cottage pie is a rather easy and simple dish to make. The ingredients list might seem long but all in all it’s an easy recipe to put together. You can also make it with leftover ingredients like cooked potatoes or already mashed potatoes which reduces the amount of work and time remembering this dish was originally created with leftovers.
But follow the step by step instructions below on how to make the best cottage pie from scratch.
Step 1: Make the meat and vegetable filling
- Brown the ground beef: To add more flavor to the ground beef I brown it separately. It is also easier to break the mince up into smaller pieces. Heat olive oil in a large frying pan and add the ground beef. While cooking, break up the meat with a wooden spoon or fork, whichever works easier for you. When the meat is browned, which should only take a few minutes, scoop it out of the pan into a separate bowl for later.
- Sauté the vegetables: Heat olive oil in the same skillet or large frying pan and sauté the onions until translucent. Then add the diced carrots and sauté for a few minutes until they start to soften. Add in the garlic, peas, Worchestershire sauce, tomato paste, ground beef, bay leaves and thyme, give it all a good stir and cook for another minute.
- Cook the filling: Pour in the wine and beef broth and bring to a boil. Then, reduce the heat to low and simmer the filling for 15 to 20 minutes, uncovered, until most of the liquid is evaporated and the vegetables and meat are cooked.
TIP: If the liquid is evaporating too fast, either reduce the heat and cover with a lid or add a bit more broth or water.
Step 2: Make the mashed potatoes
While the meat filling is cooking, start with making the mashed potatoes.
- Boil the potatoes: Peel and dice the potatoes. Bring a large pot of water to a boil with a pinch of salt. Boil the potatoes until they are soft. This will take about 12 minutes. Check with a fork if they are soft before draining the water.
- Drain the potatoes: When the potatoes are cooked, drain the water and let the steam evaporate from the potatoes for about a minute.
- Make the mashed potatoes: Add butter and warmed milk to the potatoes and mash with a potato masher to a smooth consistency. Halfway through, add the cheese, season with salt and pepper and mash again.
Step 3: Make the cottage pie
- Preheat the oven: To 400℉ or 200℃.
- Assemble the pie: Spoon the meat filling in to a deep casserole, baking or oven dish. Make sure the filling fully covers the bottom of the dish. Flatten the meat filling with the back of a spoon to an even layer.
- Add the other layers: Add the mashed potatoes on top of the meat, covering the whole dish. Flatten it with the back of a spoon, then scrape the top with a fork to create ribbles. This will add extra crisp when baking the dish. Sprinkle the rest of the shredded cheese over the top.
- Bake the cottage pie: Place the baking dish in the middle of the oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes until the top is golden brown and the cheese bubbly.
Useful tips & tricks
- To wine or not to wine: Adding red wine to cook the ground beef adds depth of flavor to this dish. It is not mandatory though, so if you prefer cooking without the wine, add extra broth, stock or just water instead in the same quantity as indicated in the recipe card. Add an extra tablespoon of Worchestershire sauce for extra taste.
- Sauce thickness: Don’t add too much liquid as otherwise the casserole will be too runny and the mashed potatoes will sink in the mince filling. Make sure the liquid is reduced enough during the cooking time before adding the filling to the oven dish.
- Extra crunch: Add breadcrumbs over the cheese layer for extra crispiness. Divide in a thin layer over the top before baking. It will become beautifully golden brown and crunchy after baking.
How to store and freeze
When making this cottage pie recipe in advance or when having leftovers, it can easily be stored. Allow to cool to room temperature, cover properly and store in the fridge for up to 3 days.
To freeze, after baking, allow to cool to room temperature and store in freezer friendly airtight containers in the freezer for up to 3 months, at the correct freezing temperatures for long term frozen food storage. This does not apply to the ice making compartment in your bar fridge.
To reheat, either thaw overnight in the fridge and warm in the microwave oven, or warm in the oven either from frozen or defrosted on low temperature, after you have removed the pie from the plastic freezer container and put it in an oven dish or casserole. You can add more cheese at this stage for freshly melted cheese.
What to serve with cottage pie
Cottage pie is a meal in one, with potatoes (starch), meat and vegetables all in the same dish. However, adding extra vegetables is always a great idea, so consider serving the following side dishes with this pie recipe:
- Sautéed garlic green beans
- Green beans with tomatoes
- Belgian endive salad with egg
- Garlic mushrooms
- Roasted Brussels sprouts and butternut squash
Interested in more ground beef recipes?
Traditional cottage pie
For the meat filling
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 pound (500 grams) ground beef / beef mince
- 1 onion peeled and finely diced
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 2 medium carrots peeled and finely diced
- 1 cup (or 150 grams) peas frozen
- ⅓ cup (80 ml) red wine
- ⅔ cup (160 ml) beef broth / stock
- 2 tablespoons tomato purée
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
- sea salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste
For the mashed potatoes
- 2 pounds (900 grams) potatoes – russet or Yukon gold peeled and diced
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 cup (250 ml) milk warmed
- ⅔ cup (50 grams) cheddar cheese shredded
- salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste
For the cheese crust
- ⅔ cup (50 grams) cheddar cheese shredded
Make the meat filling
- Heat olive oil in a skillet or large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the ground beef and cook for a few minutes until browned, breaking the meat into small pieces with a wooden spoon or fork while cooking. When ready, spoon the meat into a separate bowl and set aside for later.
- Turn down the heat to medium. In the same pan, sauté the onions for 5 minutes until translucent. Add a bit of extra olive oil if needed. Then add the carrots and continue cooking for 5 minutes until the carrots start to soften.
- Add in the garlic, frozen peas, ground beef, Worchestershire sauce, tomato purée, thyme and bay leaves. Stir to combine and cook for 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Deglaze with red wine and beef broth, reduce heat and leave to simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes, while stirring occasionally or until the vegetables are soft and the meat is cooked. (note 1)
Make the mashed potatoes
- While the beef filling is simmering, start making the mash. Add the cubed potatoes in a pot with boiling salted water and cook gently for 12-15 minutes until soft. Drain the water from the potatoes, but leave the potatoes in the pot.
- Add the warmed milk and butter in the pot with the potatoes and start mashing with a potato masher. Halfway, add the shredded cheese and season with salt and pepper to taste. Keep mashing until smooth.
Assemble the pie
- Preheat the oven to 400℉ or 200℃.
- Spoon the beef filling into a deep oven dish and flatten the meat layer with the back of a spoon. (note 2)
- Add the mash on top of the beef layer and rough it up with a fork. Sprinkle with the rest of the shredded cheese.
- Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes or until golden-brown on top.
- Liquid: If you notice the liquid is reducing too fast while simmering, cover with a lid or add a bit more beef broth or water. However, keep in mind that the liquid needs to be nearly fully reduced when the filling is cooked.
- Oven dish: As cottage pie is made in layers, make sure to use a deep oven dish. Depending on the amount you are making or the size of the dish, use either 1 or multiple dishes.
- Leftovers: When having leftovers, allow to cool to room temperature and store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3-4 days. Or store in the freezer in freezer friendly containers for up to 3 months, at suitable long term freezing temperatures.