This recipe is the result of a nearly decade-long quest for the perfect cottage pie. It started when I was a vegetarian in college, with the recipe on the back of a vegetable stock container. It called for lentils in the filling, and it was a very solid recipe.
Since then, I have forsaken my vegetarian ways and returned to meat-eating. Cottage pie is one of my favorite things to make: it’s a project recipe, but it’s not overly complicated, and it requires you to buy a bottle of wine. Call me crazy, but I make it when I want to relax.
Over the last few years, I’ve followed a lot of cottage pie recipes, but none was perfect. If you’re a stickler for historical accuracy, cottage pie is made with beef, while a shepherd’s pie is made with lamb. I usually opt for beef because it’s cheaper, hence the title of this recipe.
My perfect cottage pie has a high meat-and-veggie to potato ratio. Don’t get me wrong, I love potatoes, but I want the potatoes to truly act as a crust, rather than an equal part of the meal.
As for the filling, tomato paste is non-negotiable, as is Worcestershire and red wine. To balance it all out, I add a little sugar and some herbs. I love lots of veggies, and this recipe is the perfect vehicle for frozen peas, which I will rep til the day I die. (I recently bought a five-pound bag of frozen peas, and it remains one of my best purchases. It may live on in my freezer for years to come, unless I make more of these!)
I believe these things all add up to the perfect cottage pie. I hope you enjoy it!
Perfect Cottage Pie
For the filling
- 2 tablespoons oil, divided
- 1 ½ pounds ground beef or lamb
- 1 cup onion, diced (about half a medium onion)
- 1 cup celery, diced (about 4 ribs)
- 1 cup carrots, diced (about 3 medium carrots)
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 2 tablespoons flour (I use 1-to-1 gluten-free baking flour)
- 4 cloves garlic, diced
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershire
- ½ cup dry red wine (I like Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux, but you can also use ½ cup beef broth)
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme, left on the stems (or ½ teaspoon dried)
- 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, diced (or ½ teaspoon dried)
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 cup beef broth
- 4 ounces tomato paste
- ½ cup peas (I use frozen)
For the topping
- 2 pounds russet or gold potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1-inch pieces (5-6 medium potatoes)
- ⅓ cup butter
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup Parmesan, finely grated
- I don’t normally advocate for mise en place preparation, but this recipe is really helped by it. Peel and chop your onions, carrots (see note), celery, garlic and potatoes, and measure and prep your seasonings so they’re ready to go.
- Add one tablespoon oil to large stockpot and heat over medium-high. Once hot, add meat. Season with a dash of salt and pepper and brown the meat, then drain in colander and set aside.
- Add remaining tablespoon oil to pot and add your mirepoix – onions, carrots and celery – stirring to coat. Season with a dash of salt and pepper and cook until onions are translucent, about 7 minutes.
- Meanwhile, place potatoes in medium saucepan and cover with cool salted water. Bring to a boil and cook 7-10 minutes, until potatoes are fork-tender. Drain and return potatoes to their pot. Reduce heat to low and add butter, mashing well to ensure potatoes are well coated in butter. They should be fluffy. Add remaining topping ingredients, mix well and keep warm.
- Reduce heat on mirepoix to medium. Add a tablespoon of butter, then add flour and garlic and stir to coat. When garlic is fragrant and flour is golden, after about 1 minute, and browned beef back into the pot, as well as Worcestershire and wine. Add all remaining seasonings (thyme, parsley, bay leaf, sugar and remaining salt and pepper) and stir. Cook about 3 minutes, allowing the alcohol to cook off.
- Preheat oven to 350ºF.
- Now, add beef broth and tomato paste to mirepoix and give it a good stir. Simmer over medium-low for 20 minutes to allow flavors to meld and liquid to reduce. If it starts to reduce too quickly, reduce heat or add a little water (see note). Taste the mixture and add more salt, pepper or sugar as desired. Add peas and cook 5 minutes more, picking out thyme sprigs and bay leaves.
- Grease a pie pan with butter or cooking spray and pour in the beef mixture. Press in and level with spatula. Add potatoes one heaping spoonful at a time, taking care not to move topping around much once placed on beef mixture. If desired, texture topping with fork or spoon to create a little crunch.
- Place a foil-lined pan under the pie plate to catch any liquid bubbling over and bake your pie for 20-25 minutes, until the top begins to brown. Then, if desired, place your pie on the top rack and broil on high for about 5 minutes to get those lovely crunchy bits on the top. Remove from oven when your pie’s tips are brown and crispy and let cool at least 10 minutes before cutting into wedges like the delicious savory pie it is.