Shepherd’s pie 101

Is there a meal the whole family loves more than shepherd’s pie? This hearty dish came to us from the British Isles (stories vary as to whether it originated in England, Ireland or Scotland). Whatever its origins, shepherd’s pie has become a go-to recipe to satisfy hungry families.

Each family has its own recipe, but the holy trinity remains the same. Our challenge: provide you with a classic, timeless basic recipe with an added bonus… a little culinary chemistry thrown in to make it even better.

Umani in shepherd's pie?

Is it possible to make the meat layer even tastier? Absolutely, and you can do this without too much alteration. Among our list of suggestions below, many give the meat more flavour by adding a taste known as 'umami,' the fifth primary taste. Umami is the Japanese term used to describe the pleasant, savoury taste imparted by glutamate, guanylate and inosinate, three compounds which occur naturally in many foods.

The onion, potatoes and beef already in shepherd's pie are all known sources of these molecules. What's fascinating is that the association of umami-rich foods gives a tastier result than the sum of their parts. In other words, there is a synergy between ingredients. The more umami-rich foods found in a recipe, the tastier the dish. The taste also improves when you add some mushrooms, veal, Worcestershire sauce or soy sauce (all umami-rich foods). And it's maybe not a coincidence that ketchup, another condiment rich in umami, is the ideal companion to this popular dish.

"Real" Soy Sauce

To get the umami effect of soy sauce in shepherd's pie, you have to use a sauce that has been fermented. During the fermentation process, hundreds of aromatic compounds are formed, as well as precursors to the umami taste. But, not all soy sauces are made by a fermentation process. How to know? Simply read the list of ingredients. In fermented soy sauce, you will find soybeans, sometimes wheat, and salt. Caramel-based sauces, hydrolyzed vegetable protein and corn syrup are not fermented and do not have the same complexity of taste.

For an even better shepherd's pie

  • Étienne:"My mother always added a bit of shredded cheese to the mashed potatoes, such as Gruyère or Parmesan. It gave it more flavour."
  • Ricardo:"I sometimes put a can of cream of mushroom soup in the meat; it makes it moister, softer."
  • Kareen:"My partner loves to put veal in the meat and let it reduce. The meat really is tastier."
  • Marie-Annick: "I often add canned lentils to the cooked ground beef. Since they're small, they're hardly noticeable and add a nice texture to the meat."


Let's face it, the meat layer in shepherd's pie is often short on taste. Can it be improved? Absolutely, especially if you pay attention to how the meat and onions are cooked. And it's not complicated: simply brown the meat well and caramelize the onions.

The two terms "brown" and "caramelize" are often used interchangeably, but refer to two distinct chemical reactions. Browning, also called the Maillard reaction, is a serious of chemical reactions that take place between proteins and sugars in meat, which results in the formation of new brownish compounds with a grilled taste. Think about the taste of a good steak in comparison to that of boiled meat. A world of difference! As for onions, they caramelize. Caramelization involves only the sugars in food. The sugars break down in contact with heat and form new brownish compounds with a rich caramel taste.

Heat is required for successful browning and caramelization. There are three important points to note: 1. Use a large heated pan 2. Do not overload the pan with too much meat and onion at the same time 3. Do not stir the meat until it begins to brown on one side. By doing this, any water that escapes during cooking will evaporate as it is released, rather than accumulate at the bottom of the pan, where it could boil the meat, instead of brown it. Goodbye bland, hello browned, tasty meat!


The corn layer makes shepherd's pie a true North American dish, more than just a carbon copy of existing recipes, such as English cottage pie or French hachis Parmentier. But do you prefer cream corn or kernel corn?

Note that, despite its name, there is no cream in cream corn. It owes its thick and creamy consistency to the addition of modified starch, a type of starch that is resistant to high temperatures used for canning. We chose cream corn for our basic recipe, because it helps hold the meat and potato layers together. If you double a shepherd's pie recipe, we suggest you use a 50-50 mixture of cream corn and kernel corn.

The corn layer can also be made with frozen corn. This type of corn contains less sodium than canned corn, but its kernels are less tender.


The potato layer should be smooth, creamy and lump free. The key to success lies more in the choice of potatoes than in the way they are mashed.

There are several kinds of potatoes, some of which purée easier than others. It depends on their starch and water content, the size of their cells, etc. Luckily for us, more and more producers use a symbol or table on the bag to indicate the best use for each variety. Look for potatoes recommended for puréeing. The best kinds are brown potatoes, Russet potatoes, or even yellow potatoes, such as Yukon Gold. Once cooked, the flesh of these potatoes becomes soft and crumbly, and there's less chance of lumps forming in the purée. In addition, these varieties easily absorb generous amounts of milk and butter, without becoming too runny, as they contain less water than others.

How to mash them? The ideal tool is the potato masher, as it uniformly crushes the potatoes, leaving no lumps. A trusty old pestle will work too, as long as the potatoes are well cooked. An electric hand mixer will make a lighter purée, but you have to be careful not to overdo it or the mixture will turn into real mush.

Christina Blais

For Christina Blais, explaining food chemistry to the masses is as simple as making a good omelet. Holding a Bachelor and Master degree in Nutrition, she has been a part-time lecturer for over 30 years in the Department of Nutrition at the Université de Montréal, where she teaches food science courses. She has been sharing the fruits of her experience with Ricardo since 2001, during his daily show broadcast on ICI Radio-Canada Télé. And diehards can also read her Food Chemistry on our website. You can follow her on Facebook at @Encuisineavecchristinablais.