The question whether or not shepherd’s pie has a crust is one that gastronomists or any intermediate level foodie so desperately wants answered in order to use it as a prove for or against the standing of shepherd’s pie as a pie!
The truth is however, the status of shepherd’s pie as a pie is a bit more complex than you are thinking, and it’s due to the fact that everything started out—in Scotland—with a pie casing.
Let’s explore more on the “crust” history of shepherd’s pie and find out exactly where it stands in the baking world — is it a pie or is it a regular casserole dish!
Traditionally, there used to be a crust
According to historical evidence, the first time the word shepherd’s pie was used was somewhere in the mid 1850’s to refer to a potato and mutton dish from Scotland encased in a PASTRY CRUST.
Going by this, it would mean that the earlier versions of shepherd’s pie did have a pastry crust which would qualify them as being a pie because the generally agreed definition of a pie is any dish that is enclosed in a pastry shell.
Then it changed with time and circumstance
Now as time went on, the more affordable potatoes were substituted for the expensive pastry crust as the topping or casing rather, in two different ways which include the mashed and sliced.
The potatoes would be placed on the bottom and at the top in order to mimic the pastry shell and sometimes even lined against the sides of the casserole dish to complete the shell.
Many would argue that because the potatoes were used as a direct substitute for the pastry casing in order to serve its purpose — a pie, the modern shepherd’s pie is also a pie, and it’s hard to argue against that logic.
But if we were to go by the definition of a pie which is any dish enclosed in a pastry shell, the shepherd’s pie we have come to know of today is technically not one because it doesn’t have a PASTRY SHELL.
It does have a mashed potato or even boiled potato layer atop and even at the bottom, which can turn crusty upon heating, but that only remains a potato crust and not a PASTRY SHELL.
Shepherd’s pie is actually regarded as a type of casserole dish.
Now there are many more variations of the shepherd’s pie
The modern world has come to distinguish between two types of meat pies topped with a mashed potato layer. The shepherd’s pie itself and the cottage pie.
Technically they’re the same, since they all consist of a casserole having a first layer of meat sauce topped with a mashed potato layer.
Where people like to draw distinctions is in the type of meat used. Cottage pie is conventionally used to refer to the variant made with beef or veal whereas Shepherds pie is used for the lamb or mutton variant.
Depending on region also, there can be double or a single crust of mashed or sliced boiled potatoes. There can also be alternate layers of meat and mashed potatoes with the final layer being a mashed potato layer to complete the shepherds pie.
As for variations in these dishes, there are plenty of them. One interesting variant called the Escondidinho (from brazil) can substitute mashed cassava instead of mashed or sliced potatoes and includes the addition of seafood and poultry.
Others like Pastel Tutup and Pastel de papa include a layer of boiled egg and can even have cheese sprinkled at the top layer (of mashed potatoes) to develop a golden brown crust on it.
The canadian version can have an additional layer of canned corn and for a twist, reverse the entire layers in the casserole dish such that the mashed potato is at the bottom, the canned corn in the middle and the meat is at the top.
The vegan version called shepherdless pie also exist which substitute the meat prt with vegetables like mushrooms and lentils.