14 Ingredient Swaps That Will Make Shepherd's Pie So Much Better

Shepherd's pie with parsley
Shepherd's pie with parsley - hlphoto/Shutterstock

Few dishes are as satiating as a classic lamb shepherd's pie. This one-dish wonder hailing from the British Isles combines ground lamb, peas, and carrots that transform into a ragù-like base for a casserole topped with luscious, creamy mashed potatoes and cheese before being baked to golden perfection. As a chef, I have made this dish on numerous occasions, with various permutations hearkening back to its origins.

Indeed, this pie-like casserole may have evolved to use lamb meat, befitting its heritage as the meal of choice for Irish shepherds. However, shepherd pie's earliest precursors were more varied, incorporating diverse ingredients to take advantage of whatever was left over, from meat to vegetables. This varied legacy gives chefs and home cooks the permission, nay inspiration, to get creative with their renditions of the classic.

With this in mind, I put my culinary thinking cap on and evaluated how many ways I could enhance a classic shepherd's pie. I took inspiration from other cultures, cooking methods, those with various dietary restrictions, and food science to establish a list of simple ingredient swaps to make your next shepherd's pie infinitely better.

Read more: 15 Tips For Making The Best Meatloaf

Use Red Wine In Place Of Some Of The Beef Stock

Glass of red wine
Glass of red wine - Instants/Getty Images

The use of wine in cooking is not exactly a novel concept. Just think of classic dishes like beef Bourguignon, coq au vin, or osso buco. Each of these recipes relies on the wine to deliver flavor and acidity. The acidity helps tenderize meat with high concentrations of connective tissue as they slowly simmer, concentrating the flavors and amping up the savoriness of the dish.

Though it's not often made using a cut of meat that tends to be tough, shepherd's pie gets a potent flavor boost from red wine. Ground lamb is often characterized as having a gamey flavor. The naturally occurring tannins and acidity in red wine can effectively temper this gaminess with a hint of bitter yet sweet notes characteristic of a good varietal.

When choosing a wine to use for this purpose, it is best to avoid overly oaky wines. These can overwhelm the flavor of the lamb, fighting for attention rather than complementing it. I tend to prefer a pinot noir, grenache, or red zinfandel over a bold cabernet sauvignon. If you prefer to use white wine, go right ahead. It may not have as potent a flavor or color, but it can still lend some sweetness and acidity that will work well in this dish. To use wine in shepherd's pie, substitute approximately one quarter of the beef stock with the alcohol and use it to deglaze the pan before adding the roux or cornstarch slurry.

Replace Half Of The Stock With Beer

Glass of stout beer
Glass of stout beer - vzwer/Shutterstock

If you're not a fan of wine but want to give your shepherd's pie a rich flavor, look no further than that six-pack of beer in your fridge. Like wine, the beer will impart flavor and help tenderize tough meat. In this case, the beer's flavor is what you are searching for most. The combination of bitter hops and sweet malt confers a richness that will coat your tongue, yielding a more satisfying result.

The key is to use the right kind of beer. It is crucial to avoid those that are excessively hoppy, like an IPA. The bitterness will inundate the lamb and cancel any sweetness from the malt. I also recommend avoiding light beers when cooking. Their lower alcohol content is generally a by-product of fewer carbohydrates, ergo less sugar. This means less flavor. The best option when cooking lamb or other red meat is to use a dark beer, like a porter or stout.

Swap out half of the beef stock with the beer to incorporate it. Again, I advise adding the beer before any thickener, using it to deglaze the pan, and giving the alcohol a chance to cook before finishing the recipe with the stock. This will ensure the base remains thick and the beer is well-balanced with the other flavors.

Substitute Soy For Worcestershire Sauce

Ramekin of soy sauce
Ramekin of soy sauce - Kritchai7752/Shutterstock

A common addition to a classic shepherd's pie recipe is Worcestershire sauce. This condiment, which originated in a pharmacy run by John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins located in Worcester, England, in the 1830s, is renowned for the complexity, intensity, and umami-rich flavor it lends to many dishes. One of the primary ingredients in Worcestershire sauce that gives it its distinctiveness is anchovies fermented in vinegar.

Soy sauce may be an ideal substitute if you are out of Worcestershire sauce or are looking for a plant-based alternative with a similarly rich, savory flavor profile. The key ingredient in soy sauce is fermented soybeans. These confer a similar umami-rich intensity, making it a suitable and delicious facsimile for Worcestershire sauce. The sauces can be used interchangeably in a one-to-one ratio.

In sticking with an Asian theme, you might consider playing with your classic shepherd's pie recipe and infusing it with shiitake mushrooms, edamame, and green onions. This Asian-inspired shepherd's pie also benefits from adding sesame oil and crumbled nori or toasted sesame seeds for a satisfying crunchy topping.

Use Soy Granules Instead Of Lamb

Spoon of soy granules
Spoon of soy granules - xpixel/Shutterstock

For those wanting to skip the meat in their shepherd's pie recipe, you may want to consider swapping the lamb out with soy granules. Also known as texturized vegetable protein (TVP), these pellets, about the size of chunks of ground meat, are formed from a paste that is a natural by-product of soybean oil production. Once this paste is extruded into the desired shape, it is dehydrated and packaged as a suitable alternative for vegetarians and vegans to ground meat.

Though they often need to be rehydrated before use, when using them in a vegetarian shepherd's pie recipe, you can add them straight to the pan. The liquid released from the cooked vegetables, especially mushrooms, will likely be enough to plump them up. If not, add water or vegetable stock to the base to revive them.

If soy is not your jam, consider using canned beans or cooked quinoa as an alternative to the ground meat in the base of a vegetarian shepherd's pie. Both will provide good texture and flavor while adding some protein and fiber. Be sure to thoroughly drain beans and rinse them in water to eliminate excess salinity before adding them to your recipe.

Employ The Smoker Rather Than The Oven

Meat smoker in use
Meat smoker in use - Anze Furlan/Shutterstock

While an oven is standard and convenient for preparing a shepherd's pie recipe, a smoker may be a suitable alternative for those wanting to add a layer of robust flavor. The basic recipe remains the same, regardless of the cooking method used. Begin by cooking the base and top the casserole with the mashed potatoes and cheese.

Once the shepherd's pie is assembled, load the smoker using your favorite wood, such as hickory or maple. Get the fire going for about five minutes with the lid uncovered before you turn the temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and close the lid to preheat for 10 to 15 minutes longer. Place the assembled casserole in the smoker and put a lid on it. The smoked shepherd's pie should take 35 to 45 minutes to be cooked to golden brown perfection.

Make sure you do not open the smoker lid too frequently. Doing so can cause the internal temperature to fluctuate wildly, resulting in uneven cooking. It can also result in the smoke escaping and leaving your shepherd's pie lacking that quintessential smoky flavor you are going for.

Bulk Up The Potatoes With Chickpeas

Bowl of chickpeas
Bowl of chickpeas - milart/Shutterstock

If you are searching for a Mediterranean spin on a shepherd's pie, consider using chickpeas to supplement the mashed potatoes. By reducing the amount of potatoes and substituting chickpeas, you are adding texture and bulking up the nutritional content of this dish with fiber and protein. They also have an almost nutty flavor that will pump up the taste of this classic recipe. For added textural interest, reserve some chickpeas and add them to the meat mixture, leveling up the complexity.

Though you could season this shepherd's pie with classic, herbal savory seasonings, like thyme and rosemary, you may want to take a hint from countries across North Africa and the Middle East by incorporating ground cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and cloves instead. This blend of sweet and savory flavors is commonly found in casseroles and ground meat dishes from moussaka to kibbe to kofte. They lend warmth and nuance that is sure to surprise and impress your dinner guests.

Swap Bell Peppers For Some Of The Carrots And Peas

Bell peppers in different colors
Bell peppers in different colors - Skhoward/Getty Images

Those familiar with the culinary traditions of Latin cooking will recognize the term "sofrito." Sofrito begins with aromatics such as onions and garlic that are sautéed along with peppers, herbs, and occasionally carrots to create the base of many recipes. It often replaces a classic mirepoix in soups and stews, making it an ideal swap for a Latin-inspired shepherd's pie.

Substitute some carrots and the peas with a seeded and diced red bell pepper. While you can add the pepper at any time, for best results, toss them in along with the aromatics and meat to help caramelize them and draw out their natural sugars at the beginning of the cooking process.

Add some black or pinto beans, cilantro, and spicy chipotle to amplify the Latin flair and boost taste and texture. And, of course, you will want to supplement the seasonings with ample cumin and chili powder for heat and smokiness. The result will be something simultaneously exotic and familiar, with elements of tradition perfectly fused with the flavors of Latin cooking that make it so distinct.

Use Frozen Hash Browns Instead Of Potatoes

Hash brown close-up
Hash brown close-up - Bonchan/Getty Images

Mashed potatoes are the classic topping for a shepherd's pie. They yield a crisp surface with a creamy underlayer juxtaposing beautifully with the meaty base. That said, if you don't have leftover mashed potatoes or don't have the time to make them from scratch, there is a workaround that is easy and delicious. You can use frozen hash browns or tater tots. These won't provide that silky layer that the mashed potatoes do, but they do have a delectable crunch that is a knockout in its own right.

If using hash browns for your shepherd's pie, thaw them before layering them over your base to ensure that they cook evenly, same for tater tots. The excess moisture within them can also make your casserole soggy and cause the potatoes to steam rather than become crispy. Ideally, they should be thawed in the refrigerator overnight. If you forget, you can thaw them quickly by transferring them to a resealable bag, placing them in a bowl, and covering them with cold water. Replace the water every 30 minutes until thawed. Additionally, I recommend not layering tater tots on top of one another. This can prevent the ones on the bottom from browning, yielding a less-than-crunchy texture that is unappealing and mushy.

Replace The Lamb With Leftover Turkey

Chopped leftover turkey
Chopped leftover turkey - BW Folsom/Shutterstock

Every Thanksgiving, households nationwide are left with a dilemma of epic proportions: what to do with all that leftover turkey that did not get eaten. While soups, stews, and sandwiches are great, up your post-Thanksgiving game by creating an epic spin on shepherd's pie. The process couldn't be easier or faster, requiring far less time to create the ragù-like meat base typical of a classic shepherd's pie.

Though you could create a pastry shell to pop all the ingredients in, this is unnecessary. You can layer your chopped turkey with any leftovers you feel like using up, such as stuffing, gravy, green beans, and even cranberry sauce, directly into your casserole dish. Top the whole thing off with leftover mashed potatoes and some shredded cheese. Bake the dish in the oven until the center is bubbly and the crust is golden brown. The resulting casserole is a British-American mash-up that would impress the pilgrims celebrating the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock.

Use Mashed Sweet Potatoes Rather Than Regular

Mashed sweet potatoes
Mashed sweet potatoes - Funwithfood/Getty Images

Another swap that would be ideal during the holidays when they're a typical side dish at the dinner table is using sweet potatoes over mashed ones. Whether you have creamy mashed sweet potatoes or are repurposing a casserole by whizzing the ingredients together in a food processor to purée them, these make a colorful, delicious, and healthy alternative to mashed potatoes atop your shepherd's pie. They also tend to have a smoother, less starchy mouthfeel than mashed potatoes, which is a nice change of pace.

Though you could top the sweet potatoes with cheese, this would be the ideal time to consider accentuating your shepherd's pie crust with toasted chopped nuts, panko bread crumbs, or crushed cereal, like Chex or cornflakes. You may also amend the seasonings for your meat to include sweeter spices, like cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg, to balance out the inherent sugariness of the sweet potatoes.

Swap The Dried Thyme With Oregano Or Marjoram

Spoon of dried marjoram
Spoon of dried marjoram - Anzhela Shvab/Shutterstock

When looking for an alternative to dried thyme in your shepherd's pie, there are several options you can turn to that will amplify the flavor in the final dish. First, it is helpful to understand that thyme is a member of the Lamiaceae, or mint, family of plants. This family of plants hailing from the Mediterranean is the foundation of many culinary traditions with its bright, aromatic, earthy undertones.

When opting for a swap-out to thyme, it is ideal to turn to its close cousins within this family, namely oregano and marjoram. While both are good choices, they have distinct characteristics that may be more or less desirable for your palate. Oregano tends to be more robust, spicy, and savory. Marjoram has a more subtle, sweet flavor, with floral, piney notes and a hint of bitterness. Oregano and marjoram can be used in a one-to-one ratio for thyme.

Additional options include spice blends containing thyme. Herbes de Provence is a personal favorite, owing to the addition of lavender. Italian seasoning works just as well and is a more common staple in most households. For a Middle Eastern twist, opt for the spice blend za'atar. This mix marries dried thyme and oregano with sumac and toasted sesame seeds for a distinct, nutty, herbaceous, citrus-forward flavor, catapulting your shepherd's pie into the culinary stratosphere. These herb blends can also be used in a one-to-one ratio to dried thyme.

Use Potato Water Instead Of Milk

Potatoes boiling in water
Potatoes boiling in water - OllgaZhog/Shutterstock

While it may be tempting to use plant-based milk to mash up your potatoes, these tend to have aggressive flavors that can overpower your delicate tubers. There is an alternative that is infinitely more desirable from a flavor perspective. Next time you mash potatoes and want to skip the dairy, use some of the starch-filled water the spuds were cooked in to whip up the creamiest vegan mashed potatoes you have ever eaten.

The reserved cooking water retains the flavor and nutrients from the potatoes. It also has a hint of salinity if you adequately season the water before cooking the potatoes. Lastly, its starch content is ideal for giving the potatoes the smooth, thick texture that makes them perfect for topping your shepherd's pie.

There is a caveat. Before you cook your potatoes, scrub them clean and peel them well before cutting them into chunks. Then submerge them in cold water and a generous pinch of salt before boiling them. You do not want dirt or grit from the potatoes to end up in the water if you reuse it for mashing them.

Replace The Butter With Mayonnaise

Jar of mayonnaise
Jar of mayonnaise - New Africa/Shutterstock

If adding mayonnaise to your mashed potatoes makes you feel squeamish, it should not. Mayo is one of the best substitutes for butter you can imagine. A little goes a long way in terms of flavor and texture. Its natural creaminess adds moisture, the eggs richness, and the vinegar a hint of acidity that can help brighten up the flavor of your spuds. The mayo will also enable the potatoes to brown to a perfectly crispy crust after you bake your shepherd's pie, the same way it can transform a grilled cheese sandwich or a salmon filet into a golden, delicious dream come true.

The key is to use full-fat mayonnaise. Though it may be tempting to cut down on calories and fat by choosing the lighter version of this spread, this is problematic when it comes to cooking. Low-fat mayonnaise often contains more starch and sugar than its full-fat iteration. These can easily cause your potatoes to burn rather than brown in the oven. Additionally, the low-fat mayo has a less creamy, thinner texture that is less suited to getting the perfect fluffy mashed potatoes.

Top With Potato Chips Rather Than Cheese

Bowl of potato chips
Bowl of potato chips - Fotospeedy/Getty Images

Not every recipe for shepherd's pie uses cheese as a topping, but many do. A good melting cheese can provide an extra crunchy, brown crust that makes the creamy mashed potatoes underneath stand out even more. If you are seeking a dairy-free option, are out of cheese, or want to change things up, consider using crushed potato chips to top your next shepherd's pie.

Potato chips are the ideal crunchy topping because they come pre-seasoned and greased. This gives them the capacity to brown more efficiently atop your casserole. Though you can use any flavor of chip, you should factor in the other flavors in your shepherd's pie. You do not want to select a variety that would clash too much with your base. That said, for the most part, the sky is the limit. Personal favorites include sour cream and onion, barbecue, and sea salt and vinegar varieties.

One thing to note is that chips brown quite rapidly, so you may need to cover the pie with aluminum foil to prevent the crust from burning before the center is heated. You will also want to hold off on topping your shepherd's pie with the chips if pre-assembling. The moisture in the refrigerator will turn them into a soggy mess and prevent them from browning. Add the topping at the last minute before you put the casserole in the oven.

Use Ramekins Instead Of A Large Baking Dish

Ceramic ramekins
Ceramic ramekins - WS-Studio/Shutterstock

Making a big casserole to bring to a party or feed a crowd is a great way to save time and effort. That said, sometimes we want to do something more elegant and festive for our loved ones. This is where individual servings of a dish are ideal. The next time you plan to make shepherd's pie and want to do something unique, consider assembling and baking it in individual-sized ramekins.

Ramekins are available in several sizes to accommodate varying appetites. I tend to select oven-safe ceramic ones that are 10 to 12 ounces in size. These are ideal for high heat and a good portion size for an entrée. You can also purchase disposable foil units in a pinch or for easy cleanup. These are convenient but less elegant and can be challenging to serve without burning yourself.

Another benefit of using individual ramekins for your shepherd's pie? They take half the time to cook. You can pre-assemble and bake them off before a gathering, like a St. Patrick's Day affair or a quick weeknight dinner. That is a win-win for all parties involved.

For more shepherd's pie tips, read up about how to upgrade your next shepherd's pie and what mistakes to avoid the next time you make one.

Read the original article on Daily Meal.