I first learned to make Shepherd's Pie from my fire-fighter stepfather (he called it "Sheepherder's Pie"), and it wasn't exactly a formal process. I have modified the recipe each time I have made it, which hasn't been often, because, with a family of six, you need a big honkin' vessel in which to cook it, and I didn't really have anything perfectly suitable. That has now changed, as I am now the proud owner of a 5.5-quart enameled Dutch Oven, and the second day I had it, I thought, "There's the solution to my Shepherd's Pie problem." Here is what I did, together with some commentary on things here and there.
First, you will need something about 5.5 or 6 quarts in capacity that will withstand an oven temperature of 325 degrees. You will want to preheat the oven before starting to brown the beef.
Now, takest thou thy 3-pound beef chub--I generally have some frozen beef chubs from ALDI on hand. They are labeled 73 percent lean, 27 percent fat, and they have been consistently good, and at a good price--and let it thaw. The smart way to do this is to put it in the fridge the night before, but you can do it quicker by putting it in the sink and letting a thin stream of cool water run over it for a while. Then brown it. I did it over medium heat--and use a colander to drain off the fat. It is not that I am afraid of dietary fat, not at all, but I object to having so much of it in a finished dish that the rest of the food is swimming in it. You will want to add 1 teaspoon of kosher salt and 1 teaspoon of liquid smoke per pound--that is, three teaspoons each, total.
About liquid smoke. You may be wondering just what the heck liquid smoke is. Well, it's not something cooked up in a lab. It's very simple. Have you ever seen people smoking a hookah, or a water pipe? Experienced pipe smokers--I used to be one--know that the purpose of the water is to cool off the smoke, and the pipe does indeed deliver very cool smoke to the smoker. However, much of the flavor is lost, trapped in the water as the smoke bubbles through it. Liquid smoke is made much the same way: hickory smoke is bubbled through water, which traps much of the flavor, and the water is then reduced to a concentration suitable for home cooking. It is real smoke flavor, in teaspoon form. I use Wright's: the only flavor, as far as I know, is hickory, but there is nothing else in it, no artificial colors or anything like that. Other brands I have
looked at have other stuff in them.
Now, as the meat is browning, you will also want to have about three pounds or so of sliced potatoes boiling. The experts tell me that russet potatoes are best for mashing, but my family, for whatever reason, has a definite preference for the flavor of red potatoes, so that's what I use, skins and all. When the potatoes are done cooking, throw in a stick of butter and whip 'em up with your mixer. No hay problemo.
Once the meat's brown, drain the fat, like I said, and toss in--well, I don't actually have a hard-and-fast rule. When my stepfather first taught me how to make this, he always threw in "vegetable beef" soup, but mi esposa has a hard time with the peas that come in that, so over the years, I have tried different things. This time, I threw in about 3/4 pound of string beans, a can of creamed corn, and three 10 3/4 oz cans of Campbell's "Golden Mushroom" soup. I am sure that you could use beef stock, reconstituted dried mushrooms, perhaps a dash of soy sauce or worcestershire, or red wine, perhaps some sauteed onions or bell peppers--whatever floats your boat.
Then spread the mashed potatoes out over the top of the beef mixture, and throw--in this case--a 3/4-pound bag of shredded cheddar on top, the sharper, the better. Then put the lid on your dutch oven (It will be almost full by this time) and put it in your pre-heated oven for 25 minutes.
Dinner is served. We polished off almost the whole thing in one sitting.