How to cook the perfect Lancashire hotpot
Is it possible to improve on the simple perfection of the original Lancashire hotpot – and where do you get your mutton?
One of the great stews of the world, Lancashire hotpot is a dish that makes a virtue of simplicity. The name, often assumed to refer to the cooking vessel used (traditionally a tall, straight-sided earthenware pot) is actually more likely to be connected what lies within, which originally would have been a hodge-podge or jumble of ingredients – whatever was to hand that day.
Millworkers are often said to have invented this particular hotpot, but, as has been pointed out, few people would have had ovens at home in the mid-19th century, when the first recipes appear; perhaps it was baked in the communal bread oven as it cooled, or the recipe may have originated somewhat higher up the social scale. Whatever the true history, it is an indisputable northern classic.
Jane Grigson sadly observes in English Food that “in the old days, mutton was the meat used [but] now it is almost impossible to buy” – most contemporary recipes call for lamb instead. I try one, from Margaret Costa’s 1970 Four Seasons cookbook, that uses mutton, which does indeed prove surprisingly difficult to track down; halal butchers are often the best bet. It’s well worth doing, though: the meat is leaner, the flavour more savoury and it stands up much better to long, slow cooking.
I’d assumed that the hotpot would be a repository for tougher, less desirable cuts of meat, but cutlets – the tiny, delicate chops from the top of the best end – are surprisingly common, used by Lancashire chef Paul Heathcote, Grigson and Costa. Gary Rhodes goes for meatier chump chops, while Michelin-starred Nigel Haworth sticks in a medley, including the neck chops, but also shoulder, neck, shin and loin.
I’m also going to use a mixture: the lengthy cooking time suits tougher cuts like neck and shin down to the ground, transforming them into something silky and succulent, but the bones from the cutlets add flavour, as well as being traditional – JH Walsh’s 1857 Manual of Domestic Economy calls for “fine chops from a neck of mutton”, trimmed nicely. I prefer the slightly larger middle neck to the best end, if you can get it.
Costa adds kidneys, which also pop up in many early recipes, along with oysters, which no longer seem in the thrifty spirit of the dish. The kidneys aren’t to my taste – after two and a half hours in the oven they’re tough and rubbery, but if you like them, by all means cut one per person into quarters and add them to the rest of the meat.
That meat should sit in a richly savoury gravy – Heathcote adds no extra liquid, which means the dish is moistened only with greasy lamb fat, while Grigson’s water makes the whole thing sadly insipid. Much better to cook it in stock, as Costa suggests; Rhodes goes for white wine and veal jus, but it needs no such fancy flavours.
I do like Heathcote’s idea of flouring the meat before cooking, however. This is never going to be a gravy you can stand your spoon up in, and Rhodes’s notion of removing the meat and potatoes after cooking in order to reduce and thicken the sauce proves an impossible mess, but a bit of body is never unwelcome.
I’m always surprised when recipes that make a great feature of the potato make no mention of what variety to use – waxy and floury yield very different results, yet only Haworth specifically calls for maris piper. Because they’re sliced and baked in the manner of a dauphinoise, I initially warm to a waxier sort, which holds its shape. After eating Haworth’s version, however, I realise one of the chief joys of this dish is the way the potatoes that have come into contact with the gravy dissolve into a rich, meaty mash, while those on top go crisp and golden – for which one needs a floury variety such as, indeed, a maris piper.
Using two layers of potato, one in the base of the dish and one at the top, as Costa suggests, doubles the pleasure. Brushing the top with melted butter, as Haworth and Grigson do, helps the crisping process, as does uncovering the dish to allow it to brown at the end. It’s also very important to season each layer as you go; a dish this simple stands or falls by its seasoning. Pouring the gravy over the top of the potatoes, as Rhodes suggests, is a good way to add yet more flavour.
Rhodes also pre-fries his potatoes in dripping before adding them to the dish. While they’re good, they’re no better than Costa’s, so I decide to skip this step. Heathcote, meanwhile, cooks his potatoes separately, in vast amounts of clarified butter, to produce a rich potato cake reminiscent of a pommes anna. Potatoes and butter are always going to be delicious, but it’s a shame they’re never given a chance to mingle with the meat – the hotpot is not a dish in need of deconstruction.
Onions form the third prong of the hotpot trinity; there’s no need to pre-cook them, as Heathcote suggests. Lamb is a meat that tends towards fattiness as it is, so adding any more takes the dish perilously close to greasy.
Rhodes and Heathcote use carrot, which adds a welcome touch of sweetness, but doesn’t stand up well to such prolonged cooking. Rhodes also chucks in celery and leek for good measure, both of which are an unnecessary distraction. Heathcote, meanwhile, makes a gravy which includes bacon and lentils for his modern take on the hotpot, which, like his roasted shallots, is frankly just a bit bizarre. Like Rhodes’s garlic and rosemary, it is needlessly complicating a dish that should be a simple pleasure. Costa’s thyme and bay leaf seem to blend into the whole far more harmoniously.
You want to know the how and the recipe? Then check The Guardian