Steak and kidney pie: the story behind a British classic

Popularised in the 19th century, this British classic has since become a pub staple. And while over the centuries the ingredients have been up for some debate, these days the kidneys are non-negotiable.

Photographs By Ant Duncan
Published 30 Dec 2020, 08:13 GMT
Pete Brown modestly claims in his book, Pie Fidelity, “Britain does pies better than anyone else ...

Pete Brown modestly claims in his book, Pie Fidelity, “Britain does pies better than anyone else in the world and has done since pastry was first perfected by chefs working for the Tudor monarchs.”

Photograph by Ant Duncan

For a long while, British food didn’t have the best reputation. Accusations of blandness and overcooking may occasionally have been justified, but some of the criticism of our national cuisine might have been a simple matter of vocabulary. To the uninitiated, the names of dishes such as toad in the hole and spotted dick sound ambiguous at best, and unappealing at worst. Steak and kidney pie, however, is a much more literal proposition. It’s clear at a glance what you’ll find under the pastry lid, and while some offal-avoiders might not be keen on the idea of kidneys, for aficionados, they’re the best part.

Gary Rhodes, the chef who perhaps did more than any other to revive interest in such traditional food, referred to steak and kidney pie as “that most classic of British dishes”, but in fact, it doesn’t seem to have a particularly ancient pedigree. Pies themselves are a different story: as Pete Brown modestly claims in his book, Pie Fidelity, “Britain does pies better than anyone else in the world and has done since pastry was first perfected by chefs working for the Tudor monarchs.” 

However, while the generously sized Henry VIII may have been a connoisseur of a good rough puff, the British pie is far older even than him. Thanks to the 14th-century poem Piers Plowman, we know the streets of medieval London rang to cries of ‘Pies, hot pies!’ — portable and robust, they’d have been the perfect fast food for both city dwellers and rural labourers alike.

In an age before refrigeration, pies were a means of preservation; baked in pastry and sealed with clarified butter, the contents — from salads to swans and even porpoises — would keep for months. Meat pies, however, have always been a British favourite. The first written recipe for a steak and kidney version, in 1694’s The Compleat Cook, doesn’t bear much resemblance to the pie we know today, with its ingredients list featuring lamb, prunes, currants and nutmeg.

The first mention of the modern dish is less than appetising. Charles Dickens’ first novel, The Pickwick Papers, features a ‘pieman’ who boasts of keeping his prices low by making pies from kittens. Steak and kidney pie continues to be an unlikely literary icon to this day, popping up numerous times in J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, both at Hogwarts, where it seems to be particularly popular with Ron Weasley, and on the menu at the Leaky Cauldron pub.

Dickens’ reference suggests the combination had become a stalwart of the pieman’s menu — minus, one hopes, the cats — by 1836, and recipes for beefsteak and kidney pie appear in countless cookbooks from 1851’s The Frugal Cook onwards. This, of course, doesn’t mean, as Regula Ysewijn, author of Pride and Pudding points out, that they didn’t exist before this time, merely that no one had bothered to record them.

As for why that particular combination of fillings proved popular, well, kidney adds an earthiness and richness that complements the beef, and creates a deeply savoury gravy.

Interestingly, Isabella Beeton, whose clever marketing continues to make her the best-known British food writer of the 19th century, is also often mistakenly credited with inventing the steak and kidney pie. In fact, her 1861 Book of Household Management describes a steak and kidney pudding which, according to food historian Dr Annie Gray, is likely to have been a more popular choice among humbler home cooks, “because ovens were scarce in houses below the middle class”. 

Various types of kidney can be used, depending on your taste. Ox kidney offers a distinct, robust flavour, but for something more subtle, try veal or even lamb.

Photograph by Ant Duncan

The suet pudding, meanwhile, could be steamed in a pan of water over the fire, which explains why it predominates in home recipe collections well into the 20th century, until technology began to favour the pie, which is quicker and perhaps easier to make. Indeed chef Alexis Soyer, described as ‘the most famous chef in Europe’ on his death in 1858, believed that beef pudding ‘may truly be considered as much a national dish as roast beef’ itself. 

Annie Gray says that, up until the mid to late 19th century, steak and oyster was probably a more common combination than steak and kidney in both pies and puddings. In fact, the shellfish were once so plentiful, and therefore cheap, that, to reference The Pickwick Papers again, “Poverty and oysters always seem to go together”. This was until, in a familiar story, over-fishing and disease decimated supply and oysters became the luxury they remain to this day. 

In the 20th century, however, kidneys once again became the usual bedfellow to beef. Winston Churchill was such a fan of the combination that one journalist who lunched with him was startled by the prime minister’s table manners: ‘... he took the bowl to his mouth and he took the spoon and shovelled the steak and kidney pie in”. After a few mouthfuls, he paused for a puff on his cigar, followed by more shovelling, and a few sips of brandy.

Edinburgh chef Tom Kitchin, owner of Michelin-starred The Kitchin, describes steak and kidney pie as “perfect comfort food”. He tells readers of his book Meat & Game that, though optional, “the kidneys… should always be added”. He’s clearly not alone in this opinion; his pie, its buttery puff pastry punctured by a stout cylinder of marrowbone, is a permanent fixture at Kitchin’s Stockbridge pub, The Scran & Scallie. When he took it off the menu, “We had so many locals asking for it, we had to put it back on by popular demand.”

Roasted bone barrow is credited with making a steak and kidney pie more special. 

Photograph by Ant Duncan

Down in London, steak and kidney is also one of the most popular dishes on the menu at Rules, a Covent Garden establishment that claims to be the capital’s oldest restaurant, dating back to 1798. Here, both pie and pudding are on the menu, and during his stint as The Times’ restaurant critic, writer Jonathan Meades rhapsodised over the latter’s “crisp suet crust [and] good beef… infused with the flavour of the kidneys”. Perhaps as important to a true British trencherman, he also marvelled at its “gargantuan” size. According to Rules, Marmite is the secret to its richly savoury gravy — controversial, perhaps, but not quite so controversial as Gary Rhodes’ deconstructed version, where braised steak is served alongside miniature kidney and onion pies — “so that two separate dishes are presented together to create one new British classic”.

Rhodes calls for lamb’s kidneys, but in truth this is a very adaptable dish; there are recipes using ox or veal kidney too, and Angela Boggiano, author of a recipe collection simply titled Pie, says her butcher advises the pig variety. It’s all a matter of availability and preference, just like the cut of meat, from Rules’ fancy fillet steak to Delia Smith’s chuck and Heston Blumenthal’s oxtail. If you’re really not a kidney fan, you might replace them with mushrooms, either fresh or dried and rehydrated, or even oysters, although the English social historian Dorothy Hartley, writing in 1954, expresses the view that cockles are the superior, and cheaper, seafood choice. 

More contentious still is the pastry; not just the question of puff, suet or shortcrust, but whether it should line the dish, creating a deliciously soggy, gravy-soaked base, or just sit proudly on top like a crown, as Nigella Lawson recommends. Such matters, Pie Fidelity author Pete Brown wrote last year, are “the second most divisive topic in our national discourse”. What isn’t up for debate, however, is the continued popularity of this old-fashioned, yet still beloved dish. Steak and kidney pie may not be the most on-trend of pies, but in tough times, old friends are the best friends.

Read more: from London to North Yorkshire, don't miss our pick of where to eat the best steak and kidney pie

A timeline of the history of steak and kidney pie
 

1694 The first written recipe for a steak and kidney pie contains lamb, spices and currants. 

1836 Beefsteak and kidney pie makes its debut in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers.

1851 A recipe for steak and kidney pie as we know it is published, containing steak, kidney and nothing else (save for a little salt and pepper). 

1901-4 Ernest Shackleton’s first Antarctic expedition develops a taste for seal steak and kidney pies. 

1917 British families send steak and kidney pies to POWs through the RAF Prisoners’ Fund. 

1939 Winston Churchill is recorded by a journalist as enjoying steak and kidney pie at home at Chartwell so much he ‘shovelled’ it in. 

2020 Fray Bentos’s limited edition meat-free steak and kidney pie is here to stay after winning vegan pie of the year at the PETA awards. 

Tom Kitchin's steak and kidney pie makes for the perfect comfort food. 

Photograph by Ant Duncan

Make it at home: Tom Kitchin’s steak & kidney pie


This dish is the perfect comfort food — and adding bone marrow makes it extra special. 

Serves: 4   
Takes: 4 hrs 30 mins 

Ingredients

75g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
800g stewing steak, well trimmed and diced
200g ox kidney, trimmed and diced
olive oil, for frying
100g smoked lardons
200g button mushrooms, trimmed, wiped and quartered
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 bouquet garni
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 onion, chopped
splash of Worcestershire sauce
1 litre beef stock 
1 tbsp chopped parsley
500g puff pastry, thawed if frozen
1 egg, beaten
1 bone marrow piece, 7.5cm tall

Method

1. The filling can be made the night before (steps 1 to 4). Return to room temperature before using. To make the filling, place the flour in a shallow tray and season with salt and pepper. Use kitchen towel to ensure the steak and kidney are perfectly dry, then toss them in the flour and shake off the excess.

2. Heat a large flameproof casserole over a medium-high heat, then add a good splash of oil. Once the oil is hot, add the steak and kidney and fry until browned, then set aside to drain (you might have to do this in batches).

3. Wipe out the pan, then return it to the heat with another splash of oil. Once the oil is hot, add the lardons and sauté until they’re coloured all over and the fat is rendered. Add the mushrooms, carrots, bouquet garni, garlic, onion and a pinch of salt and continue sautéing for 2-3 mins until the vegetables start to colour and soften. 

4. Return the beef and kidney to the pan, along with a good splash of Worcestershire sauce. Pour in the beef stock and ensure the meat is submerged, adding water if necessary. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat. Season to taste, cover and leave to simmer for 2½ -3 hrs until the meat falls apart when pressed (check occasionally and top up with more water if needed). Set aside to cool.

5. When you’re ready to assemble the pie, heat oven to 220C, 200C fan, gas 7. Transfer the filling to a 2-litre pie dish, then stir in the parsley.

6. Set the pastry on a lightly floured surface and roll out with a lightly floured rolling pin until it’s 2cm thick and 6cm larger all round than your pie dish. From this, cut a long strip of pastry the width of the rim of the dish. Brush the rim of the dish with a little of the beaten egg, then cover it with the pastry strip. Cut out another piece of pastry large enough to cover the pie dish. Brush the first pastry strip with more egg, then place the larger piece on top and press the edges together to seal. Trim with a knife, then crimp the edges. Transfer the pie to a baking sheet and brush with more egg.

7. Cut three small steam holes in the centre of the pie. Bake for 10 mins, then lower the temperature to 200C, 180C fan, gas 6 and bake for 15-20 mins more until the filling bubbles and the pastry is golden-brown. 

8. Meanwhile, season the bone marrow, then set on a baking tray. Roast for 8-10 mins, then remove and keep hot until the pie is baked. 

9. Take the pie out of the oven and leave to stand for 5 mins. Cut a hole the size of the bone marrow in the centre of the pastry, then gently push the bone in. Season and serve.

The images in this piece were styled by Liberty Fennell. The props were styled by Tamzin Ferdinando. 

Published in Issue 10 (winter 2020) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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