Scottish stovies, oatcake, milk

Stovies is one of those dishes which Scots developed to eke out meagre meat rations. Stewing leftovers with sliced potatoes and onions produced a second meal at minimal cost. It also gave families a way to use otherwise tough cuts of meat. Long, slow cooking tenderised low-grade meat.

Many Scots assume that the name stovies comes from the dish being cooked in or on the stove. So did I until recently but, logically, everything cooked on a stove could be called stovies, in that case. The likelier explanation is that it comes from the days of Scotland’s Auld Alliance with France. One of the meanings of the French verb étouffer is to steam or stew slowly in an enclosed dish.

I am including a recipe here but, really, you can’t go wrong whatever you do. Some people leave out the meat altogether and produce what is known as “stoved tatties”, which I suppose is ideal for vegetarians. Some novice stovie-ists fret that the slowness of the cooking can burn some of the stovies at the bottom, but I wouldn’t worry; the crunchy bits are often the best (to my taste, anyway).

I have only once had a bad plate of stovies: at the Caledonian Hotel in Aberdeen, where Mrs Harper and I had nipped in for a quick Saturday-lunchtime snack. When we saw stovies on the menu, we were delighted. What we got was a sad plate of boiled potatoes mashed with gravy and shot through with chunks of gristle and fat. It is the only time in my life I have sent a plate of food back to the kitchen. We are convinced that whoever cooked it had thrown in all the rubbish from dressing other meat, which isn’t fair play at all.

I would give you only one caution: don’t be tempted to ruin a fine basic dish by going the other way and adulterating it with herbs, spices or any other contaminants. That’s not stovies. That’s a chef trying to be too arty-farty for his/her own good. Even carrots or peas are going too far for real stovies purists.

And you MUST serve them the authentic Scottish way: with oatcakes and a cup of milk. I also happen to like pickled beetroot with my stovies, but keep that quiet.



15g butter

One large onion

450g potatoes, sliced thickly.

Leftover minced or cubed beef, as much or as little as you like. You’ll soon work out what balance of potatoes to meat is to your taste.

Salt and pepper

300ml hot water

1. Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Soften the onion in it. Some people like onions translucent and soft. Some like them more fried. It’s up to you. Just remember that the dish has more than an hour’s cooking after this, so don’t fry them too well or the whole dish will taste burnt.

2. If your mince is uncooked, brown it in the butter/onion mix now.

3. Add the sliced potatoes (and the mince if it was pre-cooked). You need to keep the potatoes pretty chunky, otherwise they’ll cook down into a gloopy mince soup; a common mistake. You could used corned beef, I suppose, but the result will be corned-beef hash, not proper stovies.

4. Season with the salt and pepper then add the water.

5. Cover with a lid and stew on a very low heat until the potatoes are cooked (about an hour). The slower the cooking, the more succulent your stovies will be. Check on them every so often.


Filed Under: CookingFeaturedScotland


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  1. walter allan says:

    love it, no arty farty.

  2. G.D.Ralph says:

    My Glaswegian mum (long gone) used to cook this at least once a week in the 1940s. I have tried many times with varied results!
    I solved the problem by adding beef dripping instead of butter (only marg about then) and used about twice the amount you suggest. I knew there was something missing!

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