I have apparently been misinformed about the difference between scalloped potatoes and potatoes au gratin for my entire life.
I always thought they both had cheese involved. But after I decided recently to make scalloped potatoes, I discovered that the dish has no cheese at all, and it led me down a rabbit hole of food research.
I discovered that although I’ve always thought “au gratin” just meant “with cheese,” it actually just refers to “the verb ‘to gratinée,’ [which] as used today, means simply to give a dish a golden brown top,” as I read in an article on the site “Culinary Lore.”
The article also argues that an “au gratin” dish may really just refer to the type of vessel you cook it in and nothing to do with the ingredients at all.
So then I wondered what made something “scalloped,” and I found an article from “Cook’s Info” that has a couple possible explanations, from taking the word from a French cooking technique where oysters were cooked in scallop shells to an English dish referred to as “collops,” which “meant, among other things, slices of meat.”
So I went from thinking they were both cheesy dishes to finding out that cheese isn’t a requirement for either one. Nonetheless, I did find a recipe on the blog “Spend with Pennies” that I decided I wanted to try—despite its lack of cheese. You can find it at https://www.spendwithpennies.com/scalloped-potatoes-recipe/. I added extra garlic in my version.
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1 onion diced
- 6 cloves garlic minced
- 1/4 cup flour
- 2 cups milk I used skim
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 3 pounds potatoes sliced thinly
- salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- In a large sauce pan, melt the butter over medium heat and add the onions. Saute until the onions are soft and then add the garlic. Once the garlic starts to brown slightly, add the flour and stir it around for about one minute.
- Turn the heat to low and whisk in the milk and broth. Turn the heat to medium high heat and continue whisking until the sauce thickens. Add in the salt and pepper to taste.
- While the sauce cooks, spray a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with cooking spray and layer in about one-third of the sliced potatoes into the bottom of the dish.
- Season them with salt and pepper (I also added some red pepper flakes for mine.)
- Pour one-third of the sauce over the top and then repeat the layers, ending with the rest of the sauce and some more salt and pepper.
- Cover the pan with foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 40 minutes or until the top is golden brown and the potatoes are done through.
- Turn the broiler on high to get a little color on the top of the potatoes. Leave them under the broiler for about three minutes.
- Let the potatoes cool for about 10 minutes before serving.
If you are in a mood for cheese, you could easily sprinkle some between the layers on this dish. I think a grated parmesan would be especially nice.
And after all of my research, I’m now aware that almost no one knows what the true difference between scalloped potatoes and potatoes au gratin is, since almost every region where those dishes exist has a different recipe for each.
I’d like to set the blame on the shoulders of the French and their cooking techniques, but I suspect that it probably goes back to the English speakers in our past who just wanted to sound fancy. In reality, there’s not much fancy about scalloped potatoes, but boy, do they still taste good.
This piece first appeared in print on Aug. 1, 2019.
Spice Up Your Life is a weekly newspaper column written by Lindsey Young in south central Kansas and sponsored by Main Street Co. & Kitchen Corner in Newton, Kan. Visit their website at shopmainstco.com.