Can you imagine a more appealing side dish than a pan of crispy, bubbling, creamy cheese sauce with layers of sliced potatoes? Now imagine all that creamy comfort food with just a touch of smoke that gives the dish a warm, bacon-like aroma to go along with the richness of the sauce. In this article, we are going to discuss the differences between Potatoes Au Gratin and scalloped potatoes, then well also share our process for making one of the most popular side dishes at any family get-together – smoked scalloped potatoes.
What are Scalloped Potatoes?
The origins of scalloped potatoes have gotten a little blurry over time, but there are several working theories about how this awesome dish came about.
In culinary terms, scalloping is sometimes used to describe a series of semi-circles, like the edges of a pie crust. While it is possible the dish originated from the cuts of potatoes, there are other possibilities about the origin of scalloped potatoes.
A popular belief is that the dish grew from a common dish in the 18th century in which oysters were baked in scallop shells with bread crumbs over the top. Over time, the preparation of this dish changed, and it may have led to the creation of these cheesy potatoes.
Another possibly related theory is that the dish grew from an old English dish called collops. Collops had many meanings, but one meant thick slices of something, such as potatoes.
Scalloped Potatoes Today
The distinguishing feature of scalloped potatoes is the use of bread crumbs and cheese in the preparation. Starchy potatoes are cut into thick slices typically about 1/4-inch thick and are layered in a baking dish. Each layer of potatoes has a layer of cheese and a milk and cream sauce added as the dish is assembled. Bread crumbs are optional between the layers, but they are essential for the topping. Bread crumbs give this dish its famous crunchy, creamy texture.
What are Potatoes Au Gratin?
Unlike scalloped potatoes, au gratin potatoes are fairly easy to identify the origin. Potatoes were first brought to Europe by Spanish Conquistadors and the nutritious root quickly found a home in regional potato recipes. One such place is the Dauphin region of France.
One of the popular potato dishes in the region is called gratin dauphinoise. The dish is made from very thinly sliced potatoes and is baked in a heavy cream sauce. This dish typically does not include cheese, though variations may include hard cheeses.
Gratin refers to toasting the top, a step that usually involves raising the temperature during the final 10 minutes of cooking or placing the dish under a broiler for a few minutes to get the proper color and texture.
Are Scalloped Potatoes the Same as Au Gratin Potatoes?
These two dishes have a lot in common, so much so that the names can be used interchangeably by most people and no one will notice the difference. Both feature thin-sliced potatoes and a rich cream sauce that is baked in a pan until tender and bubbly. While they may look similar, there are some differences between the au gratin dish and scalloped potatoes.
What is the Difference Between Scalloped and Au Gratin?
The main difference between scalloped potatoes vs au gratin potatoes is that one uses cheese and breadcrumbs, the other does not.
Scalloped potatoes, like other scalloped dishes, have a layer of buttery bread crumbs over the top. This layer of crumbs gets crispy and crunchy while enhancing the bubbliness of the cream sauce and cheese.
Potatoes au gratin is often made with fresh herbs added to the cream sauce to add delicate savory flavors to the richness of the sauce. Garlic is a common addition, often crushed and chopped and added to the milk and cream sauce while it cooks. Thyme, bay leaf, and rosemary are also common additions.
Bearded Butchers Smoked Scalloped Potatoes
For our recipe, we like to use Russet potatoes. But most types of potatoes work well for these recipes. We've had success using red potatoes or Yukon Gold potatoes, and we even made a version using sweet potatoes.
To Peel or Not to Peel
The proper way to make scalloped potatoes is to peel the skins before slicing. But it isn't totally necessary and we've certainly made this dish with the skins on and had no complaints. It's more of an appearance thing than anything else.
How to Slice Potatoes
We are going to use a 7.5-inch slicer to slice the potatoes. This is an affordable tool that makes quick work of getting consistent slices of potatoes. For this recipe, you'll want fairly thick potato slices somewhere between 1/8-inch and 1/4-inch. As you slice the potatoes, you can put them in a large bowl of cold water to prevent them from turning brown. If you are making au gratin potatoes or you just want to mix it up a little, set the slicer to a thin slice a little bigger than kettle-style chips.
The typical recipe simply bakes the dish in the oven. We are going to take it one step further and do this in the smoker. We are going to use a charcoal smoker and add hickory chunks. This combination will give the potatoes a smokey bacon flavor without the fat that bacon adds.
We preset the smoker to about 250-degrees. For this dish, you'll want somewhat higher temperatures throughout the smoking process than you would use for smoking meat. Toward the end of the cooking process, you'll increase the temperature to finish the scalloped potatoes.
Our recipe uses three types of cheese. Feel free to get creative with the cheese selection you use. It's pretty much impossible to go wrong, though we've found that less-stringy cheeses are best for this dish. We used mozzarella one time and it was a bit unmanageable. Cheddar is one of our favorite choices. Always buy block cheese and shred it yourself. Pre-shredded cheese has an anti-caking agent added to it that makes the cheese funky when you melt it.
Bread Crumb Topping
Almost any kind of breadcrumb topping works well. You can use a prepared crumb, dry out a few slices of sourdough, or even use gluten-free bread to accommodate food sensitivities. Toss the bread crumbs with a little Parmesan cheese for an extra kick of flavor. You can also add your favorite Bearded Butcher Blend Seasoning to your bread crumbs to kick up the flavor.
- 3 lb potatoes, peeled and sliced in 1/8-1/4-inch rounds
- 1-1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 1 Tbsp salted butter
- 1-1/2 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
- 5 oz Gruyere cheese
- 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated or shaved
- 1 cup Breadcrumbs
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped
- 1 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
- 1 bay leaf, dried and whole
- Kosher salt and cracked black pepper to taste
- Preheat smoker to 250 degrees
- Using 7.5-inch slicer, a mandolin, or a sharp knife, slice peeled potatoes into 1/8-1/4-inch thick rounds. Place in cold water to prevent browning.
- Melt butter in a heavy saucepan on the stove top. Add garlic and sauté until just browning and fragrant. Add salt, pepper, thyme, and bay leaf, then slowly add milk and cream. Heat on medium until just simmering, whisking regularly to prevent burning. Reduce mixture until creamy and thick. Remove from heat. Remove bay leaf.
- Use butter or lard to grease a 13x9-inch casserole dish. Layer sliced potatoes in the pan. Add about 1/3 of the cheese, then more potatoes in layers, then some of the sauce. Repeat the process until all of the potatoes are layered. Top with remaining cheese and breadcrumbs. Tap the casserole dish on the counter to settle the sauce into the layers.
- Place the baking pan uncovered in the smoker. Add hickory wood chunks and smoke for about one-and-a-half to two hours until bubbling.
- Increase temperature to 375-degrees and continue cooking for 10-15 minutes or until top is browning and sauce is very bubbly. Test the potatoes with a fork to make sure they are tender.
- Remove from the smoker and let rest for a few minutes before serving.
Final Thoughts on Scalloped Potatoes vs Au Gratin Potatoes
Scalloped potatoes in the smoker is one of our favorite ultimate comfort foods. It goes great with a nice beef roast or smoked turkey, and makes a great late-night snack. Using the smoker gives this potato dish a savory flavor and gives the crust the perfect crunchiness. When we make this recipe, we often wrap a few extra potatoes in aluminum foil and add them into the smoker at the same time to use for potato recipes later on.
This is a great side dish that you can prepare in advance. The potatoes and cheese sauce mixture will keep in the refrigerator, covered, for at least a few days. You can simply pull the casserole dish from the fridge and get it in the smoker or oven when you are ready.
There are lots of ways you can reduce the very high amount of fat content in this dish, but we don't really recommend it. There seems to be something about the full-fat cream and milk that makes this dish the memorable, delicious side that it is. The good news is that if you are feeding a crowd, you aren't likely to have much in the way of leftovers at the end of the night.
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