Potatoes Au Gratin vs. Scalloped Potatoes: What’s The Difference?

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Who doesn’t love a potato casserole, rich with cream and cheese, browned and slightly crisped in the oven? This classic potato dish has many names, including scalloped potatoes and potatoes au gratin. Which term is correct? Do you call the dish potatoes au gratin or scalloped potatoes? Are they the same thing?

Potatoes au gratin and scalloped potatoes are baked dishes of sliced potatoes in a creamy sauce browned in the oven. “Au gratin” refers to any dish topped with breadcrumbs and cheese, then baked. Scalloped potatoes originally had no cheese and breadcrumb topping. Today, the dishes are much the same.

You may know this potato dish by either name, as funeral potatoes, or potatoes gratiné. In practice, potatoes au gratin and scalloped potatoes are almost indistinguishable, with their creamy layers of potato and brown topping. But, strictly speaking, there is a vital difference between the two kinds of potato bakes.

The Difference Between Potatoes Au Gratin and Scalloped Potatoes

Potatoes au gratin and scalloped potatoes have more in common than differences. They both consist of layers of sliced potatoes. They both have rich and creamy sauces. They are both baked in casserole dishes until golden brown.

Chefs and cooking authorities agree that the difference between potatoes au gratin and scalloped potatoes is in the use of cheese and breadcrumbs. Potatoes au gratin often includes cheese along with the layers of potatoes and, by definition, have a topping of cheese and seasoned breadcrumbs. Scalloped potatoes do not include cheese and breadcrumbs.

However, in cooking practice, the terms “potatoes au gratin” and “scalloped potatoes” have come to refer to the same dish, and recipes for both often include cream, cheese, and breadcrumbs, apart from the obvious potatoes. 

Potatoes Au GratinScalloped Potatoes
Main ingredientThinly sliced potatoesThickly sliced potatoes
SauceCreamCream, roux, or stock
SeasoningsGarlic, nutmeg, thyme, salt, pepperSalt, pepper
ToppingCheese and seasoned breadcrumbsNone
Cooking methodBakingBaking

What Are Potatoes Au Gratin?

Potatoes au gratin, also called potatoes Dauphinoise or gratin Dauphinoise, is a decadent potato bake made with thinly sliced potatoes baked with cream, cheese, and herbs topped with cheese and seasoned breadcrumbs and baked until brown and bubbling.

The dish dates back to 1788 and originates from the Dauphiné region in France. Being filled with luxurious ingredients, it is no surprise that the dish was first served at a dinner hosted by Charles-Henri, Duke of Clermont-Tonnerre and Lieutenant-General of the Dauphiné.

Some like to think the dish is so worthy of royalty that the name Dauphinoise comes from the title “dauphin,” traditionally given to the heir to the French throne. Although the dish is fit for a king, that’s not where the name originates.

Any dish with the French “au gratin” as part of its name means that it is baked with a topping of cheese and seasoned breadcrumbs. The term comes from the verb gratter, meaning to grate or scrape.

Some food historians say gratter refers to the brown scrapings or crispy bits on the top and sides of a casserole. This suggestion would mean that for a dish to be classified as au gratin, it doesn’t require cheese or breadcrumbs, though, just a brown, crusted topping.

However, the grating could also mean the scraps of bread and cheese that top the dish, which is the meaning in food studies today. 

The word “gratin” is now an English term that means a dish baked with a crunchy topping. For example, take a look at this recipe for a vegan Cauliflower Gratin.

We also use gratin to describe the flat dish used for baking — instead of a casserole dish, you could say a gratin dish.

Potatoes au gratin differs from other “gratins” in that they are not just potatoes baked with a crusty cheese topping, as you’d get with spinach au gratin. 

Instead, the potatoes must be thinly sliced (about 1/8 inch thick) and layered in a casserole dish you have rubbed with a garlic clove. Classic Dauphinoise recipes call for the potatoes to be layered with grated cheese, butter, and thyme, rather like a lasagna, which you then press down before adding the next layer. 

Other recipes have you cook the sliced potatoes first in a mixture of milk and cream seasoned with nutmeg, then poured into the casserole dish and baked.

Alternative ingredients include garlic, onions, rosemary, and parsley, although classic recipes keep the ingredients very simple.

Apart from the potato element, there is also cream in a potato gratin, often the liquid used to par-cook the potatoes, or additional double thick cream, heated and seasoned.

Either way, the topping is what makes the dish. The best cheeses for a gratin topping are Gruyère and Parmesan. The breadcrumbs are also an essential component, as they soak up the luscious cheese and make it crunchy and delectable.

You can use any breadcrumbs, but most chefs will use seasoned breadcrumbs, which means dried crumbs or panko mixed with garlic powder and dried herbs before being combined with the cheese.

With their crunchy topping, the potatoes bake for about an hour, the top turning golden brown.

What Are Scalloped Potatoes?

Scalloped potatoes are incredibly similar to potatoes au gratin, also consisting of sliced potatoes baked with cream and herbs. However, scalloped potatoes lack the gratin topping of cheese and breadcrumbs and the layers of cheese inside the casserole.

The term “scalloped” gives us a clue as to the origins of this dish. As early as 1737, English cooks used the word to describe any dish baked with a sauce in a scallop-shaped pan. Initially, these would not have been pans, but actual scallop shells, from the shellfish used for baking oysters, then regarded as food for the poor.

From the rounded shape of the scallop shell, we have the term “scalloped,” meaning a semi-circular shape, like the pattern or fancy edge of a pie crust. Perhaps the rounded shape of the potato slices looked like a scalloped pattern.

Another possible origin for the term “scalloped potatoes” comes from an ancient word from the Yorkshire English dialect, “collops.” This word means slices (like the French escalope), and there is a dish called collops made of fried sliced potatoes. Sometimes you’ll even find scalloped potatoes under the name “potato scallop,” which combines the two.

We can see that scalloped potatoes have two possible origins from this history. Were they named for the dish they were baked in, like oysters? Or does the name come from their shape, like scallops or slices?

With their humbler history, recipes for scalloped potatoes are, therefore, more spartan than the luxurious Dauphinoise potatoes. 

Most recipes include thicker, rougher slices of potatoes layered in a casserole dish with either in cream or a combination of milk, cream, and stock poured over. Often, the sauce is a roux or white sauce made with butter, milk, and flour.

Some recipes call for pre-cooking potatoes in a pan of water or seasoned milk before baking. 

Either way, there is no cheese involved. The casserole bakes for an hour or so, browning and bubbling.

Are Potatoes Au Gratin And Scalloped Potatoes The Same Dish?

Although these two dishes started as different dishes, most people (chefs and cooking authorities included) use the two names interchangeably when referring to potatoes and other vegetables cooked in the same way.

Tomatoes au gratin and scalloped tomatoes both refer to a dish of sliced tomatoes topped with cheese and breadcrumbs and baked in the oven.

You’ll find recipes for potatoes au gratin without cheese or breadcrumbs and recipes for scalloped potatoes with both. Boxed mixes for scalloped potatoes all contain cheese, but not breadcrumbs.

The difference has become a matter of tomayto/tomahto. To avoid confusion, Australians, New Zealanders, and South Africans use the term “potato bake” to refer to both. This luscious potato dish is the ultimate comfort food and worth making whatever you want to call it. 

Make The Best Potatoes Au Gratin And Scalloped Potatoes

Have you ever had a problem making a potato bake? Avoid undercooked, soggy, or dried-out potatoes and curdled cream. To make the best potatoes au gratin or scalloped potatoes, here are some helpful hints:

  • Use starchy baking potatoes like russets or Yukon gold to prevent the bake from becoming watery and the potatoes becoming floury and soggy. But don’t use two different kinds of potatoes as they cook at different rates.
  • To increase the nutritional value of your meal, swap regular potatoes for sweet potatoes. Add cinnamon, ginger, and cayenne rather than nutmeg.
  • If you’re in a hurry, there is no need to peel the potatoes. Wash and scrub them thoroughly. 
  • Slice your potatoes as thinly and evenly as possible to ensure that they cook more quickly and consistently. It’s tough to do this with a kitchen knife, so use a mandoline or food processor to help you get the perfect width, about ⅛ inch.
  • If you’ve had trouble with watery potatoes in the past, slice them and lay them out on paper towels to blot up some of the liquid before cooking.
  • Par-cook the potatoes before baking to ensure that they cook through in the oven.
  • Boil the potatoes in milk and cream, flavored with nutmeg and bay leaves, so that they absorb as much of the rich liquid as possible and release some starch into the sauce, making for a thicker, more luscious bake.
  • Do not use skim milk or reduced-fat cheese as these will curdle when baked for so long.
  • There’s no limit on what you can add to your gratin or scallops. Include seasonings like paprika or sage and vegetables like onions, garlic, mushrooms, leeks, and spinach. Even bacon, ham, or prosciutto are all delicious additions.
  • If you’re adding cheese, the best choices are Gruyère, Fontina, Parmesan, Emmenthaler, and Havarti, although there are smoked gouda, mozzarella, and cheddar fans as well. Whichever you choose, ensure that the cheese is strong and sharp.
  • Use vegan cheese and butter and a vegetable stock instead of cream to make a dairy-free gratin.
  • Panko breadcrumbs make an excellent gratin topping.
  • Season each layer of sliced potatoes with salt and pepper as you place it, to ensure that the potatoes remain flavorful.
  • Cover the potato bake with foil so that it steams for the first cooking period and helps to tenderize the potatoes. Remove the foil lid for the second half of cooking to brown the top.
  • Rotate the dish of potatoes in the oven to ensure that they cook evenly.
  • If your potatoes are done, and the top hasn’t browned, turn up the heat to broil for a few minutes. But keep an eye on the potatoes.
  • Let the rich and bubbly potatoes stand for 10 minutes before serving to allow the layers to set.
  • Make your potato bake ahead of time. Allow it to cool and refrigerate. Pop the bake in the oven half an hour before eating to heat through.

Potato Au Gratin and Scalloped Potatoes Serving Suggestions

Despite being so rich, potato au gratin and scalloped potatoes are versatile dishes.

These rich, gorgeous potato bakes often take pride of place on a holiday table, at Thanksgiving or Christmas. They’re delicious alongside a roast, such as chicken, turkey, prime rib, or ham.

Scalloped potatoes are also an excellent weeknight side because they’re simple to assemble, primarily if you use a boxed starter. Because they’re so filling, pair your potatoes with a light protein of pork chops, steak, fried fish, or chicken pieces.

Consider making a potato bake any time you plan to use the oven when making dinner – meatloaf, chicken casserole, and stew all go well with a potato bake.

Add a green vegetable like broccoli, green beans, or a leafy salad, and dinner is ready.

So, What’s The Difference Between Potatoes Au Gratin & Scalloped Potatoes?

The difference between potatoes au gratin and scalloped potatoes is in their origins. Although both are creamy potato bakes, potatoes au gratin is a French dish with cheese and breadcrumbs. Scalloped potatoes originated in England and do not have the gratin topping. However, this distinction no longer applies, and most people use the terms interchangeably.

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