What’s the Difference Between Au Gratin and Scalloped Potatoes?

You've heard of potatoes au gratin, potato gratin and scalloped potatoes. It's all basically sliced potatoes baked in a creamy sauce, so is there really a difference?

Every time we post this Cheesy Scalloped Potatoes video, the comments go wild. Did we call it by the wrong name? Isn’t this recipe really au gratin because it contains cheese? Here’s the whole spud story!

What Is the Difference Between Scalloped Potatoes and Au Gratin Potatoes?

It boils down to whether you’re using cheese or not. Like many culinary terms, the phrase au gratin derives from a French word that means something similar to “scrapings.” According to the Oxford Companion to Food, gratin simply refers to a crisply baked top. That crusty top is often achieved by grated cheese and/or breadcrumbs.

But scalloped potatoes, on the other hand, are a bit more mysterious. Were the potatoes originally cooked in scallop shells? Perhaps the thickly-sliced potatoes simply resembled sea scallops as they cooked. No matter where the word came from, most people seem to agree that a scalloped dish involves a vegetable cooked in cream with a bread crumb topping. Whether or not it has cheese is up for debate.

To Cheese or Not to Cheese

Because Americans love to put cheese on everything, the dishes have essentially become interchangeable. So, really, either dish could have a cheesy bread crumb topping! Still, the modern, acceptable difference between the two is that au gratin potatoes have cheese whereas scalloped potatoes are simply potatoes cooked in cream.

To make things more complicated, Julia Child’s famous Scalloped Potatoes recipe is translated from a French recipe called Gratin Dauphinois. It contains cheese but no breadcrumbs! So, maybe the difference between the two is simply a case of mistaken identity.

For the sake of argument, we’ll summarize it in this way:

Scalloped Potatoes

  • Thinly sliced potatoes cooked in a casserole dish
  • Always cooked in a cream sauce
  • Sometimes contains cheese
  • Almost always contain a breadcrumb topping

Here’s our recipe for Never-Fail Scalloped Potatoes.

Au Gratin Potatoes

  • Thinly sliced potatoes cooked in a casserole dish
  • Often cooked in a cream sauce
  • Always cooked with cheese
  • Sometimes contain a breadcrumb topping

You have to try our Simple Au Gratin Potatoes.

It doesn’t matter what you call this dish—it’s one of the ultimate comfort foods!

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Lindsay D. Mattison
After years of working in professional kitchens, Lindsay traded her knives in for the pen. While she spends most of her time writing these days, she still exercises her culinary muscles on the regular, taking any opportunity to turn local, seasonal ingredients into beautiful meals for her family.