We've had quite a lot of questions at farmers' market the past few weeks about how to cook and eat lamb. So, I thought I'd shed a little light on this insanely delicious meat for folks. I am unsurprised by the questions we get about lamb preparation. Lamb is not commonly eaten in the US (less than 1% of the total meat consumed per person, per year) and is even less commonly eaten in the South (where pork and chicken rule the day). Folks are curious about it, and certainly enjoy it (who doesn't love a lamb lolipop?!), but it is not a traditional part of our Southern foodways. Most of us didn't grow up eating it, and even fewer grew up cooking it.
In other parts of the world, it is a very different story. The most notable lamb consumers are the New Zealanders, who consume some 57 pounds of lamb per person, per year. There is not a child in that country who does not know how to prepare a lamb chop! Countries with a large Muslim population also tend to eat proportionally more lamb per person, per year. Indeed, the British Isles, Australia and New Zealand, and Mediterranean/Middle Eastern countries have had lamb as a centerpiece of their diets for centuries. As such, most recipes for lamb fall into two categories: 1) European flavors, such as rosemary, mint, sage, and other herbs, and 2) Mediterranean flavors, such as cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, and other spices.
Nutritionally, lamb is an outstanding source of nutrient-rich protein . It is also an excellent source of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and is loaded with vitamins and trace minerals (especially when it is grass-fed). Lamb is also a very flavorful meat. It tastes completely different from beef. Beef tends to be a very pure, umami taste, without strong or distinct flavors. Beef also derives most of its flavor from its fat content. This is why a lean steak is often not very tasty. Lamb, however, does not tend to marble, making it very lean, but still extremely flavorful. The meat itself picks up the flavors of the place where it was raised and feedstuffs it ate. According to one article, "Because Australian and New Zealand lamb is grazed on grass, it has a more pronounced flavor than most commercial American lamb, which is usually weaned to grain, then hay, and finally fed a formulated feed of sorghum, wheat, and vitamins." This, in part, is why many Americans find the taste of lamb unappealing. Very little lamb in the US is domestically produced; the vast majority of it comes from Australia and New Zealand. Generally, our American palates tend to prefer mild flavors: mild cheeses, white bread, white meat poultry, corn-fed meats. It's what we were raised on and accustomed to. So, if you're at a restaurant and order the lamb, whether or not you are going to enjoy it often depends on where it came from and if you prefer stronger or milder flavors. It also depends a great deal on the preparation. A good chef will be able to work with the intrinsic flavors of the meat to generate a dish that appeals to his or her clientele.
Our lamb at Many Fold Farm is closer in flavor to the lamb grown in New Zealand. The animals get grass and hay and that's it. The meat picks up plenty of the local flavors grass-fed meats tend to have, but it is also retains a mildness that most of our customers find appealing. The reason for the mild flavor is that we slaughter our lambs very young, typically around 6 months of age, sometimes younger. The meat from young animals is extremely tender and much more mild than older animals. But because our lambs are grass-fed, they still retain a unique flavor profile that we love. At farmers' markets we also get a lot of questions about specific cuts and their preparation. A whole lamb can be cut an number of different ways. Most commonly, a lamb will yield four shanks, 8-10 chops, 2 racks, 2 shoulders, 2 legs, and a bit of ground and stew meat. There are many other cuts too: leg steaks, neck chops, tenderloin, ribs, belly, just to name a few. There is an excellent app for the iphone/ipad/etc. called Pat LaFrieda's Big App for Meat. It provides a really great introduction to the various cuts of pretty much any kind of meat out there, lamb included. A quick google search landed me at Meals For You Guide to Meat Cuts that has great, basic information. Here is a standard chart of lamb cuts and their primals: There are two general guidelines for cooking lamb. The first is that less is more. Lamb is best served rare to medium-rare (unless you are talking about ground, shank, or stew meat). The second is that lamb greatly benefits from a marinade. Either overnight or for a few hours, allowing some olive oil, lemon juice, and herbs and spices to infuse the meat beforehand is always recommended. Lamb does a wonderful job taking up the flavors of a marinade and the acids tend to break it down and further tenderize it.
As I mentioned above, seasoning can go one of two ways: European-style with savory herbs, or Mediterranean/ Middle-eastern, heavily spiced. I love both ways, depending on my mood and the weather. In the wintertime, I like the rich, warming, savoriness of European flavors, while in the summertime, I prefer the hot-on-hot zip of the Middle East. As for cooking methods, this depends on the cut. As a rule, legs and shoulders are best served slow-roasted to medium-rare. I prefer these cuts bone-in because I love the flavor the bone imparts in a roast. However, you can get them bone-out and roll the meat up with herbs and spices to roast, which is delightful. The cuts that come from the tenderloin: chops, rack, etc. are best grilled, seared, or seared and then very lightly roasted (this is often how a lamb lolipop is made). Shanks can be well-done, and are perfection in a braise, as are neck chops and the belly. Ground lamb is extremely versatile. You can make it into burgers, meatballs, kibbeh, Bolognese or ragout, moussaka, shepherd's pie... the list goes on and on. Stew is also highly versitile: kebabs, stews, braises...
Here are some excllent online resources for lamb recipies:
And these are my favorite cookbooks with outstanding lamb recipes:
A word about mutton: Mutton is the meat from a sheep that is more than 12 months old. It is typically much stronger than lamb, and not nearly as tender. It is best cooked long and slow and heavily spiced, and as such it is very common in Indian cooking. It is wonderful!