Lamb is a classic choice for spring and, because of its versatility and beautiful presentation, well-suited for menus.
Choosing Cuts of Lamb
There are five basic major (primal) cuts of lamb: shoulder, rack, shank/breast, loin, and leg. Ideally, packages of lamb should be labeled with the primal cut as well as the retail name of the product, such as "shoulder roast" or "loin chop." Primal cuts explain which part of the animal a piece of meat originally came from, which can be helpful when deciding how to prepare the cut. For example, a tough cut like the shank should be braised for more than an hour, while tender cuts like rib chops (from the rack) or loin chops can get away with a quick broil.
For serving a party of 8 to 12, look for large roasts from the rack and leg, such as rib roasts, crown roasts (an impressive cut made by sewing two rib roasts together to form a circle or crown), or the more economical leg of lamb. For groups of 6 or fewer, consider individual rib chops, or smaller loin roasts. And for everyday meals, there are a wide variety of delicious, reasonably priced cuts such as the blade and arm chops (from the shoulder) or sirloin chops (from the leg).
What to Look for When Buying Lamb
For the freshest, most succulent meat, choose lamb that has a bright pink meat, pink bones, and white fat. Dark red cuts of lamb are usually older and less tender.
Preparing Lamb for Cooking
Large cuts of lamb are typically covered with a thin, silvery, papery skin called fell. Some cooks like to remove this, claiming it adds a strong flavor. However, it does help hold the shape of the leg together during cooking and also helps retain natural juices. Usually, the fell has already been removed from smaller cuts.
It's not necessary to wash raw lamb before cooking. Washing creates the danger of cross-contamination, and cooking destroys any bacteria that might be present.
Guide to Safe Cooking Temperatures
Lamb is now leaner than ever. While this is certainly good news for health, leaner meat requires special attention to the cooking time and temperature to prevent overcooking and toughness.
For safety, the USDA recommends cooking ground lamb mixtures like burgers and meat loaf to a minimum internal temperature of 160 °F. However, whole muscle meats such as roasts, steaks, and chops are safe to eat at 145 °F (medium rare), or cooked further to 160 °F (medium), or 170 °F (well done). For best results, take the roast off the heat 5-10 degrees below the desired temperature and let the residual heat continue to cook the meat. Tent it with foil and let it rest for 10 minutes or until the lamb reaches the desired temperature. Use a meat thermometer for accuracy.
For more information and approximate cooking times for a variety of lamb cuts, see the USDA fact sheet on lamb and American Lamb Board.