How to Purchase and Prepare Lamb
As the spring approaches and we all ease out of wintery hibernation, tender and flavorful lamb seems like an appropriate choice to celebrate the onset of warmer days. Although this slightly gamey meat often isn’t considered a weeknight go-to, the intimidation factor surrounding lamb is honestly larger than it ought to be. So when it’s time to gather around the table for a springtime celebration (say, Easter dinner?), don’t doubt for one second that lamb can be at the center of your feast. Here’s what you need to know.
What should I generally know about buying lamb?
Lamb is the meat of young sheep—by definition, a year or younger; thus, the meat is incredibly tender with a delicate sweetness. Any sheep older than one year is no longer considered lamb; at that point, they are considered mutton. When you are shopping for lamb, the color should generally be pink to red with white marbling. At many grocery stores, you can either purchase lamb that has been imported or raised domestically. For domestic breeders, Texas, California Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota are the leading states producing lamb, while New Zealand and Australia are the leading international lamb breeders for U.S. imports.
Once you have picked the best cut of lamb for your dinner (more on this below), cooking the meat is the easy part. The young sheep can be prepared in the many of the same cooking methods that you would use to cook beef. Lamb is generally best grilled, roasted, or braised. The tougher cuts (such as lamb shoulder, shanks, and ribs) are best when braised, while the more tender cuts (such as the top round, rack, and leg) are best when roasted and grilled. If you don’t know what to expect price-wise while shopping for lamb, in general, the tougher cuts will be cheaper than the more tender cuts. If you are not going to cook the meat right away, your fresh lamb can be stored in the refrigerator for 2 day with ground lamb or stew meat, 3-5 days for chops and roasts or it can be stored in the freezer for 3 to 4 months.
What are the key cuts to Consider?
Leg of Lamb + Shank + Top Round
The leg of lamb can be purchased in various sizes and on average, the whole leg weighs around 6 to 10 pounds, yielding enough meat to serve a large dinner of about 8 to 10 guests. When prepping a boneless leg of lamb, it will need to be tied with twine before cooking. A bone-in leg does not require tying, but it takes longer to cook.
The shank comes from the lower portion of the leg and this cut has a tougher texture due to the connective tissue. Shanks are best if cooked by braising with red wine or stock. You can also prepare it in an Instant Pot or slow cooker.
The top round is the heartier, meatier part of the upper leg muscle that is supremely tender. It is commonly cut into steaks or cubed for easy skewers and kebab meat.
Loin (Roast + Chops)
The loin roast is among the most revered cuts of the lamb, as it is known to produce the tenderest pieces of meat. The loin can be broken down into smaller loin chops (the signature t-bone steaks) or a roast. Use a dry heat method, such as grilling or roasting, to develop the best flavor from this rich cut of meat. Woodsy herbs such as rosemary, thyme, and sage complement this cut well, as does a splash of fresh citrus.
Breasts + Ground Lamb
The breast meat contains a lot of connective tissue and cartilage, therefore it benefits from a low and slow cooking process. Ground lamb meat typically comes from the breast and shoulder, and many cooks find that it’s best to mix the lamb with another ground meat, such as turkey, beef, or pork, for the best balance of fat content and to build an optimal flavor profile. Ground lamb can be treated the same way as any other grounded meat. You can cook and crumble it for spaghetti, roll it into meatballs, make burgers, or bake it into a casserole.
Rib (Rack + rib chop + crown roast)
The rib includes the show-stopping rack of lamb cut, rib chops and the crown roast. The rack of lamb (containing 8 ribs) maybe the most popular and most recognizable part of the animal. The rack is considered to have a “French” cut when the fat and sinew at the end of the bones are cut away for an impressive finish.
The shoulder is probably the most affordable cut, but the meat needs a little extra TLC (and cook time) because it is relatively fatty and chewy. This is usually where the stew meat is cut from. If you have any favorite recipes that call for stew beef, lamb stew meat will be an excellent substitute for change of pace. The shoulder is also delicious when smoked in a smoker or grill.