How To Shop For And Cook Lamb
Want to incorporate more lamb into your family’s diet, but not sure where to begin? We have everything you need to know about how to shop for lamb, the differences between domestic and imported lamb, all the different cuts available and the best methods for cooking each one.
Lamb is a flavorful and versatile meat that is enjoyed by people all around the globe, from India to North Africa to jolly old England. Americans, however, eat far less lamb than their counterparts in other parts of the world and, interestingly, less lamb than we used to just a few decades ago.
As a result, many of us are unfamiliar with the different cuts of lamb and how best to cook this healthy and delicious protein. In this post, I will tell you everything you need to know about shopping for and cooking lamb, so that you can begin to feel more confident about adding lamb to your culinary repertoire.
Imported Versus Domestic Lamb
One of the first things you may notice when you shop for lamb is that a lot of the lamb for sale at your grocery store is imported. Why is that, and what are the differences between imported and domestic lamb?
Half of the lamb consumed in America is imported and most of that lamb comes from the other side of the world, namely Australia and New Zealand. This may seem counterintuitive, but imported lamb is usually less expensive than domestic lamb. The reason for that is simple: volume. The American lamb industry is small – consisting mainly of family farms and ranches – while Australia and New Zealand have bigger lamb industries and raise far more lamb than we do.
North American-raised lamb tends to be larger, fattier, and less gamey in flavor than imported. This is mainly because of differences in the animals’ diet. American lamb ranchers start their herds on a diet of grass but then the animals are fed a grain-based diet for the last 30 days of their lives. This means that the meat has more marbling and a mild, sweet flavor that is similar to beef. A leg of lamb from an American animal can weigh up to 15 pounds, which could easily feed a dozen people.
Imported lamb from Australia and New Zealand tends to be smaller – with a leg of lamb weighing closer to 5 or 6 pounds. Lamb raised in these countries eat only grass, which can make the meat leaner and the flavor a bit gamier. There are also some health benefits from eating grass-fed animals including higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
In short, if you want to try American-raised lamb, you will need to be willing to seek it out – perhaps at a specialty butcher – and pay more. The majority of the lamb available at a typical grocery store comes from Australia and New Zealand.
Shopping For And Storing Lamb
Wherever your lamb comes from, it should be rosy red or pink in color with white fat. Lamb that is not fresh will have a sour, mineral smell and will feel tacky to the touch. You should avoid any lamb that smells or looks “off” in this way.
Store lamb in the refrigerator at 40 degrees or below. Use or freeze ground lamb or stew meat within 48 hours of purchase. Use or freeze chops and roasts within 72 hours of purchase.
Well-wrapped, lamb may be frozen for up to 6 months. Thaw lamb in the refrigerator or by using the defrost feature of your microwave. Once thawed, lamb should not be re-frozen.
What Are The Different Cuts Of Lamb?
As with beef, there are many different cuts of lamb, including roasts, chops, and more. Let’s examine the different cuts of lamb that you are likely to see in the store and what method is best for cooking each one.
Lamb Shank: The shank is the lower half of the leg – from the lamb’s ankle to the middle of the calf bone. The meat of the shank is very flavorful, but it can be tough because this is a working muscle. The best method for cooking the shank is braising, that is, long, slow cooking in liquid until the meat is tender and falling off the bone. For this reason, this cut is very well-suited to cooking in the Instant Pot or other electric pressure cooker.
Bone-In Leg of Lamb: An elegant cut suitable for a holiday meal or feeding a crowd. A bone-in leg of lamb will often be less expensive per pound than a boneless leg of lamb and it will cook quicker because the bone acts as an insulator to help conduct heat. This is a perfect cut for oven-roasting or grilling. Leg of lamb can be sold with the shank attached, which is the whole leg, or without the shank, which is known as a short leg of lamb.
Boneless Leg of Lamb: Boneless leg of lamb is usually sold butterflied, which means that the butcher has removed the bone and split the leg open so that it lays (mostly) flat. This means that you can season both sides, which is great for adding flavor. But because the meat is uneven in thickness, you may need to roll it up and tie it prior to cooking for best results. Butterflied leg of lamb, once rolled and tied, is suitable for oven-roasting. Opened up flat, it is a great cut for grilling. Boneless leg of lamb is one of the leanest cuts available and is often cut up into stew meat or kebabs.
Rack of Lamb: Similar to prime rib, and just as delicious, a typical rack of lamb has 8 chops and weighs about 2 pounds. “Frenched” rack of lamb means that the butcher has stripped the meat off the ends of the rib bones for an elegant look. A crown roast is a slightly old-fashioned presentation of two frenched racks of lamb tied together. Rack of lamb can be pricey, so you may want to save it for a special occasion. It is suitable for roasting, grilling, or even pan-searing on the stove.
Lamb Chops: There are two kinds of lamb chops: lamb rib chops, which come from the rack, or lamb t-bone chops which come from the loin. Both kinds of lamb chops can be grilled, pan-seared, or broiled. Lamb chops are quick-cooking and versatile, making them ideal for easy weeknight dinners. Lamb rib chops are sometimes known as lamb lollipops because of the long bone which can be used as a handle to hold the chop while eating it off the bone.
Lamb shoulder: This is another cut that you may see at the butcher counter. It can be tough, so it is often priced more economically than some other, better-known cuts. Whole lamb shoulder is suitable for braising. The meat is also sometimes ground or cut into pieces for stewing. Sometimes lamb shoulder is cut into chops, such as blade or arm chops, which usually have the bone still in.
Ground Lamb: Ground lamb has an especially mild flavor, making it suitable for those new to eating lamb. Use it as you would ground beef, such as to make burgers, meatballs, or ground lamb kebabs, which are known as kofta kebabs. Ground lamb, like all ground meat, should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit for safety.
How To Cook Lamb
As discussed above, you can cook lamb any number of ways depending on the cut. Some of the most popular methods are oven-roasting, grilling, pan-searing, and braising.
When cooking lamb roasts and chops, there is a more narrow range of degrees of doneness than there is for beef. Rare lamb can be tough and not especially flavorful, but at the same time, well-done lamb is dry and unappealing. For the best flavor, you want medium-rare, or at most medium, lamb – especially when working with imported lamb, which is leaner than domestic lamb.
When cooking any meat, it is best practices to use an instant-read thermometer (like this one) and rely on the internal temperature to know for certain when your meat is cooked. This is especially true with lamb, when the range for properly cooked meat is narrow.
For medium-rare to medium lamb, aim for 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit on your meat thermometer. You always want to take the lamb off the heat about 5-10 degrees short of doneness because the meat will continue to cook while it rests. And yes, always let your meat rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving or carving. Carve larger cuts, like leg of lamb, against the grain of the meat for the best texture.
As mentioned earlier, when cooking ground lamb, such as lamb burgers or meatballs, the FDA recommends an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit to avoid any possibility of food borne illness.
For tougher cuts of lamb, like lamb shanks or lamb stew, you want to cook them low and slow, in liquid, in the oven or on the stovetop until the meat is falling off the bone and can be shredded with a fork. If you own an Instant Pot or other electric pressure cooker, these are terrific for cooking tough cuts of lamb and making them come out fork-tender in less time than it would take otherwise.
There you have it! Everything you need to know to shop for and cook lamb. What will be the first lamb dish you make? A fancy rack of lamb? A hearty lamb stew? Quick-cooking lamb chops? There are so many delicious possibilities.