Eating does not consist in putting cold, greasy animal food into one’s mouth. Eating consists of putting into the mouth – chewing, enjoying the flavour, and swallowing, of course – warm, juicy, thinnish or thickish, fat or lean, morsels of properly prepared food precisely at the nick of time.
– Frederick W. Hackwood, Good Cheer (1911)
Etymology: From Proto-Germanic lambaz (Gothic lamb, Middle High German lamp, German lamm “lamb”); common to the Germanic languages, but with no known cognates outside them.
A lamb is a sheep less than a year old, and is typically brought to market between the ages of six and eight months. “Spring lamb” is a traditional label indicating lamb born in the early Spring months, but given modern livestock techniques, it is now available year-round, so this mark is not necessarily of particular distinction now. Younger lamb has a milder flavor and more tender texture, so it is more palatable to those not accustomed to or fond of game meats.
The famed pré-salé lamb (literally “pre-salted”) of the salt marshes of Normandy, France is prized for its taste. There the lambs graze on the seaside marshes, which imparts a particularly subtle salty flavor to the meat that is celebrated by some gourmands. There is also a Welsh Salt Marsh variety available.
New Zealand and Australian varieties of lamb are prized for their flavor, but some prefer the taste of American lamb, which is slightly milder and less gamey.
Eating lamb is a celebrated Spring tradition as it is a symbol of rebirth in various religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It was commonly used in ancient cultures as a sacrifice to the gods, and is prominently featured in Biblical texts.
Though lamb has never been incredibly popular on American tables, it is much more so elsewhere in the world, and its consumption has been prevalent throughout the history of civilization. Given sheep’s distinction as the most common livestock in the world, both lamb and mutton (mature sheep) are a staple of European, Middle Eastern, Asian, and some North African diets.
Cuts & Preparation
Lamb is typically available in the following cuts: shoulder, rack, shank/breast, loin, and leg. Given its versatility, the meat can be roasted, grilled, braised, stewed, and prepared in a variety of ways; following are some recommended techniques for preparing lamb:
Braising is a moist heat cooking method where lamb cuts are first browned, then cooked in a small amount of liquid. The liquid produces steam which helps tenderize the meat. Thus, this method of cooking is perfect for less tender cuts of lamb such as neck slices, shoulder cuts, riblets, breasts and shanks.
To braise, heat a small amount of oil, fat or butter in a heavy frying pan and brown lamb on all sides. (The lamb may first be dusted with seasoned flour.) Pour off drippings and season as desired. Add a small amount of liquid such as water, vegetable juice or meat stock, and vegetables if desired. Cover pan tightly and cook at low temperature until tender (sauce or gravy can be made from the cooking liquid). A tight-fitting lid holds in the steam thus making the braised meat more tender.
Preheat broiler. Place trimmed lamb on rack in broiling pan and broil approximately 3 to 6 inches from heat source. Turn lamb over halfway and broil on second side until desired degree of doneness. Broiling time will vary depending on thickness and type of lamb cut. Use tongs to turn chops and steaks (don’t use a fork as it will pierce the meat and allow juices to escape).
Stewing is a cooking method in which small pieces of meat (and often vegetables) are covered with liquid and simmered gently.
Brown lamb on all sides in a small amount of oil, fat or butter. Cover with liquid and season. Add vegetables if desired. A stew can be simmered in a pot on the stove, a crock pot or a covered casserole in the oven. Stewing tenderizes the lamb meat and allows the flavors of the ingredients to blend. Make sure that liquid just simmers as boiling dries out the meat.
Because of its natural tenderness, lamb is ideal for grilling. Butterflied leg of lamb, lamb chops and steaks, kabobs and ground lamb patties are perfect for grilling. Other cuts include bone-in leg of lamb shoulder, rack and loin roasts, and ribs.
Boneless rolled roasts should be as round (cylindrical) as possible for even cooking. Steaks and chops should be at least 1-inch thick. Meat cubes that will be cooked on skewers should be as uniform in size as possible.
Trim chops, steaks and roasts of fat before grilling in order to eliminate flare-ups and diminish smoke. Use tongs to turn lamb.
Roasting is a dry heat cooking method where the lamb is cooked in an oven.
To prepare a lamb roast, simply place roast fat-side up on rack in open roasting pan, sprinkling with seasonings, as desired. Insert meat thermometer in the thickest muscle, being careful not to let the thermometer rest against a bone or in fat, either of which will cause the temperature reading to be inaccurate. Do not add water. Do not cover.
Roast to desired degree of doneness, following approximate time on timetable chart. Remove roasts from oven when thermometer registers about 10 degrees lower than the desired doneness. Allow to stand in a warm place for 10 to 15 minutes after removal from the oven. During this period, the roast will continue to cook and internal temperatures will rise.
Lamb is best when served medium-rare, or 135-140 degrees F. Its color will be a lovely reddish pink, and the meat is extremely tender at this temperature. As a guideline, the meat should be cooked approximately 20-25 minutes per pound, with an additional 10 minutes to rest.
Following is an overview of cooking times:
130° F–135° F Internal very red color; very moist with warmer juices
20-25 minutes per 1 lb. plus 8–10 min. resting
135° F–140° F Internal lighter red color; very moist with warmer juices
25 minutes per 1 lb. plus 8–10 min. resting
140° F–145° F Internal pink red color; moist with clear pink juices
30 minutes per 1 lb. plus 8–10 min. resting
150° F–160° F Internal color has no pink or red, slightly moist with clear juices
30 minutes per 1 lb. plus 8–10 min. resting
Source: Australian Lamb
*For the love of Escoffier, please do not serve your lamb at this temperature.
Lamb is traditionally matched with some type of mint, from sauces to jellies and herb rubs; we found that it is also perfectly complemented by lavender (hence our indulgence for this month).
This month we have combined some traditional methods and flavors to craft dishes that are perfect for Spring feasts and holidays, as well as delved into an intriguing combination from Australia.
Herb Crusted Rack of Lamb with Garlic Smashed Potatoes and Balsamic Reduction
Coffee Spiced Lamb with a Minted Coffee Sauce
Roman Roast Leg of Lamb with Orzo
Lamb and Fresh Herb Khoresh
Lamb Loin with Baby Spinach, Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Bush Tomato Chutney
Lamb and Orange Stew
Photo by Kelly Cline (Coffee Spiced Lamb recipe)