Lamb is a staple in the diets of many cultures including India, Greece, Spain, France, and countries throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Americans, however, eat far less lamb on average than people from these other countries. Lamb is often thought to be strong and gamey in flavor, and while this is often true, that is characteristic more of older lamb -- over 12 months of age. The majority of the lamb sold in the U.S. comes from animals between 5 and 12 months old and while distinctive in flavor, is typically not too intense or overwhelming.
Different Types of Lamb Cuts
Lamb should be bought when it is light red and fine grained in appearance. Older lamb, or mutton, has a darker, purple hue and is much more pungent in aroma and flavor and the meat is tougher. Lamb should never have an unpleasant odor and the fat on lamb should always be white, never yellow or brownish. The ends of the bones on lamb should appear moist, red, and porous and not brown or dried and crusty.
Here are the most common cuts of lamb available.
- Rack: A tender cut of meat that may be cut into single or double chops or sold as a full rack.
- Loin: Another very tender cut that may be served as chops or a loin roast.
- Shoulder: Although a tougher meat, the shoulder can be forgiving and moist, making it a good choice for those just learning how to cook lamb.
- Leg: Similar to the shoulder although leaner.
- Shank: Part of the leg, offering minimal meat but a unique flavor.
Most Common Ways to Cook Each Cut
Because of its robust flavor, lamb lends itself to numerous preparations and accompaniments. However, here are the most common cooking methods for each cut of lamb.
Rack of Lamb
- Single and double chops from a rack can be grilled, sautéed or broiled while rib racks are usually roasted.
- Because ribs are lean, they should cooked quickly using a high, dry heat to lock in flavor and moisture.
- To roast a rib rack, cook on high heat (375-425 degrees) for approximately 15 minutes. Grilled, sautéed and broiled ribs can be cooked for 4-6 minutes per side or less, depending on the desired level of doneness.
- Rib racks are most tender when cooked medium-rare.
- A Frenched rack of ribs has the meat removed from the end of the bones. A crown roast is two Frenched racks tied together and stood on end.
- Loin roasts may be roasted while loin chops are usually grilled, sautéed or broiled.
- As with the rack, the loin is a lean cut and should be cooked quickly with a dry, high heat.
- Loin chops may be marinated or dry rubbed prior to being grilled, broiled or sautéed for 4-6 minutes per side. Roasts may be placed in the oven at 375-425 degrees for 15-20 minutes, depending on the size of the roast and the desired doneness.
- Lamb loin has the best flavor when cooked rare or medium-rare.
- Lamb shoulder is best braised or stewed although shoulder chops can be grilled or sautéed.
- As a tougher cut of meat, the shoulder benefits from the wet heat used in braising and stewing.
- Braise lamb shoulder in a covered dish with liquid at 350-375 degrees. Cooking time will depend upon the size of the shoulder. For slower cooking and a deeper flavor, cook at 250-300 degrees.
- The shoulder should be well-done when cooked to give it a melt-in-your mouth quality.
- Most lamb braise recipes include seasonings and vegetables so you can cook your entire meal in one dish.
- A classic leg of lamb is a roasted dish although leg steaks may be grilled or broiled.
- Lamb legs have little fat and are quite tender, attributes that lend themselves well to dry heat cooking.
- Roast a leg of lamb at 350-375 degrees until the internal temperature is 130-140 degrees. Actual cooking time will depend on the size of the lamb.
- Leg of lamb is best when cooked rare to medium-rare.
- Lamb kebobs are usually made with cubed meat from the leg.
- Lamb shanks are best when braised or stewed.
- The shank is full of connective tissue that needs to be broken down to tenderize it, something best accomplished through slow cooking over low heat.
- Cook in liquid over low heat until the meat pulls away from the bone.
- Shanks should be cooked to well done for the best flavor and texture.