Lamb's mild yet distinctive flavor has earned it an exalted place in the culinary firmament. Many claim it as their favorite "red meat," and when it's properly cooked, it's easy to understand why.
And yet many Americans never think of cooking lamb. It may not be as popular as beef, chicken, or pork with home cooks - but this is no reason not to try it.
Definition of Lamb
Lamb is the meat from sheep that are less than one or two years old. Most are less than a year, ranging from five to seven months.
Lamb is tender and juicy but as the animal ages, its meat toughens and its flavor becomes stronger. After two years, lamb becomes mutton--a strong-flavored meat eaten very rarely in the United States.
Baby or spring lamb is six to eight weeks old and quite unusual, although some is marketed to specific ethnic groups around Easter time. Milk fed, baby lamb is exceptionally tender and mild.
Buying and Storing Lamb
The most popular cuts of lamb are leg of lamb and lamb chops; shoulder and shanks are appealing more and more to home cooks and chefs.
Other cuts include tender saddle of lamb, breast of lamb, loin of lamb, and the tougher neck meat. Lamb rib, which is the section of the beast that produces the rack, is deliciously tender.
Lamb chops are cut from the loin or the rib - with smaller rib chops being slightly more desirable.
Lamb is also sold ground and makes delicious, tasty burgers.
Look for firm pink meat with firm white flesh. If you can see the bones, make sure they are white with pinkish streaks.
All meat should be kept in the refrigerator until time to cook. Do not store it for longer than three days and if it's ground, cook it within a day.
Lamb freezes beautifully for up to six months, although frozen ground lamb should be eaten within three months.
Lamb can be prepared as any other meat: roasted, stewed, braised, grilled, broiled, and pan-fried. As with other meats, how you cook it depends on the cut, the recipe, and your mood.
Grilled butterflied leg of lamb is one of America's favorite outdoor feasts. Many supermarkets sell butterflied leg of lamb and if not, the butcher at the market will prepare it for you.
Roast leg of lamb is a lovely and easy dish to prepare, and succulent lamb chops cook quickly. Elegant rack of lamb is easy to cook in a short time. When two racks are formed into a circle, they become a crown roast of lamb.
Tougher cuts of lamb, such as the shoulder and shanks, do well braised or stewed.
Lamb needs little seasoning to enhance its delicate flavor. Rosemary, lemon, garlic, olive oil, and mint are classics flavorings.
Lamb makes delicious curries, and when the leg meat or the saddle is cut into cubes, it makes great kabobs. Lamb is the meat used in traditional shishkabob.
Lamb should be cooked until it's pink - err on the side of undercooking. If it's not done enough for your taste, you can return it to the oven or grill but there's nothing you can do if it's cooked to an unappealing gray color.
To judge for doneness, insert an instant-read thermometer into the meat (not touching the bone). It should register 125°F for rare meat, 135°F for medium-rare, and 140°F. for medium. Ground lamb should always be cooked to an internal temperature of 140°F.
Lamb is traditional at Easter, but don't stop with the holiday. When you plan your next family celebration or outdoor party, think of lamb. You will be glad you did!