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Lamb Types and Cooking Basics

Lamb is a not-so-common type of meat that's often avoided by the everyday cook.  Many folks never try lamb during their entire lifetime, or are hesitant about trying lamb recipes.  Despite its rarity in the mainstream world of cooking, lamb is a versatile meat and makes delicious stew, roasts, saute dishes and grilled entrees.

Lamb comes from sheep that are either imported or raised locally.  You can buy lamb in the grocery stores or specialty meat markets.  The most tender lamb meat is from a young lamb, and the meat is finely grained with a pale-to-dark pinkish color.  You can also purchase lamb meat direct from a butcher to get the best cuts.


Types of Lamb Cuts

There are five basic lamb cuts in the retail market.  These are rack, loin, shoulder, leg and shank/breast.  The "rack" cut is another word for luxury cut, which is similar to prime rib in the beef world.  Lamb rack cuts are usually roasted in single or double rib chops or as a whole.  As an unsplit ribal cut of the lamb's carcass, the rib bones on a rack cut have been scraped clean.  It is often called hotel rack.

Lamb shoulder cuts come in several forms:  square cut whole, blade chops, arm chops and neck slices.  The shoulder square cut whole contains the blade, arm and rib bones.  The blade chops contain a portion of the blade bone and backbone. Arm chops contain the rib bones and cross sections of the round arm bone.  Neck slices are cut from the neck and contain the small round bone, with lean meat and connective tissue.

Lamb breast is cut from the forequarter and contains ribs with layers of lean and fat meat.  Breast riblets have ribs with layers of fat and meat.  The shank comes from the arm of shoulder and has part of the round shoulder bone and a leg bone.  It has a thin layer of fell and fat.  Lamb leg can be cut as sirloin chops or a whole leg.  There's also a leg shank half, which contains the round leg and lower half of leg (sirloin half removed). Lamb loin chops include a portion of the backbone, with the eye of the loin and flank.  These have kidney fat on top of the tenderloin with fat covering the outer surface.  Loin double chops are made of tenderloin and top loin, with the flank removed.  The reason they are called "double chops" is because the meat is cut across both sides of the carcass.

There's also ground lamb, which has trimmings from various lamb parts.  It is generally lean meat either formed in patties or sold in bulk for grilling and other forms of cooking.


Interesting Facts about Lamb

Lamb is referred to as a red meat because of the amount of myoglobin present in the lamb's muscles.  The meat has a red color after oxygen has been delivered to the muscles by red blood cells.  Lamb has more myoglobin than fish or chicken.  Fresh lamb cannot contain additives.  Processed lamb may contain additives such as sodium erythorbate, MSG or salt, but these must be listed on the packaging labels.

Some lamb is aged to develop flavor and tenderness.  Normally, the only types of lamb that are aged are loins and ribs used in restaurants.  Aging is achieved through commercial means in a controlled environment and should not be attempted at home.

The fell on lamb is a very thin outer covering over the fat.  It should be left on lamb roast and leg to increase juiciness.  The fell is often removed before packaging on lamb chops and other smaller cuts.  When shopping for lamb, look for meat that is firm with a fine texture and pink in color.  There should be white pieces of fat within the muscle.


Cooking Lamb

Lamb can be cooked using many methods:  pan-broiling, broiling, grilling, braising, roasting, baking or pan-frying.  You can prepare lamb steaks, chops or roasts in marinade sauces, and marinate in the refrigerator up to five days.  Marinate stew lamb or cubes up to two days.  Boil the marinade if using as a sauce on the cooked meat.  You can use online resources such as the USDA's website for appropriate cooking times and temperatures.  Times and temperatures will vary depending on the type and weight of the lamb.     


Lamb Recipes

Don't shy away from lamb until you've experimented with several lamb recipes.  Here are a couple of recipes to try...



·         4 lamb leg steaks, 1/2 inch thick (1 to 1 1/2 lbs.)

·         2/3 c. cooking oil

·         1/2 c. chopped onion

·         1/4 c. apple cider vinegar

·         1/4 c. red wine

·         1 clove garlic, minced

·         1 tsp. salt

·         1/2 tsp. dried rosemary, crushed

·         1/2 tsp. dried thyme, crushed

·         Dash of pepper

·         1/2 c. mint jelly, melted


Slash far edges of lamb steaks in several places to keep steaks flat while broiling. To marinate, place steaks in a plastic bag; set in a deep bowl. Combine oil, onion, vinegar, wine, garlic, salt, rosemary, thyme and pepper. Pour herb mixture over steaks, close bag.  Marinate in the refrigerator for 6 hours, turning occasionally.

Place steaks on an unheated rack in a broiler pan reserving 3 tablespoons of marinade.  Broil 3 inches from heat for 5 to 7 minutes. Turn and continue to broil 5 to 7 minutes more to desired doneness. Combine mint jelly and marinade. Serve warm with lamb steaks.  Makes 4 servings.



·               4 tbsp. flour

·               3 to 4 tbsp. Madras curry

·               1 tsp. salt

·               1/2 tsp. ground black pepper

·               3 tbsp. oil

·               1 1/2 lb. stewing lamb, cubed

·               1 lg. Spanish onion, sliced

·               1 1/2 c. water

·               1 1/2 c. white wine

·               1/2 c. raisins

·               1 tbsp. lemon juice

·               2 tart apples, sliced

In a shallow bowl, blend the flour, curry, salt and pepper. Roll the lamb in the flour mixture. In a casserole dish heat the oil. Brown the lamb; remove and keep warm. Saute the onion until just tender. Return the lamb to the casserole and sprinkle with any remaining flour mixture. Pour the liquids over the meat and stir to mix well. Add the raisins, lemon juice and apples and cook, partially covered, until the meat is tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Serve with rice, chutney and yogurt-cucumber salad.


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