As warmer sunny days start to replace winter dreariness, many of us get excited about going outside, eating fresh spring vegetables, and gathering around for a the first barbeque of the season, or juicy roast lamb for a special occasion like Easter. Lamb is so versatile; it pairs well with citrus, garlic, fresh herbs, a light salad, and a glass of red wine, but requires little more than seasoning to be melt-in-your mouth delicious. Plus, Paula has recipes with a variety of cuts and fun preparations—from grilled chops to meatballs—showcasing the great overall value of lamb for satisfying a large group of carnivores with little time, effort, or other ingredients.
Where is should it come from and what should I look for?
Lamb’s quality is very much market-driven, so you will notice different characteristics depending on its sources and consumers. American lamb mostly comes from western states such as Texas, California, and Colorado, though supermarket lamb is largely imported. As with many domesticated animals, lamb is usually finished on (corn-heavy) grains in a feedlot during its final month, resulting in more fat throughout its flesh (“marbling”), juiciness, and a slightly sweeter, milder flavor than exclusively grass-fed meat. Many experts will say that the animals prefer to eat this feed rather than grass (like a human might choose a coconut cream pie over steamed broccoli), and that grass results in a tougher texture when cooked. Lamb that is entirely grass-fed will be labeled as such, taste grassier, and is probably imported.
As a general rule, you should look for meat that is fine-textured and tender with reddish-pink meat, slight marbling, and a minimal outer layer of white fat.
But isn’t it fattening and expensive?
The short answer is yes—for American lamb. Because demand is much higher in countries like Australia or New Zealand, which tend to slaughter sheep younger, your supermarket may offer better prices for more tender imported lamb than for domestic products, but if you are comfortable with a little more fat and it’s available, try a more local source.
While lamb may cost more than beef here, and some cuts may be fattier, you can always trim off as much fat as possible and/or opt for leaner cuts such as shank, leg, and loin (rather than blade or ground, which is cheaper but fattier and more perishable). Lamb also has relatively low amounts of saturated fat and high amounts of protein, anti-oxidants, omega-3’s, and vitamins such as B-12.
How do I cook it?
First, visit our Lamb Chart for a diagram of edible cuts linked to recipes from our test kitchen.
A quick glance at our list of super simple recipes using very few ingredients will give you many options depending on your priorities. Most offer various user-friendly cooking method perks like make-ahead marinades, leave it alone to roast while you do other things, have the butcher do the work (you don’t have to French your rack of lamb!), grill it up in minutes, or serve with a no-fuss salad.
What can I do with any meat that doesn’t get eaten (if there’s leftovers or I just don’t get to making it)?
The great news about lamb is that it freezes well, 6-9 months for most cuts of uncooked lamb if vacuum-packed or wrapped in plastic and then foil (3-4 months for ground meat which spoils faster). Make sure to thaw it the refrigerator or cold water for sanitary purposes, and allow for a 30-50 % increase in slow cooking methods such as for large roasts. For more information on freezing times, expirations, and cooking methods and temperatures, visit the USDA’s website indicated above.
Some final tips to keep in mind:
-Lamb will usually have a use-by date indicated on the package, and ground meat will spoil faster.
-Lamb loves marinades, even for a few days (the meat will be even more tender!), providing you leeway if your plans changes.
-Stews are usually better when made a day ahead so that the flavors intensify (you can even freeze them a week ahead without the usual warmed-over flavor from reheating).
* “Milk-fed” lamb, usually sold as spring or suckling lamb, only lives through its nursing stage of about a month, so it is extremely tender and considered a delicacy in many cultures. In the US, spring lamb is a USDA label meaning it was slaughtered between March and October, though purchasing spring or Easter lamb here is no longer seasonally restricted. As with most wine, cheese, and meat, aging results in richer meat, so many prefer the flavor of dry-aged lamb and other red meats. For instance, French lamb is typically aged at least 1 week after slaughter, though generally this aging period occurs incidentally in the US due to shipping and packaging time.