Phone

Foods

Lamb
Why Eat It
Varieties
Shopping
Storage
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

While Americans display a very hearty appetite for beef, they have never shown much enthusiasm for lamb. On average we consume a pound of lamb per person annually, a fraction of our beef consumption. Yet sheep are the most numerous livestock in the world, and lamb or mutton (the mature sheep) is the principal meat in parts of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and India. Dishes featuring lamb are prepared in cultures as disparate as those of Iraq and Ireland. And in New Zealand, the per capita consumption of lamb and goat averages more than 60 pounds a year.

As with beef, modern breeding methods have improved lamb's taste and texture. In ages past, sheep were bred for wool as well as for meat, so they weren't butchered until they had served their purpose as wool producers. And they were often on the move from pasture to pasture. Both of these factors contributed to a tough and stringy meat. Today, they are raised either for wool or for meat so lamb has become consistently more flavorful and tender.

Most of the lamb sold in American markets comes from descendants of English breeds that were developed in the 18th century to be chunky and compact, yielding plenty of meat. Today's lamb, however, is considerably leaner, thanks to breeding and to the extensive trimming of the external fat--on average only 1/4" or less is left on retail lamb. Like beef, lamb is graded for quality. The same category names are used--Prime and Choice--but these terms do not indicate the same differences in fat content as they do in beef. The majority of lamb to reach the market is Choice, which, nutritionally, is comparable to Choice beef: Many corresponding cuts contain the same amount of internal fat, and offer similarly significant levels of protein, zinc, riboflavin, and vitamin B12.

In the United States, meat that is labeled "lamb" comes from sheep that are less than a year old. Most of our lamb, in fact, is from animals that go to market at five to seven months of age. The term "spring lamb" is sometimes applied to meat that is marketed during spring and summer months. In decades past, these were the primary months fresh lamb was available, but modern breeding techniques have ensured that lamb is plentiful throughout the year. Consequently, the expression no longer has any practical meaning.

You may sometimes encounter meat labeled "yearling mutton," which comes from an animal between one and two years old; it is more strongly flavored than lamb. Meat from animals older than two years is classified as "mutton," which is seldom sold in the United States.

About 11% of lamb sold in the United States is imported, mostly from New Zealand. It arrives fresh and vacuum-packed. Imported lamb comes from younger animals that are generally grass fed (rather than grain fed) that yields a stronger taste than domestic meat.

Varieties

The cut of lamb is the best indicator of fat content, as well as of the tenderness of the meat. Lamb has fewer retail cuts than beef. In general, leaner cuts, such as the foreshank and parts of the leg, are less tender than cuts from areas where the muscles are little used, such as the loin and rib. However, because lambs are smaller, younger animals than beef cattle, even lean cuts are more tender than corresponding cuts of beef.

Primal cuts--the divisions of lamb made by wholesalers--are given below, since they are used consistently throughout the country and are indicative of fat content. The most common names for retail cuts, which are used to identify the smaller cuts of meat sold in supermarkets and butcher shops, are also included, along with the preferred cooking methods. (Information on fat and calorie content pertains to cuts that have been trimmed of external fat.)

Breast and foreshank: Whole breast can be purchased unboned, or boned and rolled; it is usually roasted or braised, often with a stuffing. However, the meat is fatty and not as tender as the other cuts. This section includes spareribs and riblets (single-ribbed strips), both relatively inexpensive cuts that contain more bone than meat; they can be grilled or braised. The foreshank, which is connected to the breast, is a lean, stringy cut--only 29% of its calories come from fat. It is usually tenderized by cooking in liquid for long periods. Shank meat is also ground and cubed for stewing.

Leg: The most popular cut of lamb, the leg can be roasted whole, or boned and either rolled (for roasting) or flattened (for broiling). It can also be subdivided into two basic parts: the sirloin (or butt), which is well marbled, and the shank, or lower half, which is much leaner. Cuts from the sirloin include sirloin roast and sirloin chops. Leg steaks from the center leg are suitable for broiling or grilling. The hind shank is among the leanest cuts of lamb, with only 180 calories (33% of which come from fat) per three and a half ounces. Sometimes called shank half roast, it can be roasted or braised. The shank meat can also be cut up for stews or pounded for cube steak.

Loin: This section, considered the choicest part of the lamb, yields an excellent roast. When both sides of the loin are used, the result is a saddle of lamb. More frequently, the section is divided into loin chops. Chops can be braised, broiled, or baked.

Rib: A whole rib, also known as a rack, can be purchased for roasting, but it is heavily marbled meat with a thick outer layer of fat. In fact, over 50% of its calories come from fat, even after trimming. Rib chops can be trimmed of more of their fat to yield tender, juicy meat.

Shoulder: The hardest-working muscle has a good deal of fat, in addition to many bones. Sold whole with the bone intact, it is tastiest braised or stewed. Or, it can be sold boned as rolled boneless shoulder roast (which can also be braised). Shoulder lamb chops (which may be subdivided into blade chops and arm chops) are less expensive than rib or loin chops, and are somewhat leaner: The calories in these chops are only about 40% fat. Shoulder chops can be cooked like other chops, or they can be cut up and used for stews or kebabs. Meat from the neck, which is taken from the front of the shoulder, is also good for stewing, or it can be boned and ground.

Ground lamb: Usually made from shank and neck meat, as well as other trimmings, ground lamb may contain considerable fat. You can reduce the fat content by buying a shoulder cut and asking the butcher to trim and grind it (or grind it at home). Use ground lamb as you would ground beef.

Shopping

Packaged lamb sold in supermarkets is ordinarily dated for freshness, so be sure to check the label. Other signs of freshness are firm, pinkish red meat (lamb darkens with age); bones that are reddish at the joint (and also moist); and fat that is creamy white. When buying from a butcher, request that the external fat be trimmed.

Storage

Store lamb in the coldest part of the refrigerator immediately after purchase; keep it in its original wrapping (either plastic wrap or butcher's paper), checking that the wrap is securely sealed. As a general rule, the larger a cut is, the longer it keeps. Hence, whole roasts will keep up to five days; chops and steaks, for two to four days; and lamb that has been ground or cubed for stewing, for one or two days.

For longer storage, fresh lamb should be frozen. Make sure your freezer is set at 0°F or lower. To create an airtight seal, wrap the lamb in vaporproof, plastic-lined freezer paper or aluminum foil. Overwrap the package, tucking in all loose ends, and then seal it tightly with freezer tape. Be sure to label all packages with dates and cuts. Place each wrapped package in a plastic freezer bag.

Large cuts of lamb can be frozen for six to nine months, and small chops, cubes, and ground lamb can be kept for three to four months.

To help prevent food poisoning, thaw the lamb in the refrigerator or defrost it in a microwave on low power.

Preparation

While most retail cuts are sold trimmed of most external fat, some cuts, such as the leg or shoulder, may be sold with some of the fat intact. Trim it carefully before cooking: too much fat is not only unhealthy, but can also give cooked lamb a strong flavor. Do the same for cubes of lamb used for stewing or kebabs.

Some lamb cuts may also retain pieces of the fell, a papery membrane that covers surface fat. Butchers often leave the fell intact on large cuts, since it helps the meat retain its shape and natural juices. Any fell on small cuts should be removed, as it can distort the shape of the meat during cooking.

Since most cuts of lamb are naturally tender, they do not need to be tenderized further before cooking with dry-heat methods, such as roasting, grilling, or broiling. One advantage of dry-heat methods is that they allow the fat to drip off during cooking. The firmest cuts, though, like the shank and shoulder, will benefit from moist-heat cooking methods, such as poaching or braising. The long, slow simmering helps to tenderize the meat and allows the juices and flavors to meld with the other ingredients.

With dry-heat methods, the meat should be cooked until it is slightly pink; cooked longer, it will lose some of its flavor. Cooking times will vary, according to cut and size, but, in general, the meat should be cooked slowly over low, moderate heat, until the internal temperature is 135°F to 140°F. Braised or stewed lamb should be cooked to the desired degree of tenderness.

When roasts and other large pieces of lamb are finished cooking, let them sit for 15 or 20 minutes before carving.

Nutrition Chart

Leg of Lamb/3 ounces roasted

206
Total fat (g)
12
Saturated fat (g)
5
Monounsaturated fat (g)
5.2
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.9
Dietary fiber (g)
0
22
Carbohydrate (g)
0
Cholesterol (mg)
78
Sodium (mg)
57
Riboflavin (mg)
0.2
Niacin (mg)
6
Vitamin B12 (mcg)
2.2
Phosphorus (mg)
165
Zinc (mg)
3.9

Lamb Loin/3 ounces broiled

253
Total fat (g)
18
Saturated fat (g)
7.4
Monounsaturated fat (g)
7.4
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
1.3
Dietary fiber (g)
0
22
Carbohydrate (g)
0
Cholesterol (mg)
84
Sodium (mg)
66
Riboflavin (mg)
0.2
Niacin (mg)
6
Vitamin B12 (mcg)
2.1
Phosphorus (mg)
171
Zinc (mg)
3.1


Date Published: 04/20/2005
Previous  |  Next
> Printer-friendly Version Return to Top