Here’s some information to help you choose your cut of meat and help you prepare it. Lamb is more mild and mutton has a more robust flavour. Source: Natural Lamb Co-op.
Buying and Storing Tips
Lamb is generally a very tender meat, however, purchase lamb whose flesh is firm and fine textured and pink in colour. Fat surrounding the cut or marbled throughout should be white not yellow.
Lamb should always be kept at cold temperatures either refrigerated or frozen. Refrigerate the lamb in the original store packaging and store according to these guidelines: lamb roasts and chops can stay fresh in the refrigerator three to five days while ground lamb will only stay fresh for up to two days. To freeze, tightly wrap the lamb and use aluminum foil or freezer paper. Ground lamb can be stored for three to four months, while roasts and chops will keep for about six to nine months.
A successful outcome in cooking lamb depends on matching the recipe or cooking method with an appropriate cut of lamb. For example, if you plan to grill chops, you will get the best results using rib, loin or sirloin chops. If your recipe calls for chops to be marinated and then baked, shoulder chops are a much better choice. The following shopping guide will give you helpful suggestions in making your choices from the many lamb cuts that are available.
Lamb chops vary a lot in tenderness and flavour, depending on the section of the lamb from which they are cut. Chops can come from the shoulder, rib, loin or leg. Chops are usually sold bone-in and should have a clear pink-to-red color. Dark purplish red indicates mutton which is less tender and has a stronger flavor, but could be a good choice for a highly seasoned, long-cooking recipe that might overwhelm the milder taste of young lamb. The most tender and expensive chops come from the rib and loin. The slightly fatter rib chops have a bit more flavor, but many people prefer the leanness of the loin chops. Rib and loin chops should be cooked quickly, using dry heat cooking methods such as grilling, broiling, or pan-broiling. They should not be overcooked – there should be some pink visible in the cooked meat.
Rib and loin chops will be dry and tasteless if they are cooked until the center is gray. Rib and loin chops may be marinated for a very short time to add flavour, but long exposure to the acids in a marinade will cause the tender meat to become mushy. Rib and loin chops should be at least 3/4″ thick, but 1″ or more is ideal. Shoulder chops are less tender and less expensive than rib or loin chops. They are also from a more complicated muscle, so there are several “sections” in a shoulder chop, with more fat and connective tissue, making it less elegant and “chop-like” in appearance. Shoulder chops can be tenderized by marinating or moist heat cooking and are the best choice for recipes calling for the meat to be baked, braised, or simmered with other ingredients, as in a curry.
Leg, or sirloin chops are larger, meatier and may be less tender than rib or loin chops, but are still a good choice for grilling or broiling. Leg steaks, cut from the center of the leg, can be used like leg chops. Both leg steaks and leg chops make good shish kebab cubes.
Lamb for Roasting
There are several lamb cuts that make good roasts. The leg and the shoulder are typically the larger roasts. The leg, boned or bone-in, whole or half, is the cut most commonly roasted. Leg roasts can be successfully cooked at low, medium or high temperatures. The whole shoulder can also be roasted, boned or bone-in. Boneless shoulder roasts are often stuffed with a zesty filling, then rolled and tied.
Because shoulder cuts are not as reliably tender as the leg, they are usually slow cooked at low heat after an initial few minutes at high heat to brown the surface and destroy any surface bacteria. The rib and loin areas provide small, tender, expensive roasts. The rack, or rib roast, is an elegant small roast, usually only large enough for two or three. It is usually roasted quickly, at high heat. Two racks may be joined end-to-end then curved into a circle and tied, to make a Crown Roast. Two racks can be joined side-by-side with the protruding rib-ends interlocked, to make a Guard of Honour.
A whole loin roast is somewhat larger and will usually serve four or five. A double-loin roast, or Saddle of Lamb, consists of the loin roast from both sides of the backbone, left in one piece. More exotic roasts, which would have to be special ordered, are the rear half of the lamb, known as the “Baron of Lamb”, and the front half of the lamb, known as the “Foresaddle”. These would usually be obtained from a small lamb weighing 20 pounds or so.
Lamb for Shish Kebab
Chunks of meat threaded on skewers, with or without other ingredients, and grilled over hot coals, has long been a favourite way to cook lamb. Kebab chunks are usually regular cubes, about 1 inch on a side, trimmed of fat and connective tissue. Irregular shaped pieces can be cooked this way as well, but they won’t cook as evenly. Some cooks enjoy the varying doneness this produces.
Whether you purchase meat precut or cut your own from larger pieces, the best cuts to use are shoulder and leg. Since kebabs are typically marinated prior to grilling, the somewhat tougher shoulder meat, tenderized by the marinade, is a good choice because it is economical and flavourful. Rib and loin cuts can be used, but they are very expensive. They may be marinated for a very short time to add flavour, but long exposure to the acids in a marinade will cause the tender meat to become mushy. Meat from the breast is too fat; neck or shank meat is too tough.
Lamb for Stewing or Braising
“Stew meat” can vary from tidy 1 1/2 inch cubes to small irregular bits left from trimming various cuts. To be sure of what you’re getting, buy a suitable cut, such as shoulder, neck or shank, and cut it into the size pieces you need. A pound of bone-in shoulder will be enough for three people; with the bony (but economical) neck or shank you’ll need about one pound per person. Leg meat is easy to cut into uniform shapes, but will not be as moist or flavorful as shoulder, neck or shank meat. Shoulder, neck and shanks are also ideal for braising, as the long slow cooking dissolves the collagen (connective tissue) and makes a rich smooth sauce. Leg roasts are sometimes braised, although the result will be less flavorful than if using a shoulder roast. Loin and rib cuts are better prepared with a quick dry-heat method such as grilling or pan-broiling.
Quantity to Buy
It is sometimes difficult to know just how much lamb to buy to have the proper amount for a particular recipe or to serve to a specific number of people. Some of the information that will determine the quantity needed may be the type of cut you are selecting, whether the meat is bone-in or boneless, the number of people being served, whether or not it will be served in controlled portions, or if the meat will be served on a “help yourself” basis. The following information may be helpful in determining your needs.
Type of Lamb Cuts /Serving Size
Approximate Pounds per Serving:
Lamb Rib Crown Roast / 3 to 4 ribs per serving Rack of Lamb/ 3 to 4 ribs per serving Double Ribbed Lamb Chops/ 1 chop per person Center-Cut Loin Roast/ 1/2 lb. per serving Shoulder Roast / 1/2 lb. per serving Leg of Lamb/ 3/4 lb. to 1 lb. per serving Boneless Leg of Lamb / 1/2 lb. per serving Shank, Spare Ribs, Brisket/ 1 lb. per serving Ground Lamb, Stew Meat/ 1/4 lb. per serving