After the young sheep is slaughtered it is usually reduced to the primal cuts: shoulder, breast, rack, loin and leg. Like some veal primals, lamb primals are crosscut sections and contain both halves (for example, the primal leg contains both hind legs).
Lamb primals are not classified into a forequarter and hindquarter like beef, or a fore-saddle and hind-saddle like veal.
As with all meats, it is important to know the location of bones when cutting or working with lamb. This makes meat fabrication and carving easier and aids in identifying cuts. A lamb carcass generally weighs between 41 and 75 pounds (20 to 35 kg).
The primal lamb shoulder is a relatively large cut accounting for 36% of the carcass weight. The lamb shoulder contains four rib bones and the arm, blade and neck bones as well as many small, tough muscles whose grains travel in different directions. All these bones and muscle groups make it nearly impossible to cook and carve a whole shoulder. Although the shoulder may be cut into chops, or boned and then roasted or braised, with or without stuffing, it is more commonly diced for stew or ground for patties.
The primal lamb breast contains the breast and foreshank portions of the carcass. Together they account for approximately 17% of the carcass weight and contain the rib, breast and shank bones. The primal breast is located beneath the primal rack and contains the rib tips, which are cut off to produce the rack.
When separated from the rest of the breast, these small ribs are called Denver ribs and can be substituted for pork ribs where desired. Although the breast is not used extensively in food service operations, it can be stuffed and braised, either bone-in or boneless. Lamb foreshanks are quite meaty and may be braised and served as an entrée, used for broths or ground.
The primal lamb rack is also known as the hotel rack. It is located between the primal shoulder and loin. Containing eight ribs and portions of the backbone, it accounts for approximately 8 % of the carcass weight.
The rack is valued for its tender rib eye muscle. The hotel rack is usually split in half and trimmed so that each set of ribs can be easily cut into chops. The split racks can then be grilled, broiled or roasted as racks or cut into single or double rib chops before cooking.
The loin is located between the primal rib and leg. It contains rib number 13 and portions of the backbone as well as the loin eye muscle, tenderloin and flank. It accounts for approximately 13% of the carcass weight.
Except for the flank, the loin meat is very tender and is invariably cooked using a dry-heat method such as broiling, grilling or roasting. The loin may be boned to produce boneless roasts or chops or cut into chops with the bone in. The loin eye may be removed and cut into medallions or noisettes.
The primal leg is a large section accounting for approximately 34 % of the carcass weight. It is the posterior portion of the carcass, separated from the loin by a straight cut across the hipbone cartilage. As with veal, the cut of meat that would be the sirloin on a beef carcass is separated from the lamb loin by this cut and becomes part of the primal leg.
The lamb leg contains several bones: the backbone, tail, hip, aitch, round and shank bones. The primal leg is rarely used as is. More often, it is split into two legs and partially or fully boned. Lamb legs are quite tender-the sirloin end more so than the shank end-and are well suited to a variety of cooking methods. A bone-in leg is often roasted for buffet service or braised with vegetables or beans for a hearty dish.
Steaks can also be cut from the bone-in leg, with the sirloin end producing the most tender cuts. A boneless leg can be tied and roasted, with or without stuffing, or trimmed and cut into scallops. The shank end can be diced for stew or ground for patties.
Because lamb carcasses are so easily handled, purveyors often sell them whole or cut in a variety of ways to better meet their customers needs. As well as whole carcass, primal and fabricated cuts, lamb can be purchased in the following forms:
· Foresaddle: The anterior portion of the carcass after it is severed from the hindsaddle by a cut following the natural curvature between the 12th and 13th ribs. It contains the primal shoulder, breast and foreshank and rack.
· Hindsaddle: The posterior portion of the carcass after it is severed from the foresaddle. It contains the primal loin and leg together with the kidneys.
Storing and freezing
Ensure that the fridge maintains a temperature below 4 degrees C (inexpensive thermometers can be bought for this purpose). Always store meat in the coldest part of the fridge (on the bottom shelf ). If the meat is in a cling-filmed tray, leave it in the packaging until ready for use. If not, put the meat on a plate, loosely wrap in greaseproof paper or foil, and store in the fridge away from cooked meats and other ready-to-eat foods.
Lamb will keep for about three to five days in the fridge. Mince, offal and small cuts of lamb are best eaten on the day you buy them or within one to two days. Joints, chops and steaks will keep for two to three days and large roasting joints up to five days. Leaner cuts last longer than fatty cuts because fat goes rancid before meat. Never let the meat or its juices come into contact with other foods in the fridge, particularly food that doesn't require further cooking.
Quickly freezing lamb reduces the chance of damage to the texture or succulence of the meat. Smaller pieces and large joints can be frozen. For ease of use, freeze cuts tightly wrapped in individual portions. Don't freeze lamb for more than six months. When ready to use, defrost, loosely wrapped, in the fridge allowing five hours per 450g/1lb.
Because lamb is such a tender meat, most cuts lend themselves well to all the main cooking methods. Marinating lamb works wonders, helping enhance its flavour and making it meltingly tender. Lamb is popular in many cuisines - used in rich spicy stews, kebabs and rice dishes in French, Spanish, Greek and Middle Eastern cookery. Mutton frequently appears in Indian recipes.
Chops of all kinds are suitable for grilling, barbecuing and pan-frying. Leg or shoulder steaks are excellent cooked whole. For kebabs and stir-fries use diced leg or neck fillet.
Other lamb dishes might involve a combination of cooking methods - such as shepherd's pie (traditionally made with minced lamb) where the meat is fried first and then put into a casserole dish with a potato topping and oven-baked. Minced lamb is the traditional meat used in moussaka and can be shaped into Koftas (delicious fragrant kebabs flavoured with spices and fresh herbs). It makes a great stuffing for vegetables. Minced lamb can also be used to make juicy burgers - but remember that lamb has more fat than beef or pork, so fry off as much as possible.
Leg of lamb is the favourite cut of lamb to roast as it's very tender and has enough fat to keep the meat from drying out when cooking. Most cuts, except scrag or neck, are suitable for roasting.
Roast leg of lamb is a favourite for Sunday lunch. Alternatively, butterfly a leg of lamb and this can then be marinated or stuffed with various flavourings.
Rack of lamb is also a popular roast as is shoulder - a slightly less expensive option than leg. Roast a shoulder on or off the bone, or rolled and stuffed.
To be sure your meat is cooked you can use a meat thermometer.
Recommended temperatures for lamb are: Medium 70-75C; well done 75-80C.
Butter gives the best flavour for pan frying lamb, but add a little olive oil with the butter to prevent the butter burning. Alternatively, if you prefer to use less fat, use a little lamb fat. After you have trimmed the fat from the chops, spike this on a long fork, and wipe round the hot pan.
When the butter is melted and sizzling, or if you are using lamb fat, when the pan is thoroughly hot but not smoking, put the meat in the pan. Make sure the surface of the meat is flat against the pan and cook over high heat for 2 minutes on each side. Turn the meat with tongs or two wooden spoons, being careful not to puncture the meat as this will toughen it.
When the meat is well seared and brown, lower the heat to moderate and continue to cook until done to your taste, turning the meat once more. Use the chart as a guide to cooking times. If the lamb was marinated before cooking, blot it well with absorbent paper before frying and allow about 1 minute longer cooking on each side.
The following cuts of lamb are ones that are particularly suitable for quick grilling.
Loin chops: as their name suggests, these chops are cut from the loin of the lamb. They have a lean eye of meat surrounded by fat. They weigh about 125 g (4 oz) and are usually 25 mm (1 in) thick.
Chump chops: these are cut from between the loin and the leg. They are meatier than a loin chop but also have a larger bone. Chump chops weigh about 175 g (6 oz) and are usually 20 mm (3/4 in) thick.
Cutlets: these are also known as best end chops because they are cut from the best end of neck. The tenderest and cheapest of the chops, they are also tiny; you will probably need 3 per person. Skin the best end of neck and divide it up into cutlets by cutting down between the bones with a sharp knife. Trim any excess fat off each cutlet, following the shape of the meat, and scrape the meat away from the end of the bone.
Leg steaks: lean, tender slices from the very top of the leg, lamb steaks are often sold with the small round bone removed. Leg steaks weigh about 250 g (9 oz) and are about 20 mm (3/4 in) thick.
Shoulder and leg: These can both be boned and cubed and used for kebabs or brochettes. A shoulder weighing 1 kg (2 lb) will make about 700 g (1 1/4 lb) of boned meat. Leg steaks or the top (meatier) half of the leg are also ideal for brochettes.
Kidneys: Lamb's kidneys are an essential part of a traditional mixed grill, and are also delicious served for breakfast. Allow 2 or 3 kidneys per person.
Sweetbreads: these are glands from either the throat or pancreas of the lamb. They are sold in pairs which weigh 50 - 100 g (2 - 4 oz) or you can buy them in 450 g (1 lb) packs.
Preparing for Grilling
Marinating: lamb benefits enormously from being marinated before grilling. Try olive oil and lemon juice with a little chopped onion and plenty of garlic and herbs. The marinade will tenderize the lamb and add to the flavour as well. Cubed lamb for brochettes should be marinated for at least 4 hours before cooking. Chops and steaks will absorb the most flavour if marinated overnight. Remember to take the meat, in its marinade, out of the refrigerator at least 2 hours before you wish to grill it so that it comes to room temperature.
When you are ready to grill it remove the meat from the marinade, draining off any excess. Reserve the marinade to baste the meat while it is grilling. Pat meat that has not been marinated dry with absorbent paper before preparing it for cooking.
Trimming: leave a small border of fat around the edge of large steaks and chops to help keep them moist while cooking. Slash the fat at intervals with a sharp knife to stop the fat curling up while it cooks. With cutlets and loin chops just trim the fat to follow the shape of the meat and neaten it in appearance.
Seasoning: when you remove the meat from the refrigerator to bring it to room temperature, season it well with freshly ground black pepper and sprinkle with herbs if using. This allows plenty of time for the flavours to permeate the meat. Just before you are ready to grill the lamb season it again with salt and brush it with a half-and-half mixture of melted butter and oil.
Slow cooking lamb
Cuts of meat
Almost any cut of lamb can be used for casseroles. Many lamb recipes, such as Lancashire hot pot or Dublin stew, are traditionally made with really bony cuts such as middle neck, scrag and breast of lamb. The flavour of these is excellent and a really tasty meal comes out of the pot.
In most cases when you are making a casserole, once the initial preparation has been done the dish can be left to cook unattended. There are two main methods of starting off the casserole - the cold start method and the fry start method. The cold start method is best for tough cuts such as neck and scrag chops. Bring the lamb slowly to simmering point and cook very gently, covered, for about 2 hours on the top of the cooker or in the oven at 150C (300F) gas 2.
The fry start method is used for cubes of shoulder meat or neck chops. The surfaces of the meat are sealed and browned by frying in hot fat. The meat can be tossed in seasoned flour and then browned in fat or it can be browned on its own. Then the meat is transferred to a tightly covered pan with flavouring vegetables, herbs, spices and liquid and cooked very gently at 150C (300F) gas 2 until meltingly tender.
Stewing or casseroling
Lamb stewing meat generally comes from the shoulder, neck, breast, or shank. For a leaner cut you can also buy diced leg. Meat from the shoulder and neck has the best flavour and is traditionally used in Irish stew. There are various versions of this dish; some cooks brown the meat first, some add carrots, others cook the meat on the bone. The French have some delicious lighter lamb stews such as Navarin of lamb. Slow-cooked lamb curry or tagine is also a great way to cook stewing lamb.
Casseroling and stewing are flavoursome ways of cooking pieces of lamb or other meat gently in a little liquid, with added vegetables and herbs. Casseroling and stewing are virtually identical and the words have become interchangeable, but strictly a casserole is cooked in a slow oven and a stew on top of the cooker.
Pot-roasting and braising
Pot-roasting and braising are such similar methods that there is little to distinguish between them. Pot-roasting is carried out in a covered pan — a flameproof casserole is ideal — either on top of the stove or in the oven at 170C (325F) gas 3, for a minimum of 1½ hours, allowing 80 minutes per kg (40 minutes per lb) for lamb joints. Traditionally there should be very little or no liquid in a pot-roast, the moisture from the meat providing most of the liquid for cooking.
A braise is cooked in much the same way but there is usually a little more liquid added to form the cooking liquid and sauce. Braising is suitable for chunks of meat, leg, shoulder, chump chops or whole joints. Leg of lamb is particularly good boned and stuffed before braising.
For both pot-roasting and braising the meat is first browned on top of the cooker. Use either olive oil or butter, or good dripping, preferably from the same type of meat as the one being cooked. If the joint is a fatty one trim off some of the fat and render it down in a frying-pan. Discard any crisp remains of skin and use the liquid to brown the meat.
If flavouring vegetables are to be added to the pot-roast or braise they can be browned in the same fat, or they can be added raw. If being browned, remove the meat from the pan while you brown the vegetables to avoid overcrowding. Traditionally the vegetables for a braise are made into a mirepoix — all evenly diced to the same size and browned well in the dripping. The vegetables then form a bed on which the meat rests while it is cooking. Other flavourings such as diced fat salt pork, bacon and herbs can be included.
When both the meat and the vegetables have been browned, return the meat to the pan and add the liquid. Choose a good stock and add a little wine for extra flavour if wished.
Whichever liquid you choose, always bring it to the boil before adding it to the meat in the casserole dish. If you add the liquid to the pot cold and bring it to the boil with the meat, it will then extract flavour and moisture from the meat.
Whether you cook on top of the cooker or in the oven, cover the casserole tightly and control the heat to keep it just at a gentle simmer. If the liquid is allowed to boil the meat will harden and the liquid is likely to boil away before cooking is complete.
Best End of Neck
This is a versatile cut and comes from between the middle neck and loin. It’s great for braising or roasting on the bone. Two famous roasts come from the best end of neck: the crown roast and the guard of honour.
The best end of neck also gives you lamb cutlets – the long thin boned chop with a slight layer of fat. It has a very sweet small piece of lean meat. They are quite small, so allow a couple per person.
This is usually sold off the bone where is it stuffed and rolled. It is an economical cut that can be roasted or braised. Just be aware though that it is quite a fatty joint of meat.
Lamb chops are very popular in the UK and come from the loin area or the leg. They’re best grilled, fried or braised.
These come from either the loin or the leg area and have a central bone, unlike normal chops. They are expensive due to the fact that each leg of lamb can only yield 2 chops each.
As the name goes, these come from the loin. They have a T shaped bone in them and are fairly lean cuts.
This cut comes from the upper part of the leg and is usually roasted whole on the bone.
This is the most popular roasting joint, often weighing 2-3kg. It is very versatile and can be boned, stuffed and rolled or roasted on the bone. It can also be divided into the knuckle and the fillet and lends itself to all methods of cooking: roasting, braising or stewing.
This is the prime joint of the lamb. It weighs about 2kg and can either be boned and stuffed or roasted whole on the bone.
This cut comes from between the best end of neck and the scrag end. It is really only suitable for braising because of it’s fat content.
These are thick round slices from the loin region of the best end of neck. They are usually prepared at the butchers, where they are boned, trimmed of any fat and shaped into fillets about 150g/6oz each. They are usually grilled or fried.
This is the complete rib section of the lamb that is then cut into the best end of neck, middle neck and scrag end.
Both the loins are left on as well as the tail. The tail is split and then wrapped around the kidneys to keep them in place. The average weight of the saddle is 3.6kg – enough to feed between 15 and 20 people.
Scrag End of Neck
This cut comes from the nearest the head. As it contains a lot of bone and gristle, it is a relatively cheap cut and needs very slow cooking for a very long time to make it tender.
This is the least expensive of all the joints as it is contains more fat than the leg but in its favour, it has sweeter meat. It is very often boned and rolled but can be diced and used in casseroles.
Quick roasting on the bone requires 20 minutes per 450g/1lb + 20 minutes extra at an oven temperature of 220C/425F/Gas7.
Quick roasting off the bone requires 25 minutes per 450g/1lb + 25 minutes extra at an oven temperature of 220C/425F/Gas7.
Slow roasting on the bone requires 25 minutes per 450g/1lb + 25 minutes extra at an oven temperature of 180C/350F/Gas4.
Slow roasting off the bone requires 35 minutes per 450g/1lb + 35 minutes extra at an oven temperature of 180C/350F/Gas4.
For stuffed joints, you should allow 7-10 minutes per 450g/1lb extra time.
For grilling and frying:
Cutlets: 7-10 minutes
Chops: 12-15 minutes
Mint and rosemary spring to mind immediately, but lamb sits well with many different ingredients including French mustard, tarragon, tomatoes, olive oil, aubergine, yoghurt, couscous, apricots, coriander and cumin. Although lamb doesn't often feature in oriental cookery, it's delicious with soy sauce, ginger or honey. Because of its seasonality and its mild flavour, new season lamb goes well with spring vegetables.
· 40% of the lamb we eat is home grown. The rest comes from Australia and New Zealand.
· Lamb is particularly rich in iron and vitamin B complex. Essential for good nutrition.
· If a piece of meat looks pale pink, chances are it has come from a relatively young animal, but if it is a little more red in colour, it will probably have come from an older animal.
· Fat should be a creamy white rather than yellow. A yellow colour of fat denotes a sign of age in the animal.
· Lamb is quite fatty but a little dusting of seasoned flour over the top will absorb the fat and help to crisp up the skin.
· Allow 300g/12oz per person of meat on the bone and 150-225g/6-8oz per person off the bone.
o Best cuts for grilling: Cutlets, Chops and Noisettes
o Best cuts for Stewing: Breast, Scrag end or shoulder
o Best cuts for Roasting: Shoulder, Leg, Loin
Sheep farming experts generally agree that mutton refers to meat from sheep that are over two years old (lamb meat is generally from animals that have been reared for five months). Traditionalists argue that mutton is always the meat from a wether (a wether is a castrated male sheep; it is thought that castration improves the taste of some meats).
A more contemporary view is that mutton comes from a breeding ewe that has reached the end of its productive life. According to William Kitchiner in The Housekeeper’s Oracle (1817), the finest mutton came from a five-year-old wether.
Until recently, there were no industry-wide standards for meat sold as mutton. New guidelines drawn up aim to ensure that mutton is consistently of the quality expected by chefs and home-cooks. The standards specify that sheep must be over two years old, and that animals must have a forage-based diet (for example, grass, heather and root crops). Sheep meeting the standard should have a given amount of fat cover, and be matured (for example by hanging) for at least two weeks.
Mutton producers must be able to provide full traceability records showing where an animal is reared, its breed and age at slaughter.
Although Mutton can be available all year, the best meat is produced from October to March. This is because the sheep have access to nutritious summer and autumn grass and heather, and are able to put on fat before being slaughtered. Towards the end of the Mutton season, animals are fed on root crops and silage to ensure they reach the standards required.
Carcass should be compact and flesh evenly distributed
Flesh should be firm and a dull red colour and the grain should be fine
Fat should be evenly distributed, hard, brittle, flaky and a clear white colour
Bones are porous in young animals