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Did you know that lamb is the only universally accepted red meat?  Hindus are forbidden to eat beef, Muslims & Jews eschew pork, but no culture or religion outlaws lamb.  Lamb has been a part of our carnivorous lives since 9000 B.C.! During these early days, much of the world were shepherds and the meat they knew best was lamb.  Since we are approaching the biggest lamb selling weekend of the year as Christians celebrate Easter, let's spend a few minutes breaking down the lamb, shall we.

Primal Cuts of Lamb

Lamb is a sheep less than 1 year old. The term “Spring Lamb” refers to a lamb between 3 and 5 months old. Over 1 year, a lamb is referred to as a yearling. Over 2 years of age, lamb is called mutton; meat from mutton is darker, tougher, and has a stronger flavour than lamb.  Despite the lamb frenzy that occurs at Easter, during which we sell in one day (Saturday) as much lamb as we sell during any other two-month period, the best time to purchase lamb is between mid-summer and fall, when lambs have grazed on open pasture for several months (also read The Seasonality of Meat).  In the autumn you can buy genuine Ontario “Spring Lamb”, that is, a lamb born in the early spring, fed on mother's milk and organic pasture all summer, and slaughtered in the fall, which produces one of the sweetest and most succulent meat.

The taste of good lamb is earthy and rich with a faint sweetness. Lamb is fairly fatty, and, unlike pork, the fat is not entirely edible - it is more like tallow. This contributes to the high price of lamb, because by the time the lamb is trimmed of its fat, bone and other non-edible parts, the resulting meat is only about 40% of its weight. Some people are turned off by the smell of lamb, but what they are smelling is burning lamb fat, which does have a very "lamby" odor - for these people we recommend leaner cuts that have been well trimmed.

It's almost impossible to avoid grocery store shelves stocked with lamb from Australia and New Zealand, which are by far the largest lamb exporters. In our opinion, our locally raised Ontario lamb is superior for several reasons… but, really, only one is essential to comprehend – our lamb travel less than 200 km to get to our store, not 14,000 km.

Overall Structure

Beef and lamb are both four-footed animals (obviously), and therefore their structures are the same. However, on average, a lamb is one-tenth the weight of a beef and as a result, the butchering is slightly altered since beef can be easily cut into many more individual pieces. There are eight basic or primal cuts of lamb (depicted in the diagram above): Neck, Shoulder, Foreshank, Breast, Rib, Loin, Leg, and Shank.

Lamb Cuts at The Healthy Butcher

Premium Cuts/Premium Priced

COOKING METHOD: Dry heat methods (roasting, grilling, pan frying, sautéing); aim for internal temperature of 125F before resting, for a finished temperature of 140-145F medium-rare.  Print our Roasting Chart for quick reference.
rib chops, rack of lamb, Crown Roast, Guard of Honour
CUTS FROM THE LOIN: loin chops, loin roast, saddle roast, tenderloin

The rib area of the lamb is, like prime rib in beef, very tender and flavourful. This portion of the lamb is either cut into little rib chops or left as a whole rack of lamb (with seven or eight ribs). The rib cut has an outer layer of fat which can be trimmed off but, if left on during cooking, melts and bastes the meat.

Rib chops or racks of lamb are very frequently “Frenched” for aesthetic purposes, meaning the meat on the ends of the rib bones are scraped off. We’re not quite sure who decided that naked bones look better than meaty ones, but that’s beside the point. True lamb lovers will tell you that the best part of feasting on a rack of lamb is nibbling on the bones. For a very special occasion, consider buying two racks and asking us to create either a crown roast or guard of honour. A Crown Roast is achieved by stitching together two racks at one end, then curving the racks, bone side out, to form a circle shape that looks like a crown. A Guard of Honour is accomplished by tying the racks together such that the ribs interlock, fat side out. The alternating bones resemble the crossed swords of a military guard of honour.

The lamb loin, like beef loin is the most tender muscle. It is usually cut into butter-soft loin chops, which resemble tiny T-bone steaks. Alternatively, in can be divided into the ultra tender (and very tiny) tenderloin and flavourful top loin chops (the cuts being the equivalent to Filet Mignon and NY Striploin in beef). A lamb tenderloin is too small to roast, so it should be quickly grilled or sautéed.

Roast options from the loin include a loin roast and a saddle of lamb. A loin roast is the entire loin section, left whole and bone-in; because of the leanness of the loin, it should be cooked carefully to avoid overcooking and drying out. The saddle is a double loin roast, where both sides of the backbone have been left intact – this roast contains a large quantity of meat and is very easy to carve.

Most Versatile/Mid-Priced

COOKING METHOD:  Roast the leg to an internal temperature of 125F before resting, for a finished temperature of 140-145F medium-rare. Print our Roasting Chart for quick reference.
bone-in or boneless leg of lamb; "American Style" refers to bone-in but shank cut off; "French Style" refers to bone-in, shank attached and usually the meat cleaned from the shank or "Frenched"; butterflied leg of lamb; one of our most popular preparations for the leg is to debone the leg, but tie the bone back in - sort of a "deconstructed leg of lamb" - roasting the leg with the bone gives all the advantages of cooking with the bone, but once cooked you can pull out the bone with zero effort and easily carve the meat; leg steaks; cubes for kabobs; cutlets.

The lamb leg is in a league of its own. The leg in beef, called round, is extremely lean and tough. In lamb, however, because of the smaller size of the animal as well as the fact that lamb is brought to market at a comparatively young age, the leg of lamb is tender and very versatile. It makes a wonderful large roast, or several small roasts, or can be cut into steaks or kabob meat.

Although a lamb has four legs, only the two hind legs produce the cut referred to as “leg of lamb”. The whole, bone-in leg can weigh from 5-to-9 pounds and may be American style (no shank, bone attached) or French style (shank bone left on).  A whole leg that has been boned makes a compact and tidy roast when rolled (with or without stuffing) and tied or netted to keep its shape. It may also be butterflied for grilling. Leg steaks are attained by cutting across the bone and can be quite large when cut from the sirloin end, that is, the part closer to where the leg in our diagram meets the loin. Leg is our preferred meat for kabobs since it has large muscle areas from which cubes can be cut free from gristle and bone.

Tough but Flavourful / Lowest Priced

COOKING METHOD: Both dry heat methods (roasting, grilling, pan frying, sautéing) and wet heat methods (braising, stewing) can be used for the shoulder.  The tougher cuts such as shank should be cooked only with wet heat methods.
CUTS FROM THE SHOULDER: boneless or bone-in shoulder roast, shoulder chops, stewing lamb
neck, breast

Now we get to the fun stuff… these are the cuts that we’ve become known for because we always deal with the whole animal and our chef’s are always willing to explain cooking techniques to customers. The best example is the shoulder; the shoulder is more flavourful than other cuts, less expensive, tougher, and has more connective tissue, veins of fat, and bones. From the shoulder, we can cut shoulder roasts (boneless or bone-in), shoulder chops, or the best stewing lamb around.

As a roast, the shoulder is one of those dual-purpose cuts: just tender enough to be dry roasted, but because of the fat content, excellent for long, slow braising. Chops from the shoulder are full of flavour, somewhat chewy if grilled, amazing if quickly braised in a skillet on the stove top.

Let’s talk shank. Technically speaking, a lamb has two shanks located at the rear (attached to the leg) and two “foreshanks” located at the front. However, most of our customers prefer their leg of lambs bone-in, shank attached (and for good reason), so we rarely cut the shanks from the legs. Instead, the shanks we typically sell at our store are actually the foreshanks. Confused yet? Don’t worry – whether we’re speaking of shanks or foreshanks, there’s nothing better than braised meat from these cuts. Read our braising newsletter to learn more about braising. Served up one per person with the bone sticking out of them, they have more of a primitive appeal than veal shanks because of their larger size. And please, don’t hesitate to ask us to cut the shanks into pieces to make lamb osso buco.

What’s left? Well, the breast is so small there’s not much you can do with it, although it is quite flavourful especially with the riblets left in. The neck is also small, but can be braised whole or cut into crosswise slices. We find that the best use for these cuts is to trim off the fat and bones, grind the meat, and turn them into our award-winning lamb sausages and burgers.

As always, we encourage you to try different cuts. The next time you’re in to pick up a couple of chops for the BBQ, instead of picking up three of the same, try a shoulder chop, a loin chop and a rib chop and compare each one side-by-side. Or instead of roasting one larger roast, get a mini-leg of lamb and a small shoulder roast. Experimenting is the most effective way of understanding the cuts we’ve discussed and finding the ones the best suit your tastes.

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