According to the old school nursery rhyme, Mary had a little lamb, but chances are, after reading the post, you’ll want one too (although, admittedly, you’ll probably not be using your lamb for the soul purpose of causing a brouhaha on the playground)!
Although lamb has many redeeming qualities (which we’ll touch on below), if you only had one reason to rationalize serving this oft-overlooked meat at your next meal, let it be this: It isn’t chicken, beef or fish. Think we’re kidding? Consider this: If you do a Google search for chicken recipes, you’ll receive approximately 2,430,000 search options. A search for beef or fish? 1,130,000 and 824,000 hits, respectively. A search for lamb? 394,000 (although admittedly, there is an entire website called lambrecipes.com!)
But why choose lamb? Nutritionally speaking, lamb is an excellent source of a nutritionally complete protein, meaning that it contains all 8 essential amino acids, as well as vitamins and minerals. Specifically, lamb is an excellent source of several B vitamins, niacin, zinc, and as with all red meats, is an excellent source of iron. In addition, lamb is one of the richest sources of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a compound manufactured naturally in the stomachs of cows and sheep (but not humans) that is thought to spur antioxidant activity and may also have anti-cancer properties. Still leaning towards regular old beef? Consider this: When compared to other meats, lamb contains very little fat in the grain of the meat, with what fat there is generally located on the outside edges of the meat where it can easily be trimmed away without compromising flavor or tenderness. We’re not anti-fat, but at least here you have a choice to match your own preferences.
In terms of taste, lamb is relatively mild and is generally used as a vehicle for spices, marinades or simply as an accompaniment to more strongly flavored dishes. As the lamb matures and becomes mutton (a sheep aged 1 year or older) it has a stronger taste and may also have a more grainy texture. If you’re looking for something more flavorful but don’t want to go for mutton, try Yearling mutton, which is the meat from a sheep that is between 1 and 2 years of age and has a flavor somewhere in between that of lamb and mutton.
Now let’s talk prices: Given that veal (young beef) is more expensive than regular old beef, it would make sense that lamb is pretty expensive too, right? Well, no. In actuality, lamb and beef, for the most part, are pretty evenly matched in terms of price.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably considering giving lamb a try. Good for you…now let’s hit the store! When purchasing lamb, look for pink meat with white fat. If the meat is a brighter shade of red or has yellow fat, it’s indicative of a cut from an older lamb (and is therefore tougher in texture). In terms of cuts, you can opt for lamb shoulder, an economical cut that, depending on location, lends itself well to roasting; lamb ribs (rack), which are excellent for grilling or broiling; lamb loin, which is the most expensive but by far the most tender; and lamb leg, the most popular, which you can do just about anything with! You may also purchase several sub-primal cuts, including the neck, foreshank, breast/brisket, and flank, which are great for use in casseroles and stews.
Similar to other meat, poultry and fish, you can find organically, grass-fed lamb in many supermarkets. And, similar to most other meat, you will pay a bit more per pound for this option. However, as many chefs will tell you, the finer taste and texture (as well as the knowledge that your little lamb had a nice life!) is well worth it.
When cooking lamb, the key to keeping the meat tender and flavorful is to never overcook it. Regardless of the cut that you are cooking, lamb should always be pink on the inside when served, a fact that should be particularly observed when cooking more tender cuts such as the loin. In fact, a good rule of thumb when cooking any cut of lamb is to always treat it like a very expensive cut of beef.
In general, lamb lends itself well to dishes with Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Indian seasonings, although to be honest, lamb can serve as a welcome substitute to just about any chicken dish! Making a salad? Try topping it off with thin strips of marinated lamb (extra credit if you can rustle up some feta and a good balsamic vinegar to really take it to the next level!) Holding a BBQ? Consider throwing a marinated, butterflied lamb loin on the barbeque. It really is that easy, and you’ll be amazed at just how good this little lamb can taste!