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Chefs on the Lamb: Low Cuts, High

Sheep have been a cultural icon for millennia and their lamb a mainstay of menus around the globe for even longer.

Bo Peep loses them in a nursery rhyme, insomniacs count them, and renegade family members are labeled as black ones. Sheep have been a cultural icon for millennia and their lamb a mainstay of menus around the globe for even longer. Grilled loin chops and roasted racks, crusted with herbs and garlic, can be found everywhere that Mary went, but some of the less frequently used cuts are the ones that are now creating the real buzz and bleats in professional kitchens.

“Ten to  fifteen years ago we couldn’t sell lamb shanks. Now, we can’t keep them,” reports supplier John Jamison of Jamison Farm in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. “Lamb sales have risen sharply in the last two years, especially the lower meats. They are such a pro table item. Now, I’m seeing more and more interest in shoulder.”

During his time at Lark Creek Steak in San Francisco, Chef Jeremy Bearman found that replacing the loin lamb chops on his menu with shanks actually increased sales. Considering the higher margin for this item, it was a very pro table move. Bearman, like many chefs around the country, has learned that so-called lesser lamb cuts often mean more value for the restaurant.

Once upon a Ranch
One of the  first animals to be domesticated, sheep have provided meat, milk, and three bags full for more than 10,000 years. Even in America, shepherds far outnumbered ranchers and cowboys up until the late nineteenth century, when the growing beef industry, with its strong political connections, two-fisted public relations campaigns, and armies of hired gunslingers, drove the “hoofed locusts” off the open range. The popularity of lamb continued to dwindle through World War I, when the government launched a campaign to produce more wool by discouraging lamb consumption. But today, the American lamb industry is once again thriving, with 6.5 million sheep grazing on 64,000 ranches. Moreover, imports of lamb from New Zealand and Australia are strong commodities in the culinary trade.

Only meat from a sheep that is younger than one year old can be classified as lamb. Because of this distinction, lamb is nearly always more tender than similar cuts from other animals. It has a unique texture that renowned Melbourne chef Jacques Reymond describes as “the most natural.” According to Garry McAlister, former trade marketing manager for Meat & Livestock Australia Ltd., lamb from Down Under headed for the United States has a texture advantage simply by virtue of its journey. “Our product is vacuum-packed and chilled for export to the States, allowing the product to ‘age’ during transit. This really improves tenderness, similar to the results achieved from dry aging of beef. It’s a better-quality product that arrives.”

Lamb also has a unique flavor profile, says Chris Yeo, Owner of Straits Management (Straits Restaurant in San Francisco): “It has a depth and a certain richness unlike other red meats. Lamb is not stronger than beef, just different. But depending on its region of origin, age of slaughter, and what it is fed, the flavor profile of lamb can vary considerably.” Because Australian and New Zealand lamb is grazed on grass, it has a more pronounced  flavor than most commercial American lamb, which is usually weaned to grain, then hay, and finally fed a formulated feed of sorghum, wheat, and vitamins.

Many boutique US lamb producers, however, such as Jamison Farm, stand by the grass-grazing model with the belief that it yields a better tasting, healthier product. Jamison and his wife and partner, Sukey, graze their flock on the local grass and white clover, switching to hay only in the middle of winter, and only when necessary. Jamison’s animals are sold when small and lean, generally when three to six months old and ranging from 35 to 50 pounds. Feed-fed Colorado lambs, by contrast, can weigh in at 60 to 85 pounds.

Shoulder to Shank
Lamb shanks are one of the hottest items on modern menus. Because they are a part of the animal that gets so much exercise, shanks develop exceptional flavor. This cut also contains lots of soft cartilage and connective tissue that break down to a luscious, gelatinous consistency when slow-cooked. Shank is typically braised, but it can also be sealed in a Cryovac and cooked sous vide in a recirculator. Corporate Chef Roland Henin, of Delaware North Companies, remarks that “shanks practically cook themselves . . . and the collagen in slow-simmered lamb gives you terrific moisture without a lot of fat.” For the multiple operations that Henin oversees, which range from white-tablecloth venues to cafeterias, lamb is sourced both domestically and from Australia, depending on the style of operation. “American lamb from Sonoma, Colorado, and Washington is generally used in our  fine-dining restaurants,” he reports. “Australian lamb comes already prepped, so it requires less skill in the kitchen.”

Leg is another popular cut, but it shouldn’t be limited to simple roasting. A lamb leg can be “taken down” just like a leg of veal, then trimmed into individual muscle groups to be grilled or pounded into cutlets. The top round can also be sliced into steaks. Meat from the leg is perfect for shish kabobs, or shashlik, as they are more commonly called in Central Asia. At the Bhukaran-Uzbeki restaurant Salute, located in Rego Park, New York, the cooks grill shashlik of leg, rib, breast meat, and zhasb, or lamb cracklings, and serve everything on miniature sword blades. When making lamb kabobs, avoid the temptation of alternating fruits and vegetables, which looks appealing but tends to steam the meat.

Lamb shoulder is one of the most versatile cuts, ideal for braising and stewing as well as for roasting. It requires a shorter amount of cooking time than other meats, and a whole shoulder makes a great pot roast or extremely  flavorful oven roast. “In Europe, the shoulder roast, called gigot, is very popular,” Henin states, “and considered as good, if not better, than the leg roast. The neck and shoulder definitely have the most flavor.”

New Zealand chef Peter Gordon bakes shoulder and serves it on a gratin of sweet potato. Meat from the shoulder and neck are also ideal ground for burgers. Bearman grinds shoulder and seasons it with Moroccan spices for merquez meatballs that he serves with loin chops.

Part Time
Lamb’s variety cuts, otherwise known as organ meats, have esoteric appeal and can add culinary intrigue, wonderful textures, and surprisingly good flavors to many dishes. Lamb kidney remains very popular in Europe, and even in the States loin chops were once sold with the kidney still attached, although the USDA no longer permits this. Stuffed loin with fried sweetbreads and sautéed kidney was a signature dish of Chef Neil McFadden when he was Executive Chef at Luttrellistown Castle, outside of Dublin, Ireland. Lamb kidneys are the mildest-tasting kidneys and need no soaking. When buying, look for a fresh, glossy appearance.

Bearman makes a salad with lamb tongue, but he admits that it is an acquired taste. Lamb tongue requires peeling, which is easier to do while the meat is still warm. Bearman suggests using sanitation gloves to facilitate this prep work.

No discussion of variety meats would be complete without a mention of lamb fries, also called animelles or, in lamb-country vernacular, Rocky Mountain oysters. Most recipes call for removing the membranes, chilling until almost frozen, then slicing, breading, and deep frying. But at least one classic recipe for “Ranch Fry” calls for simply “tossing the balls on a hot iron stove until they explode”—a sure sign of doneness.

Of all the recipes for lamb offal, none is more notorious than haggis, the Scottish dish of whole sheep stomach stuffed with an assortment of innards. Today, because of trepidations about offal and health department regulations limiting which organ meats are acceptable for human consumption, most haggis has been reduced to an unremarkable meat loaf cooked in a waxed paper casing that’s been imprinted with graphics of a sheep’s innards.

Try It, You’ll Like It
From prunes to pomegranates and mint to marjoram, lamb goes with an infinite number of seasonings and ingredients. In Poland, it is commonly served with tart cowberries. From saucing lamb with coconut, cinnamon, and poppy seeds to braising shanks with Thai cardamom and curry, the spice list could go on forever. But even with so many ways to dress up lamb, chefs in certain markets still have to contend with significant public resistance to ordering the meat. A common complaint is that consumers are turned off by the “lamby” odor. Although mutton, which is the meat of an older sheep, does have a telltale smell, today’s young lamb meat is virtually free of any scent. As McAlister notes, “Australian lamb is really a clean slate of flavor. Chefs can create their own expression of the product.” Moreover, lamb offers consumers a wholesome red-meat choice that is typically all-natural, free of artificial additives, antibiotics, and growth hormones.

Nonetheless, McAlister reports, “70 percent of Americans have never even tasted lamb.” He believes that getting consumers to try different lamb cuts is a worthwhile priority for any restaurant concerned with plate cost and menu diversity. “But it’s easiest to sell lamb when it’s featured as an appetizer, as a small plate course, or on a bar menu,” he claims. “Then the guests don’t have much to risk. And once they try it,” McAlister enthuses, “they’re often quite surprised by how much they enjoy it.”

This article, originally published in March 2016, has been updated.

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