Lamb, which comes from sheep less than a year old, is a lean, tender meat with delicate flavor. It’s also a good source of protein, as well as vitamin B12, niacin, and zinc.
Lamb chops are sold in different cuts. Loin chops look like little T-bone steaks and have a generous portion of meat. Pricier rib chops, cut from the rack, have a long bone on the side and are prized for their tenderness. Budget-friendly shoulder chops are larger and a bit chewier and fattier than the other versions.
Best for: Pan-frying, roasting, broiling, and grilling.
Taken from the hindquarters, a leg typically weighs 8 to 10 pounds and feeds 6 to 8 people. (Leftovers are delicious in sandwiches and salads.) For an easier-to-carve option, choose a boneless leg. Cutting a leg open from the middle creates a butterflied leg. This yields thin steaks that lie flat and cook faster, which are ideal for grilling. A butterflied leg can also be rolled and stuffed with a mixture of garlic and herbs.
Best for: Roasting and grilling.
Also sold as square-cut shoulder, this less expensive cut tends to be tougher and a bit chewier than the leg. But if the lamb is young, it will be succulent and tasty after cooking. A boneless shoulder is easier to carve; it can be slow-roasted whole or cut into chunks for stewing.
Best for: Roasting and braising.
This thick cut comes from a large muscle of the leg. It is extremely tender and can be cut into steaks or cubed for kebabs. It can also be roasted whole and served thinly sliced.
Best for: Pan-frying, roasting, and grilling.
Packaged ground lamb will usually contain shoulder meat plus trimmings from other cuts.
Best for: Grilling, pan-frying, and broiling.
How to Choose Lamb
Color is paramount in selecting lamb. As a general rule, darker meat is tougher and stronger in flavor. Look for cuts that range from pale pink to light red, with a finely grained texture and layers of dry white fat surrounding the meat. Avoid cuts that look purple or have yellow-tinged fat.
There are five grades of lamb, but only the two highest show up in supermarkets. Because grading is voluntary (though USDA inspections are mandatory), some of the lamb sold at retail is ungraded.
USDA Prime: The highest-quality meat, which is often from the youngest animals. Tender and juicy, it exhibits a fine marbling of fat.
USDA Choice: High in quality but leaner than prime, with slightly less marbling. Choice cuts are still tender and suitable for grilling and roasting.
Decoding the Label
Natural: According to USDA regulations, all fresh meat can be labeled “natural.” It simply means that no artificial ingredients or preservatives were added during processing (no additives are allowed for any lamb), but the animals may have been given antibiotics and hormones.
Raised Without Antibiotics, No Hormones Administered: Antibiotics and hormones are commonly administered to lambs to prevent disease and promote growth. These labels and their variations (“No Antibiotics Added,” etc.), which claim exception to this practice, are not verified by the USDA. If you want to be sure your meat is free of exposure to these drugs, look for a “USDA Organic” label (see below).
Grass-Fed: Indicates that lambs have been raised completely on pasture grasses, not fattened on grain in a feed lot. Meat from grass-fed lambs has a more complex flavor and more vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids than meat from lambs raised on commercial feed. Meats that have met the USDA-monitored standards receive a “USDA Process Verified” shield. Other labels you may see from organizations that have their own certification programs include “American Grassfed” and “Food Alliance Certified.”
USDA Organic: This label is the USDA’s certification that the animals were not given antibiotics or growth hormones; that their feed was 100 percent organic, produced without using most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers; and that they were given access to the outdoors.
Certified Humane: In this inspection-monitored program, lambs have to be fed a nutritious diet (not necessarily organic) and raised with sufficient space to perform “natural behaviors.” The use of hormones and antibiotics (except for sick animals) is prohibited. Look for the “Certified Humane Raised & Handled” logo.
How to Store Lamb
Keep lamb refrigerated at all times in the original packaging, and tucked into a plastic bag to prevent any drippings from contaminating other foods. All cuts keep for 5 days in the refrigerator; ground lamb keeps for 2 days. Freeze lamb tightly wrapped for up to 12 months; freeze ground lamb for up to 4 months. Leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator keep for up to 4 days; they can be frozen for up to 3 months.
The safest, most accurate way to figure out when your meats are perfectly cooked is by checking the internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer. In the following suggested guidelines, the second column lists the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommendation for maximum food safety. The third column gives the Real Simple test kitchen’s preferences (considered safe by many experts) for lamb cooked to juicy perfection.
USDA Real Simple
Medium-rare 145° F 130° F
Medium 160° F 140° F
Well-done 170° F 155° F
Ground lamb, 160° F 160° F
Real Simple Lamb Recipes:
- Grilled Oregano-Lemon Lamb Chops With Orzo
- Braised Lamb Shanks With Fennel
- Rosemary-Garlic Lamb With White Beans
- Roast Rack of Lamb
- Roasted Leg of Lamb With Carrots and Honey-Mint Sauce
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