Lamb

Lamb

By
Adrian Richardson
Contains
14 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740668064
Photographer
Dean Cambray

We Australians have a special fondness for lamb. According to the well-worn cliché, the country rode its way to wealth on the sheep’s back, and a lamb roast seems to be everyone’s favourite dinner. In fact, if we have such a thing as a national dish, a barbecued lamb chop would have to be a good contender for the title. As for me, I love the fact that lamb has such a distinctive flavour that responds brilliantly to bold seasonings and a variety of cooking techniques.

Sheep were one of the very first animals to be domesticated, about 9000 years ago, by nomads in Mesopotamia – a region that corresponds roughly with modern Iraq. This was probably no great feat, given that sheep are very easy animals to handle and have a naturally gregarious temperament and a strong herding instinct. Better still, they will happily graze on the most barren terrain, which makes them much easier to farm than cattle or pigs. Early communities prized sheep as much for their thick woolly coats, milk and tallow fat as for their meat.

In Middle Eastern countries today, when people talk about meat, they pretty much mean lamb. And because this region is so strongly linked with many of the world’s major religions, it is not surprising that lamb has become the meat of choice at feast days around the world. For Christians, a paschal lamb has particular significance at Easter as the symbol of Christ. Jewish New Year and Passover celebrations would be unthinkable without lamb, while Muslim communities ritually slaughter and feast upon whole roasted lambs on religious holidays and family celebrations.

Australian lamb

For us Aussies, both sheep and lamb are strongly linked with our history and our sense of identity. They were introduced to the country in 1788, with the First Fleet, and early pioneers, such as John Macarthur, Samuel Marsden and Governor King, realised straight away how suited they were to the Australian rural landscape. Within 50 years of settlement, wool had become the country’s main export, with an annual wool clip in excess of two million kilograms.

The Australian sheepmeat industry – in other words lamb, and to a lesser extent, mutton – has generally been a by-product of the wool industry, but in the last few decades it has evolved into a significant industry in its own right. While Australian lamb doesn’t contribute as much to our economy as wool, we do spend around $2 billion on our lamb every year, and eat around 24 million servings of it every week.

Australia also plays a big part in the world demand for lamb. We produce around 7 per cent of all the lamb and mutton, and we’re the second largest exporter of lamb in the world – after New Zealand – and the largest mutton exporter. While our lamb industry is generally considered to be well managed and untainted by many of the welfare issues that are commonplace in other intensively farmed animals, it is in our export market for live sheep, as opposed to lamb meat, that we have been widely – and rightly – criticised.

In terms of breed, the Merino sheep has always been the hero of the Australian wool industry and even today around two-thirds of all our sheep are Merino or Merino-cross. Although they are best known for the excellent quality of their wool, Merino lambs also make pretty good eating. It is more common, though, to cross Merinos with other stocky, early-fattening breeds for prime lamb. Many of these are British breeds and the main choices are the Leicester, Poll Dorset, Cheviot and Suffolk. However, most Australian lamb comes from crossing Merinos with Dutch Texel sheep.

A lot of studies suggest that the breed of the animal doesn’t actually make a huge difference to its flavour. The animal’s diet and environment have much more of an impact, and in this respect we are lucky in Australia. Our lamb is widely considered to be consistently mellow and sweet-flavoured, largely because it is predominantly grass-fed on pasture. As with the beef cattle industry, though, there has been a growing tendency in recent years for our lambs to be put to feedlots for fattening prior to slaughter. The idyllic vision of woolly lambs nibbling on tender green grass is only true up to a point. Many lamb farmers have uniformity and consistency of texture and flavour as their priority, and animals that are dependent upon pasture land are clearly vulnerable to the effects of drought. Generally speaking, though, Australian lamb has escaped the less appealing aspects of intensive farming, such as unnatural feeds, growth promoters and confined living space, that beset other animals and the meat is considered to be top-notch.

Uniquely Australian

One of my very favourite meats is Australian saltbush lamb, which gets its distinctive flavour from munching on this extraordinary plant. Saltbush is native to Australia and is one of the only plants in the world that thrives in saline terrain. The plant can take salty water into its system, absorb the salt and offload it into a few sacrificial leaves and use the remaining pure water to grow on. Not only does saltbush act to improve the land it grows on, but sheep seem to thrive on the stuff.

To my mind this is a brilliant and sustainable way of raising lamb, making them less susceptible to the fickleness of our climate and less reliant on grain. Lamb that has been fed on saltbush tends to be a bit leaner and the meat is darker than that of pasture-fed or grain-finished lamb. It also tends to be very moist as the animals drink a lot. The meat tastes quite intense, although not at all salty.

Lamb and nutrition

Lamb has somewhat fallen out of favour in recent years because of worries about its levels of saturated fats. In Australia we eat around 11 kilograms of lamb and 3 kilograms of mutton every year, substantially less than beef, the other red meat. As often seems to be the case with nutritional issues, things are not as cut and dried as, ‘it’s good for you’ or ‘it’s bad for you’. Lamb these days is bred to be much leaner than it was several decades ago, and the industry built a very successful ‘Trim Lamb’ marketing campaign around this very issue in the 1990s. Nutritional studies actually show that half the fat in today’s lean lamb is of the unsaturated kind, similar to that in olive oil. Furthermore, palmitoleic acid, a 16-carbon monounsaturated fatty acid found in lamb, is known to possess strong antimicrobial properties

As with all meats, lamb is high in protein. It is also a good source of iron, zinc and the B vitamins, and contains trace elements, such as copper, manganese and selenium. Lamb is high in CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), which is linked with boosting immunity and inhibiting certain cancers and diabetes. Interestingly, saltbush lamb has been found to have higher levels of vitamin E.

How and where to buy lamb

The meat from Australian sheep is eaten at every age, from a few weeks to several years old, and it is easy to recognise because it is branded accordingly. True lamb – the lamb we eat most of the year round – is usually around 3–12 months of age, and is defined as being lamb by the absence of adult teeth. You can recognise it by the red ribbon stripe, branded on its carcass.

Spring lamb is really a bit of a marketing term. It refers to the time of year that the lambs are born and sold – winter and spring, respectively. Spring lamb is often thought to be particularly delicious because the animals eat plenty of young green shoots. By the end of a hot Australian summer, lambs that are actually born in springtime may have had to make do with a sparser diet and less rainfall – particularly in drought years.

By the time it has grown two adult teeth the animal is known as ‘two-tooth’ or ‘hogget’, which is indicated by six round stamps branded on the carcass. Some less scrupulous butchers may try to sell you hogget instead of lamb, but you should be able to identify it by the darker colour of the meat. Having said that, some people actually prefer hogget to lamb because of its more developed flavour. If you want to try it for yourself, you are more likely to be able to find it at farmers’ markets or in country areas.

If lamb has more than two teeth (18–24 months of age), then it becomes the stronger-flavoured mutton, which you’ll either love or loathe. Mutton is identified by four circular brand marks on the carcass.

I definitely fall into the ‘love it’ camp with mutton. I think there is nothing quite like the intense flavour of these beasts – it’s a fullness and richness that is often lacking in the immature youngsters. You may find mutton more appealing if you think of it in the same way as beef; that is, as a mature animal that has had time to develop a bit of character. But like beef, mutton does need a bit of hanging (dry-aging), to tenderise it. Surprisingly, mutton doesn’t necessarily need to be braised. If it’s been properly aged, then it makes for a delicious roast.

At the other end of the spectrum is baby milk-fed lamb, which you will find in specialist butchers. True milk-fed lamb is aged between two weeks and a month or so old. Milk-fed lamb is the dish par excellence for feast days in the Arab world and the Mediterranean, where it is often roasted whole on a spit.

Lamb is widely available, although you’ll probably have to go to a specialist butcher to buy mutton. As is always the case when you’re buying meat, you need to take care to buy the appropriate cut for the recipe you plan to make. You are more likely to find a larger selection of cuts at a good butcher than you will in a supermarket. Supermarkets tend to limit their stock to a smaller range of the more popular cuts, such as chops and lamb roasts. Of course the only way they’re going to expand their range is if we customers ask. But in the meantime I’m going to encourage you – as I do throughout this book – to find yourself a good butcher and make him your friend.

And what should it look like? Well, lamb meat should be a light, rosy pink colour. As it gets older, the meat darkens, so mutton is more of a deep burgundy red. Don’t buy any lamb that has a bit of a dry, brownish tinge to it. The texture of lamb should be fairly fine-grained and it should be firm, not flabby. The fat should be creamy-white and dry, not yellow and sticky.

Storing lamb and mutton

Because it comes from a young animal, lamb is not usually aged. it is a fresh meat that is best eaten quickly, and typically it arrives on the dining table within a week of slaughter.

Mutton comes from an older animal, and benefits from dry-aging for two to three weeks.

Unwrap and refrigerate lamb and mutton immediately.

Store it in a Tupperware container, or sit it on a rack on a plate and cover it with a tea towel.

Large joints of lamb or mutton will keep up to five days.

Smaller cuts, such as chops and medallions, should be used within three days.

For most cuts, if you rub them with a bit of olive oil, or even cover them in a marinade they will keep a bit longer as it delays the oxidisation process.

Cubed or minced lamb should be used within two days.

Which cut to buy

Most lamb is fairly tender because it comes from a young animal, but you still need to give some thought to choosing the right cut for each method of cooking. Don’t make the mistake of choosing the less expensive cuts, which are layered with plenty of connective tissue and fat, and thinking you can get away with quick-cook methods like grilling or barbecueing. The various muscles are put to varying degrees of work, and need to be treated accordingly.

A: Shank

There was a time when lamb shanks were virtually given away as cheap off-cuts. These days they are recognised for what there are: a nice meaty cut (from the bottom-end of the leg) that cooks down to delectably tasty tenderness. Lamb shanks are not as generous as veal shanks, but they are similarly rich in gelatinous connective tissue that is released by long, slow cooking.

B: Leg

Everyone recognises a leg of lamb and I think most of us would have a go at roasting one. They are brilliant when studded with garlic and sprigs of rosemary and oven-roasted until pink and juicy. The leg can also be boned and butterflied (the meat opened out flat) for grilling on the barbecue. Or it can be cut into steaks, which are great for grilling, barbecuing or quickly frying in a hot pan.

C: Chump (rump)

The chump is sometimes sold attached to the leg, which makes for a monster-roast indeed. When removed, it is the equivalent of beef rump, and makes a very neat and tasty roast. Sometimes the chump is cut into chops, which are good and meaty.

D: Loin

Equivalent to beef sirloin, the loin gives us some of the most tender lamb, and comes in a variety of ways, both on and off the bone. There are actually two loins, attached in the middle (at the backbone); when sold together, these form the very grand roasting cut known as the saddle. You are probably more likely to find a single loin, which is called the shortloin when left on the bone. When cut off the bone, the loin is also called a strap or backstrap. It is sometimes sold with a flap of fat still on, and the whole thing is rolled up and tied for roasting. Loin and middle loin chops are lovely and tender, and are ideal for grilling or barbecuing as quickly as possible.

E: Best end

Also known as the rack (of the first eight ribs), and one of the best-loved and luxurious cuts of lamb. As with the saddle, each lamb has two racks, one on either side of the backbone. They are wonderful for roasting – rubbed with a marinade or even with a crunchy coating of crumbs. For a real celebration your butcher can form the two racks into a circle to create a crown roast. The rack can also be cut into its individual ribs, when they are called cutlets. I especially love them when they are dipped into egg and breadcrumbs and deep-fried to make very tasty little morsels.

F: Breast

This is often dismissed as being overly fatty, but I think it can be cooked very successfully. It’s best when filled with a tasty stuffing, then rolled up and slowly pot-roasted. It will produce a lot of fat, which you’ll need to drain off, and will benefit from a final blast in a hot oven to brown the outside. You may prefer to use the breast for mincing (it makes great sausages).

G: Shoulder

This is one of my favourite cuts of lamb. I think the shoulder makes a much tastier roast than the leg, largely because it has more fat. Otherwise the shoulder can be braised, when I think it marries well with strong flavours. Either method will bring out its intrinsic stickiness. With the bone removed, the shoulder can be stuff ed and rolled – its fat content will keep it good and juicy inside.

H: Forequarter and neck

Chops cut from the forequarter and neck are brilliant for slow-cooked casseroles and braises as they are marbled with plenty of tasty fat. But whatever you do, don’t think you can sling them on the barbie; they need long, slow cooking to make them tender and succulent. Try them for a Lancashire hotpot or even a Moroccan tagine.

I: Foreshank (shin)

Equivalent to the hindquarter shank, but a much less meaty part of the beast. They need to be cooked very slowly to release their goodness.

How do you know when it’s cooked?

My preferred way of testing for doneness is to measure the internal core temperature of any cut of lamb, using a digital instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat.

Remember that the reading will rise by about 5ºC as the meat rests, so begin checking the temperature about 10 minutes before the end of the recommended cooking time.

If you don’t have a digital thermometer, then use the thumb-to-finger test for doneness.

Things that love lamb

Allspice, black pepper, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, eggplant, garlic, lemon, marjoram, mint sauce, olive oil, oregano, peppers, red wine, redcurrant jelly, root vegetables, rosemary, salt, shallots, spinach, thyme, tomatoes, yoghurt.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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