Cooking lamb is an easy way to make things feel special. Perhaps because, at least in America, not many of us grow up eating it. By the time I went to college I had tried every cut of beef under the sun, but lamb was still slightly foreign, slightly wild. It makes sense; in 1945 the average American ate 4.5 pounds of lamb a year, and by 2011 it was less than a pound. Maybe it’s because of the slightly gamey flavor, or maybe it’s because lamb isn’t often found wrapped in styrofoam in the meat aisle. Or maybe it’s just because they’re so darn cute they turned Lisa Simpson vegetarian. Whatever the reason, it’s a shame, because lamb is delicious, and often sustainable. Lamb farms tend to be smaller than those for beef or pork, and there are lamb farms in every state, meaning there’s a higher likelihood your lamb is local and humanely raised.
Chef Ferhat Aydin grew up eating and cooking lamb in Turkey, and regularly cooks it at Ibis Mediterranean Restaurant & Lounge in New York. “It is the best meat for me,” he says. “It’s delicious, tender and I can cook it in a variety of ways.” The flavor of lamb can vary greatly between cuts. A shank or leg are leaner cuts, so they’re not as gamey but does better with braising and slow roasting, whereas a lamb rack has a thick layer of fat on the outside, giving it a stronger flavor. And while many of the cuts may look like beef, lamb tends to be leaner, which means it’s easy to overcook if you’re not paying attention.
If you’re unfamiliar with cooking lamb, Aydin says to start with something like a rack of lamb, which is very tender and easy to cook by roasting, grilling or searing. Leg of lamb is also simple–Aydin suggests roasting a boneless leg with lemon juice, oregano, water and a little olive oil at 250 degrees for about two hours, which will make it “very tender” and juicy. Both end up being impressive hunks of meat to serve, to impress everyone at your summer BBQs.
Lamb’s gamey flavor is strong enough to stand up to heavy seasonings. Aydin favors Mediterranean ones like oregano, cumin and paprika, but you can use fresh rosemary for more of a British feel, or garlic, ginger and coriander for an Indian-inspired dish. However, “the age of an animal affects the tenderness and flavor of the meat a lot.” Lamb is any sheep under 12 months old — older than that and it’s called Mutton, which is even less popular. If gameyness isn’t your thing, look for younger meat. The younger the lamb, the less fat there is, which is what gives it that funky flavor. This is another benefit of there being lots of options for locally grown lamb–it’s that much more likely that your butcher will know exactly where it came from, or that you’ll be speaking to a farmer at a market.