The world of food has never been as confusing as it is right now and sometimes it can be difficult to know the best approach to take when buying and cooking meat. Time was that the butcher’s shop would be the place for knowledge and information and here at West Coast Foods we believe that tradition should continue.
We have taken all your questions about lamb and answer them here in our butcher’s guide to buying and cooking lamb. If we have missed anything out then please let us know. We are here to help.
Conventional farming vs organic farming
Considering the environment in all aspects of our daily lives has become second nature now and we want to do what is right for the wider world, as well as our immediate family. But put that together with the need to budget and questions naturally arise about which meat to buy. Faced with a choice between conventional and organic farming, how do we know which lamb to buy?
Put simply, organic farming follows a set of practices governed by their impact on the planet. Less chemicals, more humane – that kind of thing. It is strictly regulated, expensive to become certified, and has a higher cost than ‘conventional’ meat. But does that mean that organic is the better choice?
It can do. But there are things about conventional farming, especially here in the UK, that you need to know to make informed decisions. Firstly, there is a vast difference between modern farming in the UK and intensive farming practices elsewhere in the world. Much of the way that we rear our farm animals in Britain has not changed much over the years. Local meat is the latest benchmark but even that doesn’t mean you must engage in transactions over the farm gate. This is a tiny island that we live on, so if it British then it is pretty much local.
When it comes to lamb, you won’t find a less intensively farmed meat. Sheep are virtually wild, living off the land in the true sense of the word. They resist any kind of intensification and would rather be left alone to do their thing. Their meat carries all the flavour of their environment, be it the lush sweet grass of the low ground, or the wild herbs and berries of the mountains.
So, no, there is no need to buy organic lamb. It is already great just the way it is, and has been for centuries.
Scotch lamb has geographically protected status, in the same way that regional wine or cheese might. A true regional product, Scotch lamb carries the unique flavours of the land on which it was raised. The landscape of Scotland and her climate form the ideal home for sheep, where the meat produced is considered amongst the best lamb in the world. From the plump tender meat of the lowland sheep, to the deep heather tones of the highlands, you can taste the difference in Scotch lamb.
Buying meat online
Buying meat online is a relatively new phenomenon, yet the choice, quality and service is closer to that of the traditional butcher than the supermarket (shelf or counter) will ever be. Gone from the high streets and local markets of Britain, the skilled and knowledgeable butcher was replaced by meat selling outlets that retail a limited selection of vac packed cuts. Buying meat online gives you far greater choice and will arrive on your doorstep all perfectly packed and chilled.
How to buy lamb
The colour of lamb will vary with age. Younger spring lamb is pale and pink compared to the deep browny red of older lamb. Whilst spring lamb is soft and delicate, older lamb with darker flesh has a deeper flavour.
The fat on lamb should be a creamy white colour and firm textured.
Cuts of lamb
Cuts from the leg
Lamb leg is a large, lean joint taken from the hind of the animal. Thick lean muscle, with one strong bone running through it. A whole leg is comprised of the knuckle and the fillet, and a half leg joint would be one of either.
Lamb leg joint
Leaving the bone in a roast lamb joint makes for an impressive entrance and looks as we expect a leg of lamb to look. The bone is said to add flavour and help preserve the texture of the meat.
A boneless leg of lamb or a rolled leg of lamb is a popular choice as it far easier to carve, and will cook evenly. The butcher removes the bone from the leg and then ties the joint professionally into a neat bundle ready for roasting.
Cuts from the shoulder
Taken from the fore of the animal, a whole shoulder encompasses both a knuckle and a blade, both of which can be bony, it is far easier to cook once the bone has been removed. Fattier, and with more connective tissue than the lean meat of the leg, shoulder is an excellent choice for depth of flavour and, when slow cooked, soft fall apart meat.
Boneless lamb shoulder is a whole shoulder with the bone removed. Off the bone, it is far easier to carve and will cook evenly throughout. Sold tied and rolled as a joint ready for roasting.
Cuts from the back
The back of the animal, from the base of the neck down to the tail end, is the leanest most tender part of the animal, where the muscles do less work than the limbs. The front and centre is known as the loin, with the chump tailing off towards the rear end.
The bones and the muscles change as they run along the length, giving rise to cuts that differ slightly yet bear many similarities.
The rack is the first eight ribs of the animal and has the most tender meat. It is cut in to joints and chops.
As long as the rack is one piece of meat, a rack of lamb can vary in size and is charged by the number of ribs. Often the fat is trimmed from the ribs leaving the bone exposed. Known as a French trim, it makes for great presentation but also cuts down the fat ratio on the joint. It is tidy and professional.
Saddle of lamb is the next bit along from the rack. Sold of a piece it is a large joint, perfect for a special occasion roast. This part of the animal has two muscles running along the bone, both of which are extremely tender. The saddle joint is both sides of the back, cloaked in a beautiful layer of creamy fat that protects the tender meat.
The double loin chop, not to be confused with a Barnsley chop that includes both sides of the back, is a chop cut from the lamb saddle. This is the classic chop that most of think of when faced with the term ‘lamb chop’.
The chump is the part between the loin and the leg. The steaks cut from this area, known as chump chops although they are boneless, are not as tender as loin, but more forgiving than leg steaks. Made of several convergent muscles, but with little sinew and the same creamy fat as the loin, chump chops are the favourite cut of many. Usually cut quite thick, Scotch lamb chump chop is the lamb lover’s dream.
You will find other cuts of lamb, most of them from the hard-working areas of the animal, that require long slow cooking. These parts are often used for mince. Many butchers, West Coast Foods included, use the prime cuts to create peripherals such as diced lamb and mince.
Lamb mince will vary in fat content and quality. We mince only the lean parts of the lamb for a lean meaty lamb mince. Softer than beef mince, lamb mince cooks beautifully, into something sweet and tender.
Diced lamb will also vary depending on purpose, and perhaps the integrity of your retailer. Our Scottish diced lamb is cut from the leanest meat of leg so whilst it is perfect for stews and curries, it does not need to cook down for hours. Large, tender chunks of lamb leg, that are also perfect for skewers.
How to cook lamb
As with all meat cookery, there are two main ways to go, largely depending on how sinewy the meat is.
Meat with more sinew, or just tougher muscle, comes from the parts of the animal that work the hardest. These cuts will have well developed muscle fibre and often more than one muscle needed to facilitate a range of movements. More than one muscle means more connective tissue. If you look closely at a cross section of lamb shoulder, you can see the tissue that divides the meat into compartments. Within the sections are the different groups of muscle fibres. A loin chop has two lean muscles, with little or no sinew, attached directly to each side of the bone.
The tougher cut, the lamb shoulder, is going to take longer to reach peak tenderness than the lean compact muscle of the loin, as it has more connective tissue and fat to break down. This longer cooking means a lower temperature.
Conversely, the loin chop will fare better with a shorter cooking time and a higher heat, as only the lean muscle needs to cook through. With less protective tissue to lubricate and protect from the heat, it runs the risk of drying out with over cooking.
So, you have high and dry (grilling, roasting, pan fry) or low and slow (braising, stewing, slow roast). Slower methods such as braising and stewing involve liquid to keep the meat moist, which often doubles up as sauce/gravy.
Fast methods involve no or little liquid, as it lowers the temperature and creates steam; which reverses any lovely browning effects that you have going on. There are certain times when you can use this to your benefit; something we will look at in the cuts of meat cooking section below.
Slow roasting lamb is a bit of an anathema when it comes to wet or dry. Even if no liquid is involved it will still be covered to create steam and therefore would class as requiring moisture.
Always bring meat to room temperature before cooking.
Some people like their lamb slightly pink, whilst others prefer it well done. Not often served as rare as beef might be, it is best to aim for medium.
Cooking times are more of a guide than a fact. Our timings are from room temperature; if you use a fan oven remember to reduce the heat by 10C. An initial 20 to 30 minutes at 220C/Gas 7 PLUS
20 minutes per 500g at 190C/Gas 5 for medium
25 minutes per 500g at 190C/Gas 5 for well done
You can use a meat thermometer for complete accuracy
60C for medium
70C for well done
Resting the meat will allow the juices to redistribute and the fibres to relax; easy to carve, tender to eat.
You can also roast lamb chops, or more accurately, bake them in the oven. If you like them well done, with lots of crispy fat then go for it; shove them in a hot (200C/Gas 6) oven for about 20 to 30 minutes until they are brown and glorious. It’s all about that fat really.
How to stew lamb
A stew is cooked on the stove top and a casserole in the oven; that is the only difference really.
Stewing uses small pieces of meat. The liquid covers the ingredients and is served as part of the dish.
Most stews have browned ingredients but there are certain instances when they are not. Browning adds lots of lovely flavour and a good colour to the final dish.
Allow at least 90 minutes for a good stew; low and slow is the way to go. Longer is better so that the liquid can reduce to something that coats the back of a spoon.
How to grill lamb
When we say grill nowadays we usually mean either a grill pan that goes onto the hob, or a barbecue. Using a grill pan is pretty much the same as pan frying, except that the pan touches the meat in ridges and the fat runs into the grooves.
How to pan fry lamb
Pan frying involves larger pieces of meat, say a chop or a steak, a very small amount of oil, and not too much movement. Essentially it has replaced the overhead grill, and is a far moister way of cooking meat. Grilling is usually on the barbecue, or a ridged grill pan over the hob.
For both methods, your lamb needs to be at room temperature.
Oil the meat; just rub a little oil over the surface and season with freshly ground black pepper.
Salt the side of the meat that will hit the heat, and only immediately before cooking.
Make sure the pan is searingly hot by holding a hand flat above the surface.
Give the meat 3 minutes on each side for meat that is slightly pink; 4 for well done. Timings will vary according to your equipment and the meat itself.
How to slow roast lamb
Not hot, or dry enough to be a roast, yet not cool, or wet enough to be a braise, a slow roast is cooked at 160C, with a splash of liquid to get the steam going, and a tent of foil. Served as a roast, with soft melting meat but still all roasty and browned outside, a slow roast is the most forgiving and fool proof way to cook a roast.
How to cook lamb in a slow cooker
A small joint of lamb, usually boneless, can be cooked as a slow roast in the slow cooker. You won’t get the browning of a slow roast, but at a far lower temperature with a longer cooking time, you will get meat that you can eat with a spoon. Go for the full 8 hrs on low rather than the 4hrs at high.
You can also cook stews and curries in the slow cooker; just remember to keep the liquid to a minimum as it won’t reduce.
How to cook cuts of lamb
How to cook a lamb leg joint
Bone in or boneless, roasting is the best way for lamb leg. It can be slow roast, especially when rolled, but is best done the classic way at high heat.
How to cook a lamb leg steak
Lamb leg steak is best pan fried or grilled. It can be roasted like a chop, but is not as forgiving as the tender meat of loin or chump.
How to cook a lamb shoulder joint
Lamb shoulder is great for roasting, but is particularly good when slow roasted; if you want pulled lamb then this is the way to do it.
How to cook a lamb loin chop
Best grilled or pan fried, loin chops can also be roasted if you like them well done. Follow the section on roasting chops, not whole joints.
How to cook a lamb cutlet
A single lamb loin chop, or cutlet, is best pan fried. That said, they are perfect in the oven as a one pot dish, roasted with onions, potatoes and perhaps some root veg.
How to cook a lamb chump chop
Lamb chump chops grill or pan fry perfectly, but will also take the heat of the oven for roasting if you don’t mind them well done. As chump can be cut thick, this is where a little water splashed in the frying pan is actually a good thing. The water creates steam, and lowers the temperature. In the briefly moist environment, the meat gets a chance to cook on the inside without burning on the out.
How to cook a rack of lamb
A rack of lamb is designed for roasting. If you want it rare or pink, then the fat will not be as crisp as when cooked all the way to well done.
How to cook a saddle of lamb
A saddle is also designed for roasting. What it lacks in simplicity for carving, it makes up for in lean tender meat and golden melting fat.
How to cook lamb mince
Our lamb mince is made only from lean mince and is perfect for a whole range of recipes and applications. Lamb mince has a sweet and tender quality rather than the more robust beef. It makes perfect Bolognese, especially when cooked slowly as outlined below.
When making a mince dish such as Bolognese do not see it as a quick supper. The best meat sauces are simmered in plenty of water for several hours to make the sauce soft and sensual.
Don't let the rather tarnished reputation of mince put you off. It is a hugely versatile ingredient that is there because it is the best meat for the job, not because the butcher had too many offcuts or the mortgage is overdue.
Lamb mince makes excellent burgers, kofta, meat sauces and meatloaf type dishes as it becomes meltingly soft and tender.
How to cook diced lamb
Our diced lamb is cut from the leanest parts of the leg so whilst it can be used in stews and curries it won’t need the several hours cooking that the more sinewy cuts would require.
Lean diced lamb used for stewing is also ideal for grilling too. Marinade in oil, garlic and lemon, thread onto skewers, and grill or barbecue for 3 to 4 minutes each side.
Cut into smaller pieces, diced lamb is perfect for a quick stir fry over a high heat. Get the edges lovely and crisp and then serve over hummus with pine nuts and fresh coriander or mint. Small cornichon pickles and sliced raw onion on the side provides excellent contrast.
How to carve a leg of lamb
To carve a leg of lamb, begin with a rested leg of lamb, a sharp carving knife and a fork to steady the meat.
Place the joint on a stable surface with the meatier side upwards. Pierce the centre with a fork to keep it steady (a carving fork has a guard for safety) and slice out a shallow v shape. Slice the meat downwards towards the bone, from both sides of the v.
Ideas for cooking lamb
Lamb is available all year round, and is an incredibly versatile meat. Other than a classic Sunday roast with gravy and mint sauce, it conjures up various images that can provide inspiration for recipe ideas.
Spring and early summer lamb suggests greenery and light eating. Seasonal green vegetables such as green beans, peas or new potatoes make for a lighter meal whether you are roasting a whole joint or cooking chops.
Herbal tones suit all year round, and conjure up different feelings depending on the time of year. Think barbecue air filled with the scent of thyme, rosemary and garlic or the depth of a winter roast with the same flavourings. Same, yet different.
Lemon is another classic that suits lamb. It adds summery tones and cuts through the fat. Garlic, whilst not a prerequisite, is a match made in heaven. Personally, we do not recommend studding a joint with garlic or bits of rosemary as they can burn and turn acrid on the outside at the same time as letting all the lovely juices out of the meat.
Anchovies can be used sparingly instead of salt, and is reminiscent of salt marsh lamb with its salty savoury tones.
Lavender, used sparingly, also makes an interesting addition regardless of the time of year.
Heading into autumn and winter, think deep tones and hedgerow berries. Earthy root vegetables and earthy spices such as cumin help guide the flavours towards the chillier months.