Lamb Meat Buying Guide

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Unlike beef and pork, lamb has typically been called the less popular option when buying meat. More recently, however, it has surged in popularity for three good reasons: price, taste, and versatility of cooking. Lamb is comparably more affordable than beef, and has a stronger flavor than pork. It can also be prepared using a variety of cooking methods, making it ideal for grilling, roasting, or even braising.

Consumers can buy domestic or imported lamb depending on the desired product. American lamb is larger and milder than lamb imported from New Zealand or Australia. The main reason for this difference is the diet the animals are fed. Imported lamb are grass-fed, usually on various grasses, while American lamb is raised on a mixed diet of grass and grain. 

Often, lamb sold in supermarkets has been slaughtered at between six to twelve months old, to give the meat a mild flavor that consumers are accustomed to. If the animal is slaughtered as an adult, its meat will be labeled as mutton and will have a tough texture and gamey flavor ideal for braising and stewing. 

Primal Cuts of Lamb

A lamb is divided into five major primal cuts that are then cut into smaller sections. Each cut has a recommended cooking method and varies in cost. 

1. Breast or Foreshank

This cut consists of the underside portion of the animal: foreshank and breast. This includes the two front legs/shank, and the breast portion.

2. Shoulder

This lamb section runs from the neck through the fourth rib of the animal. Because these muscles are worked a lot during the animal’s life, this cut tends to be tough but flavorful making it ideal for braising and stewing.

3. Rib

This area covers the section directly behind the shoulder from the fifth rib to the twelfth rib. All eight ribs from this portion are collectively called a rack.  When the rack is cut into individual pieces, they are called rib chops, which have a fine, tender grain and pleasant flavor.

4. loin

This cut starts from the last rib and extends down to the hip area. The loin is considered to be the most popular cut, due to its tender texture and mild flavor, similar to the rib chops.

5. Leg

This portion starts from the hip down to the hoof of the animal. Consumers can buy them whole or cut into smaller roasts and shanks (from the two back legs).

They can also be bought bones in, boneless, or butterflied.

Shopping Guide for Lamb

If you haven’t had lamb lately, now is the time to give it a try.  Its unique flavor and varying texture naturally lends itself to a variety of cooking methods.  It can be more expensive than other cuts of meat and purchasing the wrong cut can lead to a costly mistake on the barbecue.  This handy guide will keep you on the right track when buying your next piece of lamb.

1. Primal Cut: Breast or Foreshank

Characteristics: Cut derived from the underside of the animal which includes the breast and the two front legs. 

Flavor: 3/5

Cost: $$$$

Other name/s: None

Recommended Cooking Method: Roasting, grilling

2. Primal Cut: shoulder

Blade Chops

Characteristics: A cut derived from the shoulder area, it has a thin part of the blade bone and a part of the chine or backbone; it contains more fat than round-bone chops but are pleasantly chewy and have a robust flavor.

Flavor: 3/5

Cost: $$

Other name/s: Shoulder chops

Recommended Cooking Method: Grilling, pan searing

Round-Bone Chops

Characteristics: Oval cuts taken from the shoulder portion; leaner than blade chops,  these chops have a strong, lamby flavor.

Flavor: 3/5

Cost: $$

Other name/s: Arm chops

Recommended Cooking Method: Grilling, braising

Notes & Tips: Every round-bone chop consists of a cross section of the arm bone similar to a small ham steak and a small line of riblets of both sides of the chop. 

3. primal cut: Loin

Loin Chops

Characteristics: A cut which contains meat from either side of the bone running down the center of the loin; it has a stronger lamb flavor than the rib chops and are firm, but not chewy.

Flavor: 4/5

Cost: $$$$

Other name/s: None

Recommended Cooking Method: Grilling, pan searing

Notes & Tips: The small piece of meat at the right side of the loin chop bone is fine-grained and comparably tender to the tenderloin of a pig or cow.  The larger piece of meat on the other side of the loin chop bone is more chewy.

4. primal cut: rib

Rib Chops

Characteristics: A cut that has a recognizable bone on one side of the chop.  Rib chops usually have a lot of fat, especially near the bone; ribs chops have a refined, slightly sweet taste and a tender texture.

Flavor: 4/5

Cost: $$$$

Other name/s: Frenched chops, rack chops

Recommended Cooking Method: Pan searing, grilling, roasting

Notes & Tips: If you want leaner rib chops, you can ask the butcher to “french” or scrape the fat away from the tip of the bone, and thus the alternate name “Frenched chops”.

To get the best results, do not cook these chops past medium-rare for a mildly sweet flavor.

Rack of Lamb

Characteristics: A cut that consists of eight to nine bones; this cut is very tender and flavorful comparable to the prime rib of a cow.

Flavor: 4/5

Cost: $$$$

Other name/s: Rib roast, rack roast

Recommended Cooking Method: Roasting

4. primal cut: Leg

Rib Chops

Characteristics: A cut derived from the wider sirloin end and the narrower shank end consisting of the butt end (sirloin or hip meat) and the shank end or ankle at the bottom part of the animal; it usually weighs six to ten pounds and is ideal for a variety of preparations.

Flavor: 3/5

Cost: $$$

Other name/s: Sirloin-on leg, whole leg

Recommended Cooking Method: Grilling, barbecuing, roasting, braising

Notes & Tips: A leg of lamb is ideal for marinades and rubs.  Ask your butcher to bone and butterfly the leg if you are looking to grill this cut to a medium rare.  For braises, the lamb leg can be stuffed, rolled, and tied.  Or barbecue the whole leg, bone and all, for a tasty treat.


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