Tips for Cooking Lamb

tips for cooking lamb

When it comes to cooking lamb, I am always amazed at the number of people who automatically and fervently proclaim their distaste for the idea. All they know for sure is that they don’t like lamb. Period.

Every now and then, though, I find an open minded person who is willing to actually give one of my fabulous lamb recipes a try. I’m batting almost 100% on conversions. I kid you not.

Cooking lamb has never really gotten the positive recognition it deserves. When you were a child, old-fashioned, strong-flavored mutton roast may have tainted your palate. But that’s all changed now with the milder, more delicate flavor of today’s lamb. Lamb is as versatile as it is flavorful; it is terrific stewed, grilled, sautéed, or roasted.

What is Lamb?

Lamb in grocery stores is 5-12 months old sheep. Unlike the mutton of old, the flavor is quite mild, especially if it’s domestically raised lamb. Most locally raised lamb is grain-fed, while imported lamb tend to graze on grasses, producing a slightly stronger-flavored meat when cooking lamb, but both are excellent.

Buying Lamb

If you can, choose young lamb, which is tender, with a mild flavor. Look for firm, finely grained pale-to dark-pink meat. The layer of fat should be smooth and white, and any cut bone should be porous, moist, and red.

A whole (or long) leg of lamb has the sirloin attached and weighs from 6 to 9 pounds. It yields a range of meat, from tender and marbled to firmer and leaner. Ask your butcher not to break the shank bone but to simply cut the tendons that hold the meat to the bone; this will allow the meat to shrink from the bone while roasting. Also, ask him to give you the pelvic bone (it will lend great flavor to the sauce) and to tie the meat to form a compact shape. This will make roasting and carving easier.

Lamb Cuts

The Rack

This luxury cut is like the prime rib of lamb. You’ll typically find racks “frenched,” meaning the rib bones have been exposed and scraped clean. Racks are typically roasted whole or cut into single-or double-rib chops. Remove any of the firm fat and tough silverskin.


Think of these tasty morsels (which are sometimes labeled Denver-style lamb ribs) as lamb spareribs. They come from the breast of the lamb, and there are seven ribs per rack. Ask the butcher to trim the racks and cut them into individual riblets for you. Lamb riblets can be braised, or marinated and slow-roasted and then finished under the broiler. They’re perfect party fare and make deliciously unexpected finger food.

Loin Chops

These chops look like really small T-bone beef steaks – they’re lean, tender, and great for grilling. Since they are so small, allow 2 or 3 per person.

Ground Lamb

Ground lamb is an excellent substitute in any recipe that calls for ground beef (it should also be cooked to 165 F).

Halved Leg

This lamb cut is an ideal roast for 4-5 people. Weighing 3-4 pounds, butchers sometimes label it a “semi-boneless halved leg” because a bone runs through its center. For roasting, be sure to first remove the outer netting. This way you can trim off some of the outer fat and season the meat thoroughly. You’ll have to re-tie it with cotton butcher’s twine, since slipping it back into the net is next to impossible.


BRT is a butcher’s term for boned, rolled, and tied. Following the rack, the BRT leg is the most popular cut of lamb. These roasts weigh 4-8 pounds with at least a pound of fat that will need trimming – take this into account when buying for recipes. This versatile cut can be roasted, grilled, or cut into chunks for stew.


Just like beef, lamb steaks are cut from many different parts of the animal. But they most commonly come from the chuck, shoulder, or leg, and are usually cut about an inch thick. They’re best when prepared using dry-heat cooking methods, such as grilling or sautéing.


Lamb shanks come from the bottom section of the front legs. They’re a reasonably inexpensive cut and can really deliver in terms of flavor-especially when braised until they’re fall-off-the-bone tender. About the size of a turkey drumstick, lamb shanks make quite a fancy dinner statement.

Lamb Stew

Here is a great lamb stew.

The vegetables are cooked separately from the stew, then served on top, almost as a garnish. Cooking the vegetables this way, they stay vibrant and crisp, rather than turning mushy from hours of cooking.

  • 2 ½ lb lamb leg or shoulder steaks, cut into 1 ½” chunks
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 T. all-purpose flour
  • 3 T. olive oil

Toss lamb, salt, pepper, and flour together for the stew. Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high; add lamb and brown 4-5 minutes.

  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 T. tomato paste
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour

Stir in garlic and tomato paste; cook 2 minutes or until paste darkens. Add flour stirring to coat.

  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 1 T. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 T. Dijon mustard
  • 1 T. minced fresh thyme
  • 1 T. minced fresh rosemary
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 ½ lb. Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks

Deglaze with wine and simmer 1 minute. Add broth, Worcestershire, Dijon, and herbs; bring to a simmer, reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add potatoes, cover, and cook until potatoes and lamb are tender 30-40 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the vegetables.

For The Vegetables

  • 8 oz. baby carrots, peeled
  • 4 oz. green beans, trimmed
  • 4 oz. baby squash, halved
  • 1 cup peeled pearl onion, frozen or fresh

Blanch each type of vegetable separately in boiling water. Shock in ice water, drain, and set aside until 10 minutes before stew is done.

  • 3 T. unsalted butter
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

Melt butter with 2 T. oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add garlic and cook until golden 1-2 minutes. Add vegetables and sauté until warm, 2-3 minutes.

Off Heat, Finish

  • 2 T. chopped fresh parsley
  • Juice of ½ a lemon
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Off heat, finish with parsley, lemon juice, and seasonings.

Stir Into Stew, Top

  • 1 cup frozen peas, thawed
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Saute vegetables

Stir peas, parsley, and seasonings into the stew.

To serve, divide sautéed vegetables among bowls of stew.

Sear-Roasted Rack of Lamb With a Curry, Date, Chile, and Almond Crust

  • 1 ancho chile, stem and seeds removed
  • 5 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons curry powder
  • 12 dates, pitted and chopped
  • 4 tablespoons sherry vinegar
  • ¼ cup slivered almonds, toasted and chopped
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint, plus whole mint leave for garnish
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Two 7-8-bone lamb racks, frenched
  • 1 ½ cups chicken broth

Soak the chile in hot water until softened, about 15 minutes. Chop the chile coarsely. Heat about 3 tablespoons of the oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until soft, about 10 minutes. Lower the heat to medium-low and add the curry powder. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the onion has browned, about 20 minutes.

Put the onion, ancho chile, dates, and sherry vinegar in the bowl of a food processor and process until a paste forms. Transfer the paste to a bowl, mix in the almonds and the chopped mint, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Heat the oven to 425 F. Season the lamb all over with salt and pepper. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a large sauté pan over high heat. Brown the lamb, one rack at a time, meat side first. Turn and brown the other sides. Remove the lamb from the pan, but don’t clean the pan.

Allow the lamb to cool for a few minutes. Set aside ¼ cup of the chile-date mixture. Using a rubber spatula or your fingers, spread a thin layer of the remaining chile-date mixture on the meat side of each lamb rack.

Arrange the lamb in a roasting pan, preferably one with a rack, with the chile-date mixture facing up. Roast the lamb until it registers about 125 F on a thermometer for rare; 130 F for medium rare, about 15 to 20 minutes (begin checking at 15 minutes). Remove the lamb to a cutting board, cover loosely with foil, and allow the meat to rest for at least 15 minutes.

Pour off any excess fat from the sauté pan. Add the chicken broth to the pan and cook over high heat, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan, until the broth is reduced by half. Add the reserved ¼ cup chile-date mixture to the sauce and whisk to combine. Season with salt and pepper.

Slice the lamb rack into one or two-bone chops and serve three to four chops per person. As you cut the chops apart, be careful not to let too much of the date crust fall off the meat. Spoon some of the sauce around the chops and decorate the plate with whole mint leaves.

Wine suggestion: With the slight heat and full flavors of this lamb, I would choose a young, medium-bodied, fruity Zinfandel.

Well, if you’ve made it this far, I’m sure you’ve just read more about cooking lamb than you ever thought you would. I sincerely hope I’ve convinced you to at least give it a try.

Today’s lamb is utterly delicious. I suggest you maybe start with the chops. Properly grilled lamb chops virtually melt in your mouth – they just might make you forget about pork and beef.