Ingredient Intelligence

All You Need to Know About Buying, Cooking, and Eating Lamb

updated Apr 2, 2021
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

When I was growing up, all I knew about lamb was that it was fancy. My family didn’t really buy lamb, so I’m sure that idea came from an illustration of a crown roast in a book. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s and working at a farm stand that stocked local pasture-raised lamb that I finally started cooking it. 

I started by making a copycat version of the lamb meatballs that were so hot on tapas menus at the time, then moved on to a shepherd’s pie. I learned through trial and error that grass-fed lamb is lean and has a distinct flavor all its own. I asked the regular farm-stand customer who always wore a tweed cap what he made with the lamb cubes he bought. The next week he handed me a handwritten recipe for a Kashmiri dish, lamb rogan josh, one I still make today. 

Some steer clear of lamb, worried about its supposed gaminess. While it’s true that lamb does have a stronger flavor than chicken, pork, or beef, it’s not difficult to cultivate an appreciation for the grassy minerality of a beautiful piece of lamb. That flavor profile is the direct result of the time an animal spends on pasture. And that flavor shines in slow-cooked braises; in curries, where it can stand up to bold spices; and on the grill, cooked to an aromatic char that’s especially great when paired with rosemary and lemon. 

After all these years of experimenting with it, lamb no longer seems fancy, but it definitely still seems special. If you aren’t sure where to begin with your lamb adventure, this guide will help you understand and make the most of what you’re most likely to encounter at the butcher counter or farmers market.

Let’s Talk About the Name

The word lamb conjures up images of fluffy sheep babies, and while there’s no way around the fact that eating meat is eating animals, meat sold as “lamb” generally refers to animals that are between four months and a year old, far older than most chicken that’s sold in America. 

Mutton, on the other hand, is reserved for older animals, and in general does have a more pronounced flavor. You’re unlikely to find mutton at major grocery chains, but you can find it at a halal butcher. 

Sustainability and Pricing 

Lamb can generally be considered a more sustainable meat than beef, according to an analysis from the nonprofit organization Food Print. Its overall sustainability is dependent on how the animals are raised and the food miles between where it was raised and where it’s eaten. 

In the U.S., lambs are often pasture-raised for part of their lives before being finished on grain. This increases the overall fat content and makes the meat milder and more beefy-tasting, an attribute generally preferred among American diners. Entirely pasture-raised lamb, which is often what one will encounter if buying directly from a small farm or buying meat imported from New Zealand, is leaner and often stronger in flavor. In general, these options are considered to be the most sustainable.  

Per pound, lamb is often more expensive than a similar cut of beef. This is because lambs are smaller animals with less yield. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Essential Lamb Cuts and How to Cook Them

Loin Chops

  • Other names: Loin roast, loin chops, loin porterhouse, lamb saddle.
  • How it’s sold: Loin chops have a T-bone running down the center with the loin on one side, and the filet on the other. This feature distinguishes them from the iconic rib chops, with a curved rib bone attached. Deboned and trussed, the same cut is sold as a loin roast. 
  • Where it’s from: Cut from the short loin, behind the rack (ribs) and the leg.
  • What it looks like: Triangular, with a T-shaped bone at the center, loin chops are on the smaller side, between 3 and 4 ounces each. 
  • What it tastes like: Rich, savory, and tender, with a relatively mild flavor
  • How to cook it: Serve rare to medium-rare. Sear, pan-fry, or grill over high heat to get a delicious crusty exterior and juicy interior. 

Rack of Lamb

  • Other names: Crown roast, rib chops, lamb lollipops.
  • How it’s sold: The quintessential fancy party lamb preparation, a rack of lamb is the section of eight lamb chops of the ribeye with the rib bones still attached. Truss two racks together into a circular shape with the rib bones pointing upward and the meat facing out and you’ve got the most opulent lamb dish there is: the crown roast. For elegant preparations, butchers will often “french” the rib bones, removing the sinew, rib meat, fat, and connective tissue to reveal the white bones. This preparation has less to do with flavor and more to do with aesthetics. This cut, by the pound, is often the priciest lamb in the butcher case. 
  • Where it’s from: The upper part of the rib section, along the spine, in between the short loin and the shoulder. 
  • What it looks like: A cylinder of lean meat with a snowy fat cap and eight curved rib bones. Cut in between the ribs to separate the chops. 
  • What it tastes like: Tender, very juicy, and rich.
  • How to cook it: Roast whole and then cut into individual rib chops to serve. If cooking individual rib chops, stick to quick, high-temperature cooking methods, like pan-frying or grilling. Serve this cut rare to medium-rare. 

Shoulder and Shoulder Chops

  • Other names: Bone-in or boneless shoulder roast; shoulder, blade, or arm chops.
  • How it’s sold: Either deboned or whole, sliced into chops, trimmed and cubed for stew meat, sliced paper-thin for shabu shabu or hot pot.
  • Where it’s from: The forequarter (shoulder) of the animal.
  • What it looks like: Well-marbled and rich in connective tissue.
  • What it tastes like: Velvety rich with a robust, meaty flavor.
  • How to cook it: A hugely versatile cut, lamb shoulder can be braised, roasted, smoked,  stewed, or ground to make sausage. It’s also great in curries and stir-fries. Seared shoulder chops aren’t as tender as loin cuts, but they offer great flavor.
Credit: Joe Lingeman

Leg of Lamb

  • Other names: Bone-in or boneless leg, sirloin chops.
  • How it’s sold: Either bone-in or boneless, cut into sirloin chops or lean muscle roasts, trimmed and cubed for kebabs or stir-fries.
  • Where it’s from: The haunch of the hind legs.
  • What it looks like: Buy a bone-in leg and you’ll have a handsome, teardrop-shaped joint. A leg that has been boned out is often sold netted or trussed into a tidy oval-shaped loaf, making for easy carving. Steaks or roasts labeled “sirloin chops” are cut from the hind leg.
  • What it tastes like: The leanest cut of lamb you’ll find, it’s also a versatile meat that plays well with lots of other flavors. Because it’s leaner, the flavor is milder.  
  • How to cook it: Roast a bone-in leg whole as a holiday centerpiece to feed a crowd; butterfly, rub, or marinate it aggressively and grill it to make gyros or smoke it for tacos. For sirloin steaks and roasts, sear and then roast the lamb to make sure it stays juicy. Use cubes to make stew, kebabs, or stir-fries. 

Lamb Shanks

  • How it’s sold: Typically sold individually, plan on one per person for a feast.
  • Where it’s from: The lower section of the legs; sold on the bone.
  • What it looks like: Cone-shaped, with a bone running through the center.
  • What it tastes like: Lean, with a lot of connective tissue; wonderfully meaty.
  • How to cook it: You can’t rush cooking lamb shanks or the meat will be tough. Braising or stewing in an aromatic liquid — beer, wine, broth — is the way to go. You can speed up the process in a pressure cooker. 
Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn

Ground Lamb

  • How it’s sold: By the pound.
  • Where it’s from: The whole animal, including the rib meat that’s left over when frenching a rack of lamb.
  • What it looks like: Almost indistinguishable from ground beef, if not a little more red.
  • What it tastes like: A balance of fatty and lean with a grassy minerality.
  • How to cook it: Use ground lamb anywhere you might otherwise use ground beef. Make a burger, brown it for tacos, cook it until crispy and scatter it over hummus, stuff it in dumplings or potstickers, make meatballs, or season it heavily and pack it onto skewers to make kofta (the spelling varies by country and region). There’s also Thai larb, stuffed cabbage, Bolognese … you get the idea.

Spareribs, Neck, Belly, and Kidneys

You’re not as likely to find these specialty cuts at the grocery store, but when shopping at a farmers market or buying a whole or half lamb directly from a farmer you’ll encounter a vast array of additional ways to enjoy lamb. Here are just a few. 

  • Lamb spare ribs/Denver ribs: Mamb spare ribs, from the belly section, are robustly flavored and often very economical. Cook them as you would pork baby back ribs by braising or steaming and then finishing them on a grill. Or, if your butcher will cut them across the bone (aka flanken-style), cook them as you would kalbi for a Korean barbecue spread. 
  • Lamb neck: This is the section above the shoulder. A great balance of lean meat and fat, lamb neck benefits from low-and-slow cooking to soften the connective tissue. If you’re confident enough with your butchery skills to trim away some of that connective tissue, the fat and lean mix that you’ll find in lamb neck meat makes great sausage patties. It’s also a great cut for making soup or stock. 
  • Lamb belly or breast: It’s a small cut on a lamb, but it can be used anywhere one might use pork belly, or it can be wrapped around a leaner cut and trussed to create a richer roast.  
  • Kidneys: There’s no finer steak and kidney pie than one made with lamb kidneys.

Some of Our Favorite Lamb Recipes

Looking for some inspiration? Start here!