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On the Lamb

It's delicious in restaurants and as easy as beef at home. So what's stopping you?

Sam Gugino
Posted: March 8, 2001

On the Lamb

It's delicious in restaurants and as easy as beef at home. So what's stopping you?

By Sam Gugino

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When I was a kid, my lamb universe consisted of the lamb neck stew and humdrum broiled shoulder chops Mom made. In college, the sliced leg of lamb on the cafeteria steam table smelled like old sneakers. Happily, today's lamb is a whole new world, one with tremendous diversity and almost endless red-wine matching possibilities.

For example, lamb shank is a cut of meat you couldn't give away 20 years ago, but today it is almost de rigueur in restaurants. At Cashion's Eat Place in Washington, D.C., owner and chef Ann Cashion prepares braised lamb shanks in a variety of styles. She serves the lamb shanks with couscous and in North African seasonings such as cardamom, ginger and cinnamon, or with cannellini beans and a kind of bordelaise sauce (red wine and lamb stock). She might also grill a lamb steak to go with wheat berry and porcini risotto. On weekends, she spit-roasts legs marinated in garlic, rosemary, marjoram, olive oil and white wine. Bill Telepan, chef of the Judson Grill in New York, likes to make a cassoulet of braised shanks, white beans, confit of shoulder cooked in duck fat and homemade lamb sausage. At Quilty's, also in New York, chef Katy Sparks serves parts from a whole baby lamb-roasted leg slices, braised shoulder, grilled loin and kidneys-on creamy polenta.

Despite its popularity with chefs, however, American annual per capita consumption of lamb is still only .7 pounds. In New Zealand, people eat almost as much lamb (56.5 pounds per capita each year) as Americans do beef (66 pounds). We ate a lot more lamb before World War II, according to Bill Blake, a consultant to the American lamb industry. "In 1945, lamb was cheap and used a lot in the military, where it wasn't cooked properly and had strong odors," he says. "When servicemen returned home they told their mothers and wives, 'No lamb!'" As a result, inventories dwindled and prices rose.

While imports from New Zealand and Australia are on the rise, most lamb eaten in the United States is produced here-largely in Texas, California and Colorado. Big ranches dominate the market, but small producers dot the landscape. On the rolling hills of Latrobe, Pa., John Jamison raises free-range lamb that is served at Alain Ducasse restaurant in New York as well as at Picholine (New York) and the Judson Grill. "It's perfect, tender and somewhat but not too gamy," Telepan says.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines "lamb" as the meat from a sheep which is less than 12 months old. Most of the fresh lamb we consume comes from animals closer to 6 to 8 months old, according to the USDA. "Yearling," which is consumed far less than lamb, describes the yield from a 1- to 2-year-old sheep, and "mutton" is from a lamb that's more than 2 years old. Though "spring lamb" is defined by the USDA as "new-crop lambs" slaughtered from March to early October, "With modern breeding techniques, you can have spring lamb all year long," says Blake. And many chefs have no compunction about serving it year-round.

Lamb is no more difficult to cook than beef. For the legs, two roasting methods yielded excellent results. The first was at 350° F, cooked until the internal temperature reads 125° to 130° F for medium-rare-about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours for a 6 to 8 pound bone-in leg. I also tried browning the legs at 500° F for 25 minutes, then slow-cooking them for about 35 minutes more at 250° F. For both methods, I took the meat out of the refrigerator an hour before putting it into the oven, and after cooking allowed it to rest, loosely covered with foil, for 15 to 20 minutes.

Racks should be browned in a cast-iron skillet, then placed in a 500° F oven for seven to nine minutes, until the internal temperature reads 130° to 135° F. Because most home broilers cannot get hot enough, loin chops (which should be no less than 1-inch thick) are best cooked on the stove in a very hot cast-iron skillet for about three minutes on each side.

If I had to choose one grape variety to pair with the lamb, it would be Syrah, as evidenced by how well a Côte-Rôtie accompanied it. An Australian Shiraz-Cabernet did nicely, too, but a California Cabernet Sauvignon and a Cabernet-based Bordeaux did not. After Syrah, I'd go for a Pinot Noir, especially if it's from France. And because it has similar characteristics, I liked Barbaresco, too. There are many more possibilities now that your lamb universe has been expanded.

Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of the recently published Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock.

For the complete article, please see the March 31, 2001, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 25.


Legs of lamb can range from around $5 a pound at many butcher shops to around $8 a pound for the Summerfield aged leg. Frenched (bones scraped and cleaned), oven-ready racks of lamb can range from around $16 a pound for the Summerfield to more than $30 for the Turner New Zealand. The ideal size for a bone-in leg is 4 1/2 to 6 1/2 pounds; for a rack, 3/4 to 1 3/4 pounds.

Business City/State Contact
Harry G. Ochs Meats Philadelphia, Pa. (215) 922-6870
Jamison Farm Latrobe, Pa. (800) 237-5262;
Summerfield Farm Culpeper, Va. (800) 898-3276;
Turner New Zealand Newport Beach, Calif. (800) 636-5636;

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