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Why Pair Lamb and Mint?

By Molly Birnbaum Published

Because lamb and mint are a scientific flavor match

In 2011, researchers published an article in Scientific Reports called “Flavor Network and the Principles of Food Pairings,” introducing a complicated, graphic flavor network that “captures the flavor compounds shared by culinary ingredients.” The theory goes that foods that share similar flavor compounds complement each other, tasting better together (even seemingly incongruous ingredients—think blue cheese and chocolate). This theory can expand to include not only ingredients that share the same flavor compounds, but also those that share compounds that have similar chemical structures. Many science-minded chefs, including Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck in London, are on board. There are even companies—like the well-named FoodPairing.com—that exist to help bartenders and chefs discover “unseen pairings based on science.”

That's all well and good, but what does this tell us about lamb? Lamb is traditionally served with fresh mint in recipes originating in places like England and the Middle East. Does science explain why these two ingredients pair so well?

Recipe Grilled Lamb Kofte

In the Middle East, kebabs called kofte feature ground meat, not chunks, mixed with lots of spices and fresh herbs. Our challenge: to get their sausage-like texture just right.

Let's start with the unique flavor of lamb. Roasted and grilled lamb has a flavor unlike any other cooked meat, distinguished by the release of volatile aroma compounds in the fat during cooking. The majority of these compounds are branched-chain fatty acids (BCFAs).

And mint? Mint is rich with branched-chain ketones, which are chemically related to lamb's BCFAs and have similar, though not identical, aromas. This means, according to the theory of food pairing, that lamb and mint are a scientific match. (The dominant flavor compounds in mint are not found in other herbs, like tarragon or basil. But it's important to note that this doesn't mean other herbs taste bad with lamb.)

In addition, researchers have found another interesting compound in lamb that originates from the animal's diet. This compound, called 2,3-octanedione, is formed when the lamb consumes fresh clover and ryegrass. It is stored in the lamb's fat and, according to this theory, chemically bridges the gap between the BCFAs and the branched-chain ketones, with a similar sweet, fruity aroma that complements the aroma of mint.

Interested in tasting this minty-lamby synergy for yourself? Try one of our recipes:

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.