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Shopping for Lamb

By Cook's Illustrated Published November 2015

Lamb has been staging somewhat of a comeback—and for good reason. Here's our test kitchen shopping tips for lamb.

Lamb, which is less popular than beef (or, really, any other meat in America), has been staging somewhat of a comeback—and for good reason. Lamb can be relatively inexpensive; it takes well to a variety of cooking methods, such as roasting, stewing, and grilling; and its flavor is grassy and rich. Note that most markets contain just a few of our favorite cuts, and you may need to special order lamb.

SHOULDER

This area extends from the neck through the fourth rib. Meat from this area is flavorful, although it contains a fair amount of connective tissue and can be tough if not cooked long enough to tenderize. Chops, roasts, and boneless stew meat all come from the shoulder.

RIB

The rib area is directly behind the shoulder and extends from the fifth to the 12th rib. The rack (all eight ribs form this section) is cut from the rib. When cut into individual chops, the meat is called rib chops. Meat from this area has a fine, tender grain and a mild flavor.

LOIN

The loin extends from the last rib down to the hip area. The loin chop is the most familiar cut from this part of the lamb. Like the rib chop, it is tender and has a mild, sweet flavor. But while the rib chop has meat all on one side of the bone, the loin chop has a T-shaped bone running through its center, separating two muscles.

LEG

The leg area runs from the hip down to the hoof. It may be sold whole or broken into smaller roasts and shanks (one comes from each hind leg). These roasts may be sold with the bones in, or they may be butterflied and sold boneless.

FORESHANK/BREAST

This primal cut is from the underside of the animal and is called the foreshank and breast. This area includes the two front legs (each yields a shank) as well as the breast, which is rarely sold in supermarkets.

GRASS-FED VS. GRAIN-FED

Grass-fed and grain-fed lamb taste different. This is because when lambs eat grain—even just finish their diet on grain—it impacts the composition of the animal’s fat, where most of its unique flavor resides. A grain-based diet reduces the concentration of the medium-length branched fatty acids, the ones that give lamb its distinctive flavor. This means that grain-fed lamb has a less intense “lamb” flavor and can taste slightly sweeter.

Domestic versus Imported

The lamb that you buy in the store comes from a few different places—both domestic and imported. Domestic lamb is distinguished by its larger size and milder flavor, while lamb imported from Australia or New Zealand features a gamier taste. This flavor change is largely due to chemistry: Imported lamb is pasture-fed on mixed grasses, while lamb raised in the United States begins on a diet of grass but finishes with grain. The switch to grain has a direct impact on the composition of the animal’s fat, reducing the concentration of the branched-chain fatty acids, and ultimately leading to sweeter-tasting meat.