Whether it's sear-roasted rack of lamb, roasted leg of lamb, or ground lamb burgers, lamb is a welcome change of pace from beef or pork. In American usage, "lamb" refers to sheep less than one year old. Lamb's slightly gamey flavor pairs well with Mediterranean and Indian flavors, and it takes well to a variety of cooking methods.
Rack of lamb, rib chops, and loin chops are tender and best suited to dry-heat cooking methods, like searing or roasting. Choose braising or stewing for tougher cuts like the shoulder or shank. Ground lamb makes a delicious burger and is adds an earthiness when mixed with other ground meats for a meat sauce or a meatloaf and stars in the Middle Easten dish, kibbeh.
When buying lamb, color can be an indication of age; the lighter the color the younger (and presumably more tender) the lamb will be. Tender, mild-flavored lamb—from animals that are 5 to 12 months old; anything older must be labeled mutton or yearling—is available year-round at well-stocked supermarkets and specialty meat markets. In addition to domestically raised lamb, your market may carry Australian, New Zealand, and even Icelandic lamb. New Zealand lamb tends to be smaller and leaner than American-raised lamb, something to keep in mind when buying individual cuts; a leg or rack of lamb may weigh as little as half of the same American cut.
Here’s what you should know about each type:
American lamb breeds are the largest. Most American lamb found in supermarkets begins its life eating grass and then moves on to grain. The meat is mellow and tender and often dark red, with lots of marbling. For a gutsier lamb flavor, look online and at specialty markets for entirely grass-fed lamb from small producers.
Australian lambs are smaller than American lambs and are primarily fed a grass diet, although some producers do feed their lambs grain at the end of their lives. In general, Aussie lamb will be leaner and have a deeper flavor.
New Zealand lamb breeds are smaller yet and are entirely grass-fed for a lean, robust flavor.
Icelandic lamb is relatively new to United States markets and is mostly found in highend restaurants and specialty shops. The smallest of all, these lambs are primarily fed on grass yet have a delicate flavor and a
tender, almost soft, texture.