Are lamb’s glory days past? Once one of the surest signs of spring, lamb seems to be on the decline. Consumption of the meat in the United States has fallen 65% in the last 35 years.
“One theory goes that the GIs were served really bad C rations made from lamb. When they got back, they said no to lamb,” says Alan Zuschlag, owner-operator of Touchstone Farm in Rappahannock County, Va. where he raises Clun Forest and Icelandic sheep.
Other explanations include the drop of immigration to the United States from traditional lamb-eating cultures, the general decline in Americans’ ability to cook and the possibility that lamb’s occasionally strong, or gamy, taste turned off consumers.
Most lamb today has a milder flavor than it did 10 or 15 years ago. As the American lamb industry shrank, the United States began to import more lamb from Australia and New Zealand. In Australia, a concerted effort was made to develop a better grade of lamb for export, explains Joel Weinstein, president of Foodcomm International, which imports Australian lamb. “Before we became a good market for Australia, we saw more cheap meat.... In my opinion, it wasn’t the best.”
Today a leaner, milder lamb is the norm. The mutton-like taste of the past is gone. For a consumer used to the taste of chicken breast, pork loin and lean beef, the taste will still seem strong. But it is this natural flavor-which needs little enhancement-that makes lamb so easy to prepare.
Another criticism of lamb is that it is fatty. Though some cuts still come with layers of fat, in general the meat today is leaner. First, lamb naturally doesn’t have the intra-muscular fat of beef. Second, most of the external fat can and should be removed. As Weinstein explains, “When people cook the lamb with a lot of surface fat, it gets a greasy feel. Prepared properly, trimmed of as much fat as possible, this feeling will be gone.”
Purchase a leg of lamb from Australia, one from New Zealand and one produced domestically and the first thing you’ll notice is the size difference. The domestic leg can top 10 pounds, while the one from Australia will probably weigh between 5 1/2 and 7 1/2 pounds. The New Zealand legs run even smaller-4 to 4 1/2 pounds.
The American lamb is a bigger animal, partly because it may be a little bit older and partly because it is grain-fed, whereas the Australian and New Zealand lambs are primarily, if not exclusively, grass-fed. The difference in age is minimal, maybe a month or so, and accounts for the variation even in lamb from the same country.
Here’s where the discussion starts to look like a campaign. Fans of domestic lamb insist it’s milder. New Zealand lamb lovers are sure they can taste the difference. And proponents of Australian lamb are just as ardent.
Try the choices yourself and decide which you prefer. Size rather than taste may be the deciding factor.
Whole bone-in legs of lamb have fallen out of favor among most consumers. The bone found in the butt end of the leg, called the aitchbone, makes carving difficult, so you are not likely to encounter this cut except at a specialty or ethnic market. Most supermarkets and grocery stores limit cuts to semi-boneless (either shank or butt portion) or boneless (butterflied).
The butt end of a lamb roast contains the sirloin, one of the prized portions. The shank, however, is what gives the traditional look of a leg of lamb. With its shank bone intact, the whole leg is easy to hold when carving, and it has leaner meat. But a drawback is that the shank end will take longer to cook than the butt end.
Perhaps the easiest cut to cook and slice is the rolled and tied boneless leg. It cooks evenly and can be stuffed and marinated. Unrolled and butterflied, it can be grilled or broiled, but its uneven thickness can make it difficult to cook evenly, with some parts very thin and others nearly as thick as a roast-at least four or five inches thick.
Like most roasts, leg of lamb is easy to cook. Trim the excess fat, leaving a thin layer so the meat will be self-basting. Season with salt and pepper and lightly coat with oil. Roast in a 350-degree oven at 20 to 25 minutes per pound for a bone-in roast. Start testing for doneness about two-thirds of the way into the cooking time. Unless you love well-done or rare lamb, aim for medium-rare, 140 degrees when measured with an instant-read thermometer in the thickest part of the roast.
Boneless, rolled and tied roasts will cook a bit faster, 15 to 20 minutes per pound.
For grilling or broiling, the boneless, butterflied leg of lamb is the best cut. Lay the boned leg out on a cutting board. The meat should look like two halves joined in the center by a shallow piece of meat. To ensure more even cooking, you can even the thickness of the leg one of several ways. First, you can separate the two halves and cook each separately. Or you can further butterfly the thick sections by making a horizontal cut to create a flap and then folding back that flap, creating a sort of sheet of meat. A third option is to use skewers to stabilize and pull together pieces, making the roast more compact.
To broil, cook the meat until browned on both sides and finish in a 350-degree oven if necessary. Remember that the goal is still 140 degrees in the thickest part of the meat.
To grill, use the indirect heat method, banking the coals or lighting the burners on only one side of the grill. Cook the meat, with a drip pan underneath, on the opposite side of the grill. The temperature inside the covered grill should be around 425 degrees. Because the meat is only about 2 inches thick, it will cook quickly; a 5-to 6-pound butterflied leg will take 45 to 55 minutes. Just before the lamb is done, the meat can be moved directly over the heat to brown if necessary. Be careful of residual fat, which will cause the fire to flame up.