Mary had a little lamb…

Lamb Cutting
…braised in a red wine sauce, with a side of ginger chutney. Yum.

Just what the hell is lamb anyway? Well, it’s not mutton. Rather, it’s mutton in training. Mutton is technically sheep, sort of making it the veal of sheep.

As silly as this sounds, there is actual debate on what defines a “lamb”. For some, a lamb is only the spawn of a sheep that is still taking nutrients from it’s mother’s milks. But considering many lambs nowadays are still suckling at their mother’s teats long after they’ve graduated from college, some in the meat world (mostly biologists and the lamb’s father) think this definition is outdated. They think that lambs should be defined by when they get its first pair of permanant teeth.

The culinary world recognizes two types of lamb. There is the sucking lamb, named after the aforementioned child who still likes mommy’s milk, and then the weaned lamb. The weaned lamb is between ages 4 months to 1 year, and takes it nutrients from other sources, most often grass and other similar vegetation.

After one year, lambs are considered “hoggs” or “hoggetts” (depending on gender) and their meat has to count as mutton. If a sheep makes it to its one year birthday chances are good it’ll be around for a while longer, as proper mutton only develops it’s flavor as the sheep gets older and older.

The French, choosing to be even more difficult, have another type of lamb, called pré-salé, meaning that the lamb has been fed on the grass of the salt marshes ever so popular in France.

As mentioned perviously, we in the west haven’t taken to lamb, for whatever reason. It’s not just Americans, as the the Western Europeans also don’t take to lamb as the do beef. Which is odd, as being a fatty red meat, it”s perfect for tocks and soups, as well as any dishes which rely on a sauce.

As it’s a fatty meat, it’s best with a sharp ‘acid’ ingredient to cut through it, either vinegar or wine based, although one could perhaps use mint if one were so inclined.

So what is what on a lamb? refer to the crappy graphic that I lifted from another location…

  1. Neck
  2. Rib
  3. Loin
  4. Sirloin
  5. leg
  6. Breast
  7. Foreshank
  8. Shoulder

Most people get the rack of lamb, which is the ribs and find it quite tender and tasty. The loin is another tender cut, while the shoulder (or chuck) is less tender (making it perfect for roasting), but still quite flavorful. The leg of lamb is an oddity however, in that it is quite tender (which is the opposite of beef, where the leg can be quite tough).

Buying sheep isn’t the issue it is with beef, at least here in America. Although there are Prime, Choice, and Select as grades, the differences are so minute, that it essentially makes them worthless.

There are two things you should keep in mind however:

  1. If you want the deep gamey taste of lamb, buy organic, grass-fed lamb. Grain fed lamb leads to less gamey taste and most American Lamb (80%) is raised this way.
  2. American raised lamb are more fatty than imported lamb, but provide larger pieces of meat. This is simply due to the breeds of sheep throughout the world, and no other reason.

This gives us a good start on what lamb is and isn’t. Hoepfully I’ll be able to conjure up a few good meals involving lamb over the next couple o’ weeks.


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