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How to Buy Lamb

Get a Leg Up on Lamb: A Shopping Primer

Aside from the occasional lamb chop, how frequently are you eating lamb? Chances are, not terribly often. While lamb was big in the 1940s and 1950s, it's taken a nosedive thanks to the rise of other animal proteins. Currently, the average American consumes 85 pounds of beef annually; in contrast, Americans eat less than a pound of lamb each year.

Part of this decline, I suspect, is because many home chefs don't feel comfortable working with the meat; at its best, lamb is sweet and tender, with a distinctly exotic flavor, but it can also be ruined when the animal is old and gamey. But working with lamb is easy: all it takes is a simple understanding of seasonality, visual cues, and cuts. Master this, and you're virtually guaranteed to sit down to a succulent meal.

First Things First: What Is Lamb?

Technically, lamb refers to the meat of a sheep that is less than a year old. If you spot the term "hogget," that's the same animal at 1 to 2 years of age; anything older than this, and it's mutton. Unless you're a fan of a much stronger flavor, choose lamb, as sheep develop a gamier flavor as they age.

More — including the best season to buy lamb, what to look for, and popular cuts — when you read on.

When You Should Buy It

Lamb is available year-round, but historically, the meat was available seasonally. Lambs born in Winter and milk-fed until Spring, when they'd feast on fresh new grass, were most prized. Much of today's Spring lamb, however, is born around Christmas and reared indoors on cereal-based grain feed, resulting in less flavor. Many modern-day lamb aficionados seek out what's known as the new season's grass-fed lamb, which is available in the Summer; these are livestock that have eaten the last of Spring's sweet grass.

What to Look For

When shopping for lamb, look for grass-fed meat that's pink to red in color, with plenty of fat marbling. Most lamb on the market hails from New Zealand, Australia, or the big five American states: Texas, California, Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota. New Zealand lamb — which often arrives already prepackaged — is grass-fed and mild-flavored and tends to be on the smaller side. Australian lamb portions, which may be either grass- or grain-fed, will be slightly larger. American lamb tends to be large and generous; when selecting domestic lamb, look for grass-fed versions or ones given the grade of either USDA Prime or Choice.

Choosing Cuts

Choose your cut of lamb based off of your budget and what you're planning to do with your meat:

  • A leg of lamb has plenty of meat, which makes it ideal for a large dinner party.
  • Rib racks, which are pretty to look at and offer tender meat, are pricey but perfect for elegant entertaining.
  • Loin roast is another highly prized, valuable option that works well for groups.
  • Shoulder chops tend to be hearty in flavor but inexpensive, since the meat is often chewier and fattier.
  • The shank, which comes from the lower legs of the animal, is not for the faint of heart: it tends to have a gamier flavor. Its connective tissue means this cut lends itself well to braising.
  • Ground lamb usually comes from the shoulder or breast. It's budget-friendly and works well for everyday meals like burgers, meatballs, and casseroles.

Shelf Life

Don't try to age your lamb like a steakhouse does its beef. Ground lamb or stew meat should be utilized within two days; chops and roasts, three to five days. Lamb is freezable, but be sure to use it within three to four months.

What's your favorite lamb, and how do you prepare it?

Image Source: Shutterstock
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