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Breaking Down the Lamb

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We started our anatomization of meat two months ago with “Breaking Down the Beef ”.  From a butcher’s standpoint, we almost did our readers an injustice since beef is far more complicated than most other meats and more difficult to grasp.  But, since beef makes up the largest percentage of our meaty diets, we figured apt to start at the difficult end of the spectrum, from which point all other meats are easy.  This month we breakdown a lamb.  Now, to say beef is “more complicated” is not quite accurate either… a lamb, being a four-legged animal, has virtually identical anatomy to beef as you’ll read.  Really, the only difference is that beef is cut into more cuts because of its larger size.  For many cuts of lamb, muscles are grouped together for the purpose of butchering.  Without further ado – let’s talk lamb.  For the foodies that want a full understanding of cuts and the differences between beef and lamb, we recommend priming yourself by reading Breaking Down the Beef first.

Lamb is a sheep less than 1 year old.  The term “Spring Lamb” refers to a lamb between 3 and 5 months old. Over 1 year, a lamb is referred to as a yearling. Over 2 years of age, lamb is called mutton; meat from mutton is darker, tougher, and has a much stronger flavor than lamb.

The taste of good lamb is earthy and rich with a faint sweetness.  Lamb is fairly fatty, and, unlike pork, the fat is not entirely edible - it is more like tallow.  This contributes to the high price of lamb, because by the time the lamb is trimmed of its fat and other non-edible parts, the resulting meat is only about 40% of its weight.  Some people are turned off by the smell of lamb, but what they smell is burning lamb fat, which does have a very "lamby" odor - for these people we recommend leaner cuts that have been well trimmed.

Lamb has been a part of our carnivorous lives since 9000 B.C.!  During these early days, much of the world was shepherds and the meat they knew best was lamb.  Today, lamb is the only universally accepted meat.   Hindus are forbidden to eat beef, Muslims & Jews eschew pork, but no culture or religion outlaws lamb.  Oddly enough, in Canada and the U.S., lamb consumption is trivial in comparison to other meats.  For example, per capita consumption in Canada is approximately:

  • Beef - 32 kg (~70.5 lb) per year;
  • Chicken – 30 kg (~66 lb) per year;
  • Pork – 29 kg (~64 lb) per year; and
  • Lamb – only 0.8 kg (~1.75lb) per year!

The biggest lamb selling period is at Easter, when we sell in two days as much lamb as we sell during any other two-month period.  However, contrary to the lamb frenzy that occurs every spring, the best time to purchase lamb is between mid-summer and fall, when lambs have grazed on open pasture for several months. The ultimate in lamb enjoyment occurs in the autumn when you can buy genuine “Spring Lamb”, that is, a lamb born in the early spring, fed on mother's milk then eating organic pasture all summer, and slaughtered in the fall, which produces one of the sweetest and most succulent meats.

These days, it seems you can’t escape grocery store shelves stocked with lamb from Australia and New Zealand.  In our opinion, locally raised lamb is superior for several reasons… but, really, only one is essential to comprehend – local lamb travels a 125 miles to get to the store, not 8700 miles.



Beef and lamb are both four-footed animals (obviously), and therefore their structures are the same. However, on average, a lamb is one-tenth the weight of a beef and as a result; the butchering is slightly altered since beef can be easily cut into many more individual pieces. There are eight basic (or primal) cuts of lamb: Neck, Shoulder, Foreshank, Breast, Rib, Loin, Leg, and Shank. As shown in the diagram below, we have grouped the primal cuts of lamb into three categories: Premium Cuts, Most Versatile, and Tough but Flavorful.


The rib area of the lamb is, like prime rib in beef, very tender and flavorful. This portion of the lamb is either cut into little rib chops or left as a whole rack of lamb (with seven or eight ribs). The rib cut has an outer layer of fat which can be trimmed off but, if left on during cooking, melts and bastes the meat.

Rib chops or racks of lamb are very frequently “Frenched” for aesthetic purposes, meaning the meat on the ends of the rib bones are scraped off. We’re not quite sure who decided that naked bones look better than meaty ones, but that’s beside the point.  True lamb lovers will tell you that the best part of feasting on a rack of lamb is nibbling on the bones.  For a very special occasion, consider buying two racks and asking us to create either a crown roast or guard of honor. A Crown Roast is achieved by stitching together two racks at one end, then curving the racks, bone side out, to form a circle shape that looks like a crown. A Guard of Honor is accomplished by tying the racks together such that the ribs interlock, fat side out. The alternating bones resemble the crossed swords of a military guard of honor.

The lamb loin, like beef loin is the tenderest muscle. It is usually cut into butter-soft loin chops, which resemble tiny T-bone steaks. Alternatively, it can be divided into the ultra tender (and very tiny) tenderloin and flavorful top loin chops (the cuts being the equivalent to Filet Mignon and NY Striploin in beef). A lamb tenderloin is too small to roast, so it should be quickly grilled or sautéed.

Roast options from the loin include a loin roast and a saddle of lamb. A loin roast is the entire loin section, left whole and bone-in; because of the leanness of the loin, it should be cooked carefully to avoid overcooking and drying out. The saddle is a double loin roast, where both sides of the backbone have been left intact – this roast contains a large quantity of meat and is very easy to carve.

Rib and Loin meat is best cooked using dry heat methods (i.e. roasting, broiling or grilling).  Use an instant read thermometer to achieve these internal temperatures (remember a roast will continue to rise about 3-5˚C while sitting):

Lamb Cooking Temperatures:

Rare: 135˚F/57˚C
Medium Rare: 140˚F/60˚C
Medium: 150˚F/65˚C 


The lamb leg is in a league of its own. The leg in beef, called round, is extremely lean and tough. In lamb, however, because of the smaller size of the animal as well as the fact that lamb is brought to market at a comparatively young age, the leg of lamb is tender and very versatile. It makes a wonderful large roast, or several small roasts, or can be cut into steaks or kabob meat.

Although a lamb has four legs (of course), only the two hind legs produce the cut referred to as “leg of lamb”. The whole, bone-in leg can weigh from 5-to-9 pounds and may be American style (no shank, bone attached) or French style (shank bone left on). A whole leg that has been boned makes a compact and tidy roast when rolled (with or without stuffing) and tied or netted to keep its shape. It may also be butterflied for grilling. Leg steaks are attained by cutting across the bone and can be quite large when cut from the sirloin end, that is, the part closer to where the leg in our diagram meets the loin. Leg is our preferred meat for the kebabs we make since it has large muscle areas from which cubes can be cut free from gristle and bone.


Now we get to the fun stuff… these are the cuts that we’ve become known for because our chef’s are always willing to explain cooking techniques to customers.  The best example is the shoulder; the shoulder is more flavorful than other cuts, less expensive, tougher, and has more connective tissue, veins of fat, and bones. From the shoulder, we can cut shoulder roasts (boneless or bone-in), shoulder chops, or the best stewing lamb around.

As a roast, the shoulder is one of those dual-purpose cuts: just tender enough to be dry roasted, but because of the fat content, excellent for long, slow braising. Chops from the shoulder are full of flavor, somewhat chewy if grilled, and amazing if quickly braised in a skillet on the stove top.

Let’s talk shank. Technically speaking, a lamb has two shanks located at the rear (attached to the leg) and two “foreshanks” located at the front. However, most of our customers prefer their leg of lambs bone-in, shank attached (and for good reason), so we rarely cut the shanks from the legs.  Instead, the shanks we typically sell at our store are actually the foreshanks. Confused yet? Don’t worry – whether we’re speaking of shanks or foreshanks, there’s nothing better than braised meat from these cuts.  Read the Braised Comfort article to learn more about braising.  Served up one per person with the bone sticking out of them, they have more of a primitive appeal than veal shanks because of their larger size. And please, don’t hesitate to ask us to cut the shanks into pieces to make lamb osso buco.

What’s left? Well, the breast is so small there’s not much you can do with it. The neck is also small, but can be braised whole or cut into crosswise slices. We find that the best use for these cuts is to trim off the fat and bones, grind the meat, and turn them into our award-winning lamb sausages and burgers.

As always, we encourage you to try different cuts. The next time you’re in to pick up a couple of chops for the BBQ, instead of picking up three of the same, try a shoulder chop, a loin chop and a rib chop and compare each one side-by-side. Or instead of roasting one larger roast, get a mini-leg of lamb and a small shoulder roast. Experimenting is the most effective way of understanding the cuts we’ve discussed and finding the ones the best suit your tastes.


Boneless Leg of Lamb Stuffed with Sheep’s Feta, Pine Nuts, Fennel, Olives, and Herbs

1 (5 pound) leg of lamb, deboned and butterflied
1 Bulb Fennel, chopped
2 tablespoons minced shallot
1 tablespoon butter
1 ½ cups crumbled Sheep’s milk feta
1 cup toasted pine nuts
¼ cup Kalamata olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
¼ cup chopped mint
¼ cup chopped parsley
¼ cup chopped basil
1 tablespoon Pure olive oil or vegetable oil

Salt and black pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Cut six 2-foot lengths of butcher's twine. In a small frying pan sauté fennel and shallots in butter for one minute or until lightly browned, seasoning with salt and pepper. Transfer to a small bowl and cool. Mix well with feta, pine nuts, olives and herbs; season with pepper as there is probably enough salt from the feta.

Arrange lamb on work surface, inside facing up. Place a sheet of plastic wrap over lamb and pound with a meat mallet to flatten meat slightly, if needed, until leg is a fairly even thickness. Remove plastic wrap and generously season inside and outside of lamb with salt and pepper. Mound stuffing mixture lengthwise along one side of lamb; roll up lamb over stuffing, tucking in ends. Evenly space 6 pieces of twine under lamb roll and tie the roll firmly.

In a roasting pan on the stove top (possibly over 2 burners), heat oil over high heat.  Add lamb roll and sear all over, about 6 minutes in all.  Insert a rack under the lamb roast in the roasting pan. Roast in the oven at 375˚F until an instant read thermometer reads 140 degrees F for medium rare, about 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes, basting occasionally.  Remove from oven and let sit, cover loosely with foil at least 10 minutes. To serve, discard strings, slice in 12 pieces and serve 2 slices per serving with favorite potato or rice recipe.

About the Butcher

The Healthy Butcher is located in Toronto, Canada and is Toronto’s source for the best tasting and largest selection of Certified Organic meat, specializing in all cuts of locally grown beef, lamb, pork, chicken, bison, elk, duck, ostrich, Cornish hen, quail, goose, and other premium meats.  The store also offers a wide selection of gourmet prepared foods created by their in-house team of chefs always seeking local, organic, and seasonal ingredients. 

©2007 Ambrosia Gourmet Inc., c.o.b. The Healthy Butcher.  All rights reserved.


Pierre Bowlyour (Unregistered) 2009-12-19 03:29:58


On what basis apart from distance shipped do you describe "locally raised lamb is superior", especially in relation to Australian or New Zealand lamb? This statement can be nothing other than ignorance with arrogance and parochialism as icing.

Perhaps you should try visiting the rest of the world a little and expanding your knowledge base.

Bon voyage.

Jolly Mason (Unregistered) 2010-02-03 09:33:12

Hi Pierre...

Have you tried the lamb on offer? I hope so. As stated in the article, the main reason that (IN THEIR OPINION)local lamb is better is distance travelled, however, there may well be other reasons that their local lamb IS superior, which neither of us will know until we have tried it. I hate to say it, but if I had to choose between you and the author of this article, i would say that you sounded some what more arrogant than he. Good Work!

Anon (Unregistered) 2010-03-24 10:27:01

Anyone with the name Pierre is a cunt anyway.
Pierresabitch (Unregistered) 2010-11-10 17:21:32

Iv had lamb from both local farms and also the stuff sold in mass at the grocery store....both taste the same and as far as my two cents for Pierre....ill give you a bag of donkey dicks to fry up and try then u can tell us all about how they taste
lamb traveler
elljay (Registered) 2011-01-06 18:55:09

the basis I use to say local lamb is superior:
lamb meat from fine wool lambs is stronger tasting than lamb meat from course wool lambs there is also a difference in taste
by diet and age. there are some people who cannot distinguish these differences
( about 20%) But to those of us who can the flavors are there.
I have traveled and had lamb and goat in in south america Caribbean turkey and france
Great article. Thank you.
T&J (Unregistered) 2011-04-23 09:51:17

Thank you for writing this very helpful article. Here we are sitting planning our Easter dinner, and your article was very helpful (we'll be sure to have lamb more often - particularly in the fall!). We live in Toronto - we'll make an effort to look up your store.

How unfortunate that you seem to have attracted some very rude commenters. It's hard for me to fathom why they would bother to make the effort (trolls don't often get past the "Captcha" symbols) only to write such vile things, particularly to comment on such an innocuous article! You may want to consider being a bit more selective as to the comments you approve.
Carrie-Loo (Unregistered) 2011-10-08 06:06:03

Thanks for your tips! I'm a mum of twelve and I have never cooked lamb for my brood, however my eldest son says it is fantastic and we should all try it, so will start with your recipe! :-)
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