How to Cook Lamb Like a Chef

Learn how to roast, sear, braise, and grill lamb for holiday meals or summer barbecues.

How to cook lamb
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Lamb is a popular protein worldwide, but many American home cooks reserve it for holidays and other special occasions. That means they are only making it a few times a year, which is a shame. Lamb chops often get all the glory (and command the highest price), but there’s a lot to love about other cuts like lamb legs, loins, and shoulders, too. Read on for info on buying and prepping lamb, the best ways to cook the most common cuts, expert tips and advice, and our favorite lamb recipes.

How to Buy Lamb

Before you cook, you’ve got to shop. Most supermarkets carry a variety of lamb cuts, but the chefs we spoke to strongly encouraged looking outside the grocery store, if you can.

“I would recommend people go and build that relationship, whether it's their local butcher, if they still have a mom-and-pop butcher shop in their town, or farm stands or farmer's markets,” says Kevin O’Donnell, chef and owner at Giusto in Newport, Rhode Island. Even in the smallest state in the union, you can find a lamb producer. For years, O’Donnell has bought lamb from Hopkins Southdowns in Situate, Rhode Island. Einat Admony, chef and owner of New York City-based Balaboosta and Taim, agrees. She’s been eating lamb all of her life, starting when she was a kid in Tel Aviv. Today, she likes to source lamb from Pino’s Prime Meats in New York City and from various farms in upstate New York. 

Shopping locally helps farmers and the local economy, and it will also give you access to an expert source. These butchers and farmers can advise you on how to cook the cut you’re buying, suggest a substitution if they don’t have what you’re looking for, or special-order the right cut of meat for you.

Whether you are at the grocery store or butcher, your options will most often be American, New Zealand, or Australian lamb. Generally speaking, lamb raised in America is larger and fattier; it is often finished on grain. Some people find that the grain finishing gives the meat a milder flavor than imported lamb. Lamb from New Zealand and Australia are smaller and leaner than American lamb and are grass-fed (some are finished on grain), which can enhance the lamb flavor. 

How Long to Cook Lamb

The answer to this question depends on whom you ask. According to the FDA, cuts of lamb should be cooked to the same internal temperature as beef and pork, which is 145°F; ground lamb should be cooked to 160°F. Most of our lamb recipes call for cooking lamb to between 125°F and 130°F for medium-rare. This takes into account 5 to 10 degrees of carryover cooking, which increases the internal temperature of the meat as it rests. Braised lamb should be cooked to texture instead of temperature. It should be fork-tender, which usually happens around 180°F.

How to Roast Lamb

The dry heat of roasting is best for tender cuts of lamb, like the leg, rack, and loin. If you’d like to roast a cut like a lamb shoulder, go for a long, slow roast.

If you’re cooking a bone-in leg, keep in mind that because of the thicker and thinner portions of the cut you’ll get a range of doneness. Boneless leg of lamb is often sold wrapped in netting. Make sure the netting is oven-proof before roasting. If it isn’t, remove the netting and tie the roast with kitchen twine. If you’re rolling your own boneless leg, you can add herbs and other seasoning to the meat before rolling it up and tying it with twine. Because the boneless leg is more uniform in size, it will cook more evenly than a bone-in leg.

When roasting a rack of lamb, make sure to ask your butcher to French the rack for you, which means to remove the cartilage, meat, and fat on the rib bones. You should be able to see several inches of clean bone. Frenching makes the finished rack look better and taste better, too. If you want to keep the bones white, O’Donnell suggests wrapping them with foil before roasting. 

Lamb loin is so flavorful and tender that it just needs a quick seasoning and a little time in a hot skillet to brown the outside before going into the oven. A one-pound roast will take about 30 minutes at 400°F.

How to Sear Lamb

Searing is a great first step before roasting or braising to build color and flavor on larger pieces of lamb, but searing itself is a great method for cooking small, tender cuts, like rib and loin chops

Rib chops are the long, narrow chops that make up a rack of lamb. You can sear lamb rib chops solo, but because they’re so thin and tender it’s sometimes difficult to get a nice sear on the outside without overcooking the meat. To add a little insurance, O’Donnell likes to cut a rack into two- or three-chop portions before searing. Pat the meat dry and season with salt. Heat a few teaspoons of oil in a heavy-duty skillet (O’Donnell prefers carbon steel or cast-iron) over medium-high heat, then add the chops and sear them. Transfer the chops to a rack in a roasting pan and finish cooking the chops in a 300°F oven to your desired doneness. Let the chops rest for a few minutes before slicing them into individual chops.

Loin chops look like mini T-bone steaks and are cut from the area just behind the ribs. They’re easy to find — and easy to cook. Sear them in a heavy-duty skillet with a little bit of oil over medium-high heat. Cook for about 3 minutes per side for medium-rare and let rest for a few minutes before serving.

How to Braise Lamb

The moist heat and low and slow cooking associated with braising is ideal for tenderizing hard-working, less tender cuts of lamb, like lamb shoulder, lamb shanks, and lamb neck. When braising lamb, let texture instead of temperature be your guide. Braised lamb should be fork-tender. 

For braised lamb shoulder, brown the meat first to start building flavor. Take the meat out of the pan and add your aromatics. Once they’re tender, add your liquid, whether that’s wine (red or white), broth, orange juice, apple cider, or a combination of liquids. Then cover the pot and relax. Braising is low and slow, so it will be a while (typically two to three hours) before the meat is fork-tender. Let the meat rest about 30 minutes before shredding or slicing. 

A lamb shank is the bony bit that’s between the leg and the knee bone. The foreshank comes from the front legs and the hind shank, which is meatier, comes from the back legs. The braising method is similar to lamb shoulder, but the cut is smaller, usually serving one to two people per shank. Red-wine braised lamb shanks are a classic, but you can also play around with lots of garlic, a blend of warming spices, or a mix of herbs. 

And hear us out on braised lamb neck. You’ll have to ask your butcher about the meaty cut, but it’s worth it. Both Admony and O’Donnell named it as one of their favorite and most underrated cuts of lamb. “When you braise it, it’s perfect,” says Admony. “It’s so much more forgiving than something like lamb chops.”

How to Grill Lamb

The smoky sear of the grill is great with lamb and many cuts shine on the grill, including lamb leg, shoulder chops, ground lamb, and lamb ribs.

Admony is a big fan of grilled leg of lamb, which is one of her go-to party dishes at home. She likes to use a boneless leg and slice it into large, ½-inch thick slices. She marinates the meat in a mixture of yogurt and lots of fresh herbs in the fridge overnight. The marinated meat cooks quickly and she slices it thinly for serving. “It’s very delicious and so fast,” she says. You can also grill a whole, bone-in leg. It’s best to coat the meat with a flavorful rub (garlic, rosemary, and lemon are nice), wrap it up, and refrigerate it overnight before grilling the next day.

Shoulder chops (aka blade chops) are a grilling MVP. They’re much more affordable than rib or loin chops (which are also super tasty grilled, of course) and are packed with flavor. You can grill them quickly or take your time and smoke them with wood chips. 

Mix up your burger game by making lamb patties from ground lamb. You can season the meat simply with salt and pepper, or go with herbs, like rosemary or mint or a little cumin or cinnamon. Feta, yogurt, and/or cucumbers are all natural toppings for lamb burgers. You can also opt for a burger blend. Admony finds that ground lamb can sometimes be a bit gamey and is also quite lean, which can make it prone to drying out. To solve for that, she likes to use a 50/50 mix of ground beef and ground lamb. 

And who says pork and beef should have all the rib fun? Give the baby backs a break and try lamb ribs instead. They’re very affordable and a great way to add some excitement to your next barbecue. 

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