To some, lamb can be a daunting ingredient or one that's reserved only for special occasions. But, in fact, the many cut options of lamb allow for lots of different cooking methods with many being easier, quicker and more affordable than you realize. Before cooking with lamb, it is important to understand the parts of the lamb so you can determine which is appropriate for the dish you have in mind. There are five basic parts of lamb to choose from when selecting a good cut:
The Many Cuts of Lamb
These five parts translate to the cuts of lamb with which you are likely most familiar:
- Shoulder Chop: Also called the blade or arm chops, shoulder chops are generally a more inexpensive cut with rich fat marbling that requires a shorter cooking time.
- Loin Chop: It is one of the most readily available, and expensive, cuts at the grocery store. They are small T-shaped steaks and are the leanest and tenderest cuts.
- Rack: The rack of lamb is one of the more famous presentations containing 7-8 ribs from the center of the lamb. A rack of lamb allows for some of the fancier presentations including the crown roast or Frenched rack.
- Ribs: Lamb spareribs are a great budget-friendly option that is perfect for braising or grilling.
- Breast: The lamb breast is flavorful and somewhere in the middle on the tender to tough scale. Breasts are good for roasting and braising, which helps to break down the meat.
- Shanks: Lamb shanks come in both foreshanks and hindshanks, both of which are lean and very meaty, with an intense, rich flavor. Shanks generally require long, slow cooking methods to get the meat at its most tender.
- Leg: A traditional choice for holiday feasts, the leg of lamb is one of the more versatile cuts of lamb, as it can be purchased in many varieties form butterflied boneless to BLT (or boneless leg tied) to bone-in leg cutlet. It is also the leanest of the lamb cuts.
- Kabob or Stew Meat: Trimmed and cubed lamb from the shoulder or leg is a great option for its namesake dishes – kabobs and stews. These cuts are readily available at most grocery stores, but you can also trim and hand cut meat from the leg, shoulder, or shank roast to make your own.
- Sirloin Chop: Sirloin chops are generally large and meaty, making for thick, inexpensive steaks that make great alternatives to the prized rib and loin chops.
Shopping for the Best Cut of Lamb
When shopping for lamb, as with any cut of meat, it is best to go with whichever is the most fresh. When purchasing a packaged cut of lamb, the easiest way to determine freshness is to check for the dates that are stamped on the packaging. If lamb is not contained in a dated package, look at the color of the meat. Lamb should be rosy pink or red in color. Any meat that is darker than rosy red is older and will not be as fresh or tender. In addition to color, look for fine-grained meat with firm, white fat. This holds true for cuts available at your local butcher counter.
Also, as a rule, look for other markings on the label that will give you more information about the cut of lamb. USDA Prime will have the highest rating in tenderness and flavor, and generally a slightly higher fat content, which lends to the flavor. Cuts labeled USDA Choice are still high quality meats, but slightly less tender.
Another great option is to find a grass-fed selection at a local farmer’s market, which generally are high quality cuts of meat with great flavor. It is important to note, however, that all grades of lamb have similar levels of protein, vitamins, and nutrients.
Depending on the lamb dish you are making, it is always best to select the correct cut for the dish you are preparing. For instance, for roasted lamb, the rib, loin, breast, and shoulder are recommended. Whereas legs are good for the obvious leg of lamb or can be cut into cubes for use in lamb kebab dishes such as this Middle Eastern spicy lamb kebob recipe or this Lamb Fesenjan.