Lamb shank, a cut from the shin of the lamb, is one of the most flavorful cuts of lamb. The connective tissue, which gives lamb shank its flavor, also leads to toughness if not prepared correctly. Lamb shank needs to be cooked over low heat for a long time to become velvety, flavorful, and fall-off-the-bone juicy.
Lamb shank is a favorite in Mediterranean cuisines, such as Greek, Italian, French, and Moroccan. Because it has a bold, gamey flavor, it pairs well with warm spices, such as cinnamon and cloves, as well as bold herbs like rosemary and mint.
What Is Lamb Shank?
Lamb shank is a tough cut from the lamb leg that becomes tender and juicy with slow and low cooking. The foreshank comes from the front legs and is smaller than the hind shank, which comes from the back legs and is much meatier. As with all hard-working muscles, lamb shank is full of connective tissue and collagen that requires stewing or braising. The lamb shank is typically sold cut, with the center bone intact, and is cooked on the bone with little prep required.
Because lamb shank requires long cooking times and a lot of patience, it is an inexpensive cut of lamb that is often overlooked compared to more easily grilled neighboring cuts. This makes lamb shank an affordable option for cooks who enjoy lamb, but avoid it due to the high price compared to other red meat such as beef and pork.
How to Cook Lamb Shank
Due to its toughness and low fat content, braising lamb shank is the ideal way to enjoy it. The braising liquid keeps the meat from drying out and the hours-long cooking over low heat gives the tough meat a chance to become tender and succulent. Lamb shank typically comes bone-in, and braising gives the bone marrow a chance to melt into the braising liquid, transforming it into a rich and full-bodied sauce.
If you don’t want to braise, you can cook it for hours on low heat in the slow cooker to stew the meat. Be sure to keep the lid on to retain moisture. Similarly, it can be pressure-cooked with liquid. Lamb shank shouldn’t be pan-fried or sautéed or else it will be too tough to chew.
Lamb shank often comes with a thin white membrane that can be trimmed away or left on to melt away during cooking. Most importantly, brown the meat before slow cooking or braising to add a deeper flavor. You can achieve this by searing the meat in the same pot that you are using for slow-cooking or braising.
What Does It Taste Like?
Lamb is famous for its gamey flavor. Lamb shanks have an even stronger gamey flavor than milder cuts of lamb, such as loin or shoulder chops. American lamb tends to be milder than New Zealand or Australian lamb because it is grain-finished. Its bold flavor pairs well with marinades and aromatics that have equally sturdy flavors, such as garlic, onions, fennel, ginger, lemon peel, and rosemary.
When cooked properly, lamb shank is tender and juicy, practically falling off the bone.
Lamb Shank vs. Leg of Lamb
It is easy to confuse a lamb shank with a bone-in leg of lamb because they both come from the lamb’s legs. The difference is that lamb shank is the portion just above the knee and usually contains less meat and more sinewy fibers than a leg of lamb which is adjacent to the sirloin and flank cuts. Bone-in leg of lamb is a larger cut of meat that is already tender and well-suited to oven-roasting, whereas lamb shank is tough and is best-suited to braising.
As lamb shanks are a favorite in Mediterranean cuisine, you can find many Mediterranean-inspired recipes for lamb shank. Almost all recipes will be a variation on slow-cooking or braising and served alongside root vegetables, beans, and grain dishes like polenta or couscous to soak up the flavorful juices.
Where to Buy
You can buy lamb shanks at grocery stores with a well-stocked refrigerated meat section and at your local butcher shop. Lamb shanks are typically sold individually with the center bone by the pound. You can ask your butcher to cut the lamb shank into discs if you prefer.
If you’re buying several lamb shanks, choose ones that are the same size for uniform cooking time. The average lamb shank weighs between one and four pounds, and an average-sized shank serves one to two people. American lamb shanks tend to be larger than New Zealand and Australian lamb shanks. Look for shanks that are very fresh and cut to the appropriate size for your recipe.
Store raw lamb shanks in the coldest section of your refrigerator (about 35 F) in its original packaging for up to three days. Keep it away from cooked foods to avoid contamination. Cooked lamb shank lasts up to three to four days in the refrigerator. Lamb shank can be frozen in its original packaging for up to a year but should be vacuum-sealed to preserve freshness and avoid freezer burn.
Nutrition and Benefits
Lamb shank is packed with protein. It is an excellent source of iron and a good source of magnesium, potassium, selenium, and omega-3 fatty acids.