The meat of a mature sheep is called mutton, and it's basically the same as lamb though can be slightly tougher with a more pungent flavor. That doesn't mean it's not palatable. In fact, mutton used to be a mainstay on menus across Europe and the United States. It's a particularly good meat for long and slow cooking and can stand up to strong spices and is served frequently, still, in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and India.
What Is Mutton?
In essence, mutton is a mature sheep, meaning it's between the ages of 1 and 3. The animal gets butchered the same way a cow or lamb is, so mutton chops, steaks, bacon, belly and other sections are available. The meat tends to have more of a gamey flavor than lamb, but most of the time it's not much stronger. In fact, that slightly bolder, richer taste works well with spicy sauces, long braises, and velvety, rich stews.
Mutton used to be more popular in the United States but in the 1900s it fell out of favor, with eaters choosing simpler, milder meats such as beefsteak and pork chops. However, the 21st century has seen a resurgence of mutton. It's available from chopped to ground to chuck, and has started to grace menus of fine dining and casual eateries alike.
Often, Mutton is served in Indian food since it's a protein that fits the diet of both Muslims (who don't eat pork) and Hindus (who don't eat beef). The rich flavor and hearty texture works well when stewed for hours in a spicy vindaloo or curry, and can be cut into chunks and roasted on skewers.
How to Cook Mutton
Mutton, like beef or lamb, is a red meat that's butchered the same way as the other two and is great in a variety of preparations. Unlike its counterparts, mutton in most cases should be cooked low and slow to help break down collagen, fibers, and connective tissue. For example, a leg of mutton benefits from braising to keep the tougher meat moist. Slow cook mutton shoulder with chiles to make a barbacoa perfect for tacos. Brown chunks of mutton and then pressure cook or slowly simmer for a curry. Or, go for a classic Shepherd’s pie, a casserole of ground lamb or mutton.
Mutton isn't a meat to just put on the grill, as it needs to be tenderized first. For example, start mutton ribs by marinating the meat in a citrus or vinegar-heavy base to help break down the fibers in the meat, then slow cook it before finishing off on the grill. The one exception to the rule is mutton burgers, which also use ground meat, which helps keep the burgers from drying out.
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What Does Mutton Taste Like?
Many people find mutton strong with the musty flavor of grass, hay, and funky soil. It's an acquired taste for some, but it stands up well to bold spices and sauces. However, if the animal was fed on tender spring grass and was younger when butchered, it will have a smoother flavor. Older animals that spent more time with hay or summer grasses will have a bolder taste.
Mutton Vs. Lamb
First, mutton and lamb come from the same animal, sheep. Mutton is taken from an older sheep, from 1 to 3 years old, while lamb comes from animals younger than 1. Because of this age difference mutton tends to be tougher and more gamey than lamb and does best cooked low and slow. Lamb on the other hand often gets prepared like beef and has smooth, grassy flavor that showcases the terrior of where the animal was raised. Lamb also can be prepared medium rare, a temperature not often seen with mutton.
While lamb proves more popular than mutton, both pack the same nutrients and protein and, when it comes to casseroles, braised meat, burgers or any preparation where the meat is treated and not cooked plain, the two can be interchanged. Though more expensive, lamb is more commonly found in the market than mutton.
For cooking and eating purposes, mutton is treated like lamb, though often it's stewed or slow-cooked in order to help tenderize the meat. Try it straight up or mixed with curry or in a hearty stew, and enjoy this British and Irish staple.
Where to Buy Mutton
Mutton is not a meat common in run-of-the-mill supermarkets or even natural grocery stores. Instead, seek a butcher shop that deals in lamb. Local sheep farms will also sell cuts of mutton. Another spot where mutton gets sold is in Indian food shopping centers and some Mexican markets. While mutton isn't as popular as seafood and pork are in Mexican dishes, the meat gets used to make spicy stews and tacos.
There's no difference in keeping raw mutton as there is in any other meat. It needs to be fully wrapped and kept in the refrigerator if using within a week. If the mutton is earmarked for a later meal, seal it in an airtight container or bag, and freeze it. Once cooked, mutton can be stored in the refrigerator for about a week, or frozen for future eating.
Nutrition and Benefits of Mutton
Eat mutton when looking for a food that's high in protein, zinc, and iron. Mutton also contains phosphorus, vitamins B12 and B3, selenium, and taurine. It's lower in fat than beef, and comparable to lamb, which also comes from sheep.