The meat of a mature sheep is called mutton, and it's basically the same as lamb, though it can be slightly tougher, with a more pungent flavor, but still appetizing. In fact, mutton used to be a mainstay on menus across Europe and the United States. This lamb is a particularly good meat type for long and slow cooking and can stand up to strong spices. Mutton is still served frequently in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and India, and when cooked adequately it makes a wonderful meal.
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 fell out of favor in the early 20th century, with eaters choosing simpler, milder meats such as beefsteak and pork chops. However, the 21st century has seen a resurgence of interest in mutton. Available from chopped to ground to chuck, mutton has started to grace menus of fine dining and casual eateries alike.
Indian culinary tradition has many preparations featuring mutton, as it is a protein that fits the dietary needs 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 it can be cut into chunks and roasted on skewers.
How to Cook Mutton
Butchered like beef or lamb, mutton 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. A leg of mutton benefits from braising to keep the tougher meat moist. Slow-cooked mutton shoulder with chiles makes the perfect filling for tacos. Pressure-cooked brown chunks of mutton slowly simmered for curry are also a wonderful option. A classic Shepherd’s pie is always a great dish in which to use mutton.
Mutton must be tenderized first and shouldn't be used as is. 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, but in this case, the ground meat 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 gamier than lamb and does best cooked low and slow. Lamb, on the other hand, often gets prepared like beef and has a smooth, grassy flavor that showcases the place 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 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 common meat 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 between keeping raw mutton and 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.