A leg of lamb is one of the perennial British roasts, but there is much more to a lamb than the hind leg (obviously, because otherwise every lamb you saw would be hopping around the countryside…), so why not be adventurous and try a different cut every now and then?
Some of the cheaper bits are extraordinarily cheap and absolutely bursting with flavour. Nor do you have to stick with lamb: hogget tastes even better and is probably even cheaper if you can find it.
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The different cuts of lamb
The tenderest cuts include the cutlets (taken from the ribs) and the loin, which can be served as chops or a roasting joint called a saddle.
The leg is also reasonably tender and can be served pink, while the cheaper cuts such as the neck, shank and shoulder taste fantastic but do need cooking for a long, long time to make them melt-in-the-mouth tender. It’s a slower process than grilling or roasting but it is absolutely worth it if you’re after the best possible flavour.
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Cooking the different cuts
Lamb is perfectly safe to serve pink, which equates to around 50°-60°C after resting (or 48°-52°C straight out of the oven as it will continue to cook as it rests) but the cheapest cuts will be almost inedible if you cook them like this.
The very best way to cook a lamb shoulder, for example, is to wrap it in tin foil and cook for four hours or more at 170°C until it can be shredded with a fork. Serve with gravy and the usual accompaniments.
Cuts like neck, shank or breast (which is actually the belly of the lamb) need liquid to keep them moist and to stop them drying out, so they make the ideal evening meal that ticks over in a slow cooker or a low oven for the whole day while you do something else.
Just add your liquid of choice plus a couple of bay leaves, a carrot or two and a roughly chopped onion. It’ll simmer all day and the connective tissues will dissolve and help create a rich, gelatinous gravy. All you need to then do is to take the meat out and keep it warm while you whizz the cooking liquor (don’t forget to fish the bay leaves out) and veg through a food processor. Season to taste and if the gravy is a bit thin you can thicken it with a couple of teaspoons of cornflour dissolved in half-a-cup of water.
As ever, a really sharp knife makes the job simpler but leaving a roasted joint to rest for half-an-hour helps the juices redistribute and the meat to firm up a little, which also helps.
Cutting across the grain makes the meat fall apart in the mouth and is worth considering when you’re serving a leg that is still pink in the middle.
Lamb, hogget and mutton: what's the difference?
Lamb is the term used for the meat of a sheep that has been killed before it is one year old (most lamb is killed in the UK at about six months old), while ‘hogget’ is the term that is used for an animal that was between one and two years of age at the point of slaughter. Mutton is the meat from a sheep aged two years or more.
The older the sheep the stronger the taste and the longer it’ll need to be cooked for, but a well-cooked hogget shoulder is a thing of joy.
Flavourings that go with lamb
While mint is the traditional accompaniment to lamb, redcurrant jelly also works well, especially when you stir a teaspoonful through the gravy.
Lamb also benefits from being cooked with herbs; one of our favourites is to bed it down on a couple of handfuls of rosemary. The meat juices flow down into the herb and season the meat and gravy at the same time. I then add a glass of red wine to the juices and boil them down while the meat is resting, straining it into the gravy boat before serving.
Or you could slow roast your lamb on a bed of hay, which children love to help with. Any pet shop will sell you a small bag of hay for a pound or so and all you have to do is to spread it on the bottom of a large roasting tray, and then rest the lamb on top. Make a tightly fitting ‘tent’ of tin foil over the whole thing and then do the same again so you have a double layer to keep all the steam and meat juices in. Roast at 170°C or so until the meat is tender, which might be five or even six hours for a thick, heavy piece of meat.
Lamb is one of the great seasonal treats, and living in North Wales we are spoiled for choice, but as my brother-in-law is a sheep farmer there is no prize for guessing who fills our freezer!
Having lived throughout the United Kingdom, I’ve tasted a lot of regional lamb but nothing beats meat that’s been reared on the local mountains, where the sheep are free to roam throughout the spring and summer grazing freely on wild herbs and fresh heather shoots as well as the lush grass.
A whole lamb, with the individual joints wrapped and labelled, costs us about £100. We buy two, as they’re a bit smaller than the lambs that’re reared in lowland areas, and they last us for the year.
The salt marsh lamb I used to eat in Norfolk was pretty good too and I’ll bet that your regional lamb tastes far, far better than anything that has been imported from New Zealand. By buying local lamb – preferably from a farmers’ market or a local food assembly – you’ll also be putting money into the farmer’s pocket rather than that of an anonymous corporation. And trust me, few British farmers are getting rich by selling lamb.
The Shepherd’s Life; a Tale of The Lake District by James Rebanks is a beautifully written account of how and why shepherds do what they do. If you’re on Twitter he’s there as @herdyshepherd1, as is his North Walian colleague @1GarethWynJones. Both are well worth following if you have the slightest interest in the countryside and the people that live and work there.
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