Every year, about 108 billion pounds of food goes to waste — that’s nearly 40% of all food in the United States! One contributing factor is the limited selection of meat cuts consumed by the average person. Ground beef, chicken breast, and bacon are among the most popular cuts found in grocery stores, and few people venture into the wonderful variety of options beyond that.
Nose-to-tail cooking involves preparing and consuming every edible part of an animal, rather than discarding all but a small portion. The process is ethical and respectful to the life of the animal. Making use of every cut available contributes to a more sustainable food system, while introducing us to new flavors and expanding our culinary knowledge. For us at Central Grazing Company, cooking all lamb cuts is in line with our values of producing meat in a way that respects and benefits the planet.
Lamb meat is from sheep that are 6 to 12 months old. Mutton is meat from a sheep that is over a year old– more than likely a sheep that is 3 years old.
Lamb has five primals: the shoulder, shank, breast, rack, loin, and leg:
The lamb shoulder includes the upper portion of the front leg and the shoulder blade as well as the neck.
The lamb breast is a cut from the belly that is good for beginners and renders a lot of fat during cooking.
The lamb rack is taken from the ribs of the lamb; the ribs can be separated to cook as individual chops or cooked as a whole rack.
The lamb loin is portioned from the short loin that sits toward the back of the lamb, between the leg and the rack.
The lamb leg is the largest cut from the upper thigh of the lamb above the shank. The boneless rump sits at the top of the leg, between the leg and the loin.
The lamb shank is a cut taken from the lower part of the back legs that contain a lot of collagen.
The three most common methods of cooking lamb are grilling, roasting, and braising. Grilling (or barbecuing) is a great cooking method for lamb chops and burgers. Braising involves browning the meat before covering and cooking slowly with a little liquid on the stove or in the oven. Oven roasting is best for tougher cuts like shoulder. Many lamb cuts are often cooked with woody herbs, such as rosemary and thyme, and generously seasoned with garlic and salt. Mint and wine are often incorporated into lamb recipes.
Ultimately, how you choose to prepare most lamb cuts will depend on your preferred level of doneness, which can be determined with the cooking temperature chart below:
The shoulder is a larger cut from the top front of the leg which means it is also a hardworking part of the lamb. Being a leaner, hardworking area of the animal, the shoulder is ideal for braised roasts; the chops cut from the shoulder can be cooked quickly or seared. Lamb shoulder is best cooked bone-in to help tenderize the meat to impart flavor. Lamb shoulder is a go-to crowd pleaser!
Perhaps the most underappreciated — and least expensive — cut of lamb, the neck fillet takes slightly longer to cook but is full of flavor. Typically attached to the shoulder, butchers should be happy to separate the neck if asked and if available. Lamb neck should be cooked slowly, best as a braise or stew, to ensure the meat is tender. You can also cut lamb neck into smaller chunks and sear them until brown before using in stews and curries.
Lamb breast is an inexpensive cut that must be cooked correctly to not become tough. Lamb breast is an often long, flat cut that is best marinated before being roasted.
The lamb rack is a less fatty cut, making it more delicate yet tender. The rack could be prepared and cooked whole or separated into individual rib chops. This cut can also be prepared as a Frenched rack, meaning the bones are scraped clean (as shown in the photo), which makes for an impressive presentation. The rack requires less robust seasoning to not overpower the dish. Lightly score the fat on the rack and pan-sear until golden brown on each side before finishing in the oven, or make a simple garlic marinade and roast the racks. Or, try this honey-marinated preparation for rib chops.
Lamb loin chops are deliciously tender when prepared properly. With careful cooking over high heat on a grill, lamb loin chops are great cuts for the barbecue, with a garlicky herb marinade and a generous amount of salt.
The lamb loin also can be kept whole and prepared similarly to a beef roast — like in this honey-marinated lamb loin roast recipe.
Also referred to as the “chump,” rump comes from the backside of the lamb where the top of the leg meets the loin. The rump is a lean cut with a layer of fat that keeps the meat juicy. Crusting the cut in herbs is an optimal way to retain its moisture. For a fun preparation: Roll the rump in a mix of woody herbs like rosemary or thyme with garlic and breadcrumbs before roasting 15 to 20 minutes (until desired doneness temperature is reached) to form a crust. Let it rest for 10 minutes before serving.
Lamb shank comes from the lower end of the lamb leg. Lamb shanks are a simple and affordable cut that goes a long way. With a bone located through its center that gives the cut lots of flavor, lamb shank is excellent for slow cooking. Shanks require low and slow cooking to achieve tender meat that falls off the bone. Lamb shanks can also be prepared osso buco style, which means the shank is cross-cut.
Try searing lamb shanks in a pan before adding to a curry and cooking low and slow with this curried lamb shank recipe served with yucca.
One of the more popular cuts of lamb, the dark meat of bone-in leg is popular on account of the meat and bone ratio. This delicious cut melts in the mouth and is full of flavor. Keep it simple: Roast your bone-in leg whole with garlic and rosemary — or try a sweetly spiced marinade before oven roasting.
Ground lamb is produced by grinding cuts, such as breast or shoulder. Ground lamb can be used as a healthier substitute for ground beef. When cooking with ground lamb, aim for an 80/20 ratio of lean meat to fat when preparing dishes like meatballs, “lamburgers,” or even as a twist on a classic chili recipe.