Grill smoke marries well with the assertive, slightly gamy character of good lamb. A staple in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries, lamb is often embellished with flavorings such as garlic, oregano, mint, mustard, cumin and paprika. When grilling lamb, the bolder the seasonings, the better the results.
Some people mistakenly believe that lamb has a strong smell and taste, qualities found in mutton, the mature cousin of young lamb. But you don't see much mutton in butcher shops or grocery stores these days. Instead, you will find young lamb with a unique, mild, slightly sweet flavor that pairs well with a variety of seasonings, from simple fresh herb pastes and marinades to complex exotic spice mixtures.
Cuts of Lamb for Grilling
If you purchase your meats from a supermarket, pass up the prepackaged meats and ask the butcher to cut it for your fresh. Tender, juicy and easy to cook, grill-roasted lamb racks hold their own with rich sauces and fruit garnishes.
Shopping for Lamb
Full racks of lamb consist of eight ribs, but you can also find half racks of four ribs each. A good butcher will "french" the lamb rack for you, which means he or she will remove the flap of fat and meat surrounding the eye of the roast and to clean the ends of the rib bones. You can also do this yourself (scroll to the bottom of this page for tips). Frenching the meat makes a more attractive restaurant-style presentation.
A versatile cut of meat, lamb legs can be found both bone-in and boneless. A half-leg of bone-in lamb is a manageable cut of meat for cooking on the grill over indirect heat or roasting on a rotisserie spit. Boneless legs of lamb should be butterflied for even grilling. Ask the butcher to bone and butterfly the leg for you, as it can be a complicated process.
Whether from the loin or the rib, lamb chops are usually found on the bone. Loin chops are considered by many to be more flavorful than rib chops because they contain more internal fat (marbling). Less expensive cuts of lamb can be used for kabobs, which are usually marinated in a bold mixture that tenderizes them before grilling. The best cuts for kabobs are from the sirloin, shoulder or leg; more expensive, tender cuts from the rib and loin can become mushy when marinated.
For the tastiest results, pass up lamb that has already been cut into cubes; opt instead for a large piece of lamb and cut it yourself.
Most of the lamb available at the market comes from animals between five and twelve months of age. Lamb labeled as "spring lamb" is not necessarily an indication of quality, as lamb is now successfully raised year-round. Choose lamb that is light red and finely textured; meat that is purplish or has dark spots could indicate that the lamb is old and has an undesirable flavor. If the lamb has bones, be sure that they are reddish and moist. When you smell the meat, you should detect no off odors. The fat should be creamy white, smooth and well trimmed. Unlike beef, the tenderness of lamb does not rely on its marbling (streaks of internal fat), although lamb cuts with a generous amount of internal fat will be extra flavorful and juicy.
Avoid lamb with dark purple spots, dry, white bones, rough, yellowing fat and a strong odor. As for any type of meat, it is wise to foster a relationship with a reputable, high-volume butcher to ensure consistently high-quality products.
Preparing Lamb for Grilling
For even cooking over direct heat, very large lamb cuts, such as the leg, must be boned and butterflied before grilling. Ask your butcher to do this for you. Bone-in leg of lamb can be cooked over indirect heat or roasted on a rotisserie spit. Trim off as much of the external fat from lamb as possible, as it can taste and smell unpleasant when charred.
Be lavish with exotic seasonings and bold herbs and spices, such as rosemary, oregano, garlic, cumin and mustard, which stand up well to the earthy, slightly gamy flavor of lamb. Salting lamb generously before grilling brings out its natural flavors and nicely sets off marinades and seasonings.
Be sure to serve lamb while it is still hot, as lamb fat is unappealing when cold. It's a good idea to warm plates or platters to ensure that the lamb stays warm and palatable throughout the meal.
Testing Lamb for Doneness
For the best flavor, cook lamb to no more than medium. Use a visual cue (cut into the thickest part and check the color) or an instant-read thermometer, following these guidelines:
Rare lamb is red at the center (125° - 130°F or 49° - 54°C).
Medium-rare lamb is pinkish red (130°F or 54°C).
Medium lamb has a trace of pink (140°F or 60°C).
Medium-well lamb has no pink at all (160°F or 74°C).
Well-done lamb is grayish brown (150°F or 65°C and higher).
All lamb should sit for 3 to 15 minutes after grilling to allow the juices to redistribute throughout the meat, thus ensuring juiciness and full flavor. The internal temperature could rise 5° to 10°F (3° to 6°C) as the meat sits. Keep this in mind and remove lamb from the grill when it is some degrees shy of the desired temperature. Remember to keep the lamb warm at all times for the finest flavor and texture and to serve it on warmed plates as soon as possible after the lamb is cooked.
Frenching Rib Meat Bones
To "French" simply means to trim away excess fat from between the rib bones of a rack of lamb from the outer 2 or 3 inches of the ribs. Follow these steps:
- After trimming most of the external fat from the lamb rack, insert a sharp boning knife into the meat and tissue on each side of the bones to mark what should be cut away.
- Use the boning knife or your fingers to cut 2 to 3 inches of the meat and tissue from your mark to the ends of the rib bones. In some cases it may be easier to use your fingers instead of the knife.
- Using the blunt back edge of the knife, scrape off any remaining meat or tissue, leaving the bones clean. You also can use a clean kitchen towel to rub free any remaining meat or tissue.
Adapted from Williams Sonoma Essentials of Grilling, Denis Kelly, Melanie Barnard, Barbara Grunes & Michael McLaughlin, (Oxmoor House, 2006).