Food Republic’s column Ask Your Butcher seeks to answer FAQs in the world of butchery. Ethically minded butcher Bryan Mayer has opened butcher shops and restaurants and has trained butchers in the U.S. and abroad. He helped develop the renowned butcher-training program at Fleisher’s. Today, he consults with farmers, butchers, chefs and anyone else who will listen. In each column, Mayer tackles a pressing issue facing both meat buyers and home cooks. This week, he discusses techniques for cooking lamb.
I think at this point in our whole-animal cookery/butchery adventure, we’re ready to move on from chicken. You’ve cooked whole, spatchcocked, parted and made stock — you’re all set. Now, it’s time for lamb. And with Greek Easter around the corner, is there a better time to impress friends and family with a whole roasted lamb?
And never mind with all that “lamb is gamey” nonsense. In my opinion, that has more to do with breed/genetics than with an overall indictment of a species. And as we all know, taste is subjective. If you’re still not sold, look for breeds like Katahdin, Tunis and their crosses, which have a milder flavor. You can also try trimming off some of the fat, although if you’re buying pastured, grass-fed lamb (which I hope you are), it will have an excellent fat-to-meat ratio that doesn’t need trimming, unlike sheep that are fed a more conventional grain diet. This is all to say, embrace the taste of lamb! We celebrate pork for its porkiness and beef for its beefiness, so let’s appreciate lamb for what it is. Call your butcher, order a whole lamb and give one of these methods a shot.
This Argentinian style of cooking either cuts or, in our case, a whole animal is grilling in its purest form. Fire, grill, meat. We’ll eschew the grill (a parilla) and use the much more intimidating asadores. This setup has got to be the most impressive way to cook a whole animal. My first introduction to it was years ago at a barbecue in California, where everything from rabbits to sides of beef were cooked in this style. I even had a customer who decided he was going to cook a pig like this in his Brooklyn backyard, disregarding my advice and resulting in a visit from FDNY. So if you plan on cooking this way, make sure you have plenty of room and maybe check in with your local fire department. If you’re handy or know someone who’s good with metal, you’re in luck because asado spits aren’t cheap. Be prepared to shell out some cash. I’ve seen them go for as low as $300 but they can get up to the thousands-of-dollars range.
Now that you’ve got the grill, it’s time for the lamb. I recommend calling your butcher ahead of time because you’ll need a lamb on the smaller side, and something around 40 pounds is not always the easiest to get. Then again, if you’re going the route of looking for a specific breed, Katahdins are a bit smaller framed — just don’t go looking to score a whole lamb this weekend. The ease of this cooking style (once you’re set up) cannot be matched. You’ve got your crosses. Ignite your wood. Season your lamb a bit with a saltwater brine (making sure to get inside the cavity) and a few aromatics and allow the wood to do the flavoring. You’ll need a good amount of time, probably about six to seven hours. But since the lamb is young and small, you’ll only need to take it to about 170°F internal temperature. This is an all-day event, so hunker down and fill the cooler.
A few hot tips: Have your butcher saw down the spine of the animal, which will make it possible to splay the carcass open and tie the legs to the cross. And on that note, a piece of plywood makes for a great work surface for tying to the cross (and an excellent backyard butcher block after you clean it thoroughly). As for cooking, you’ll want to flip your cross around the final hour in order to make sure the skin side cooks evenly with the bone side. Feel free to baste a few times during the cooking process with your saltwater. And of course, let it rest!
Okay, so maybe the idea of open flames and animals roasting on crosses in your backyard is a bit too Mad Max for you (and, quite possibly, for your neighbors). We can tone it down a bit. A nice, self-contained spit roast is just what you need. Again, you can fabricate your own or go the store-bought route. I’ve seen them for around $300 to $400. I’d splurge and go for the motorized type, unless you’ve got a good crew of friends that doesn’t mind rotating a lamb for a few hours. And some of them are even tabletop models, which add a bit of refinement and are sure to make your neighbors less likely to call the police.
You won’t need too much help from your butcher on this one. Maybe you’ll want the head removed, but most of the work is on you. You can use charcoal, wood, or what I prefer — a mix of both. You’ll want to get that started before you begin prepping your lamb. Take a couple of lemons and some olive oil, brush the inside and the outside of the carcass and then season liberally with salt, pepper, oregano and rosemary. You’ll want to secure the lamb on the spit at this point. You can take it a step further and, using a paring knife, make small incisions in the skin and stuff garlic slivers every few inches or so to add flavor.
How about one more step further? Stuff the cavity with the lemon rinds, more herbs and some bread slices. Bread slices? Yeah, because we’re going to pour red wine over them, which will allow for some steaming from the inside! All that’s left is to suture the cavity and you’re ready to cook. Keep a bowl of olive oil and lemon juice handy as you’ll want to baste every half hour or so. Depending on the size of your lamb, it’ll probably take a good five to six hours to cook — again, we’re looking for 170°F internal temp. Let it rest and then carve.
Oven-Roasted Whole Lamb
Not too keen on a lamb carcass splayed or spinning in your yard? Well, depending on the size of your oven, you’re in luck. Oven-roasting a whole lamb, like roasting a whole chicken or pig, is about as easy as it gets. And unless you’ve just purchased a tiny house, your oven can probably handle it. But seriously, if you do have a tiny house, are you really hosting large dinner parties? It’s kind of like buying a two-seater sports car — nobody’s asking you to take them shopping at Ikea. And nobody’s coming over for Thanksgiving. I digress.
You’ll want to get the smallest lamb possible here — 40 pounds, or even smaller if you can. You’ll need a high-sided roasting pan and some butcher twine and that’s about it. It’ll probably take a bit of wrangling to get that lamb into your oven. You might even need your butcher to remove the head and the neck. No worries, as you can and should roast them later. We’ll keep things simple this time, with a lemon-and-olive-oil rub on the inside and salt, pepper, rosemary and oregano on the outside. Get your oven to about 250°F and roast for around four to five hours. We’re looking for an internal temp of 160°F. When it’s done, you’ll want to let it rest for about 20 to 30 minutes.
And here’s another hottip: Unlike asado or spit roasting, you’re not really going to get a whole lot of char on the meat, as you’re not cooking over a flame. So after your lamb has rested, crank your oven up to 500°F and sear the fat for a good ten minutes or so, making sure not to burn it.
Now, you’re ready to sip ouzo and enjoy some mezethes! Opa!