Lamb by its nature is quite seasonal, although thanks to global markets it's now available throughout the year. A lamb is a sheep that is under one year old, and is known for its delicate flavour and tender flesh. Young lamb is slaughtered between 6 and 8 weeks - it is the palest of all lamb. Spring (also called early or summer lamb) is 3 to 5 months old. Lamb between 1 and 2 years is called 'hoggart' - it has a stronger flavour and slightly less tender flesh; anything over 2 years is called mutton, which has much more flavour - but also a tougher flesh that needs slow-cooking to tenderise it.
Lean and low in cholesterol, lamb is packed with essential nutrients for vitality. It is a good source of protein, minerals and B-group vitamins including niacin, thiamin and riboflavin. It also provides 2 times more iron than chicken or pork and 6 times more than fish.
How to select
- Always buy lamb from a reputable source, a good supermarket, local butcher or farmers' market.
- Choose your cut of lamb depending on how you want to cook it. For roasts, the best cuts include leg, and rack of lamb, shoulder and rump. For quick cooking, choose fillet, chump chops, loin chops, leg steaks, cutlets and butterflied leg. For slow cooking, leg, shoulder, shank, neck and chump chops are among the best options.
- Look for lean cuts with firm, fine-grained meat and creamy-white fat. Any fat should be white as yellow fat might be rancid.
- The flesh should be moist, rather than dry or slimy.
- Properly hung lamb should be deep red, rather than bright. Very young lamb will be paler than older lamb.
- Check packages for tears, damage or broken seals. Packaging should not be frozen or show signs of ice.
- Tip: Lamb is also available minced, good for pies and burgers, and as lamb offal, (kidneys, liver, heart and the sweetbreads) which is quick to cook, cheap and nutritious.
How to store
Fresh lamb should be stored in the refrigerator or frozen immediately after purchasing. Place the lamb at the bottom of the fridge (the coldest part of the fridge) on a dish that is large enough to contain any drips. Make sure the lamb is not touching or near cooked meats and other ready-to-eat foods or food to be eaten raw. If the meat is in a cling-filmed tray or vacuum-packed, leave it in the packaging until ready for use. Ensure that the fridge maintains a temperature below 4 degrees Celsius. Lamb will keep for about three to five days in the fridge.
Quickly freezing lamb reduces the chance of damage to the texture or succulence of the meat. For ease of use, freeze cuts tightly wrapped in individual portions. Freeze in meal size portions to ensure only the amount needed is defrosted. Use good quality, strong plastic bags and good quality foil to protect meat. Expel as much air as possible. Secure with tape for an effective seal. Each package should carry a label showing name of cut, weight or amount and date of packaging. Don't freeze lamb for more than 6 months.
How to defrost
Place lamb on a plate and store at the bottom of the fridge. Once thawed, it can safely stay in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days.
- Before defrosting meat, remove the freezer bag or wrap to prevent meat sitting in ‘drip’, which will otherwise boil as the meat defrosts causing meat to go grey and begin to stew.
- Remove meat from Styrofoam tray, as they are not microwave safe.
- Most microwaves come with a pre-programmed ‘defrost’ setting. Refer to your user manual for its preferred setting and timing
- Check the meat throughout the defrosting time. As outer portions of lamb mince thaw, remove them from the package. If the edges of meat feel warm, stop microwaving and allow meat to stand for a few minutes or until edges are cold again.
- After defrosting the meat it must be cooked right away. Don’t leave it to stand for any length of time at room temperature or in the fridge.
- Forequarter: From the front of the lamb, this cut is ideal for slow cooking. Chops can also be pan fried or barbecued for a great value meal.
- Rack/Cutlets: Very tender meat. Can be a full rack or cut into single cutlets. A frenched rack is trimmed of fat at the bone, and whilst more expensive, it looks very impressive.
- Loin: A large area that provides numerous cuts of tender meat including loin chops, sirloin and fillet steak.
- Chump: Great value for money, provides both chump chops and rump steak.
- Leg: The leg of lamb comes from the hindquarter. It may be a whole leg with sirloin attached, partly boned or a centre cut roast. Also available in a leg steak, which is a lean option.
- Neck: Available in chops or whole, this cut is full of flavour and used for slow cooking. Available with the bone in, boned, portioned or whole.
- Shoulder: The shoulder of the lamb is often used for stewing, casseroles or rolled for roasting.