We often overlook lamb as a dinner choice in the United States, although it’s been a favorite of many other cultures for centuries. Instead, we tend to think of beef, pork, chicken, and sometimes fish. In fact, some of us can even be squeamish about eating lamb.
This red meat — richer in flavor than beef, and often more succulent, sweet, and tender — is gaining popularity among foodies, paleo types, and grassfed meat aficionados.
When the animals are raised on pastures and fed on grasses (which is more common than with beef or pork — but not always, so read labels), lamb offers a wealth of nutritional benefits.
The dishes here vary in complexity — from quick burgers to all-day roasts. Prepared with care, any of them can become the foundation of a healthy, hearty meal.
- Lamb is high in vitamin B12, which nourishes blood and aids both metabolism and mood. It’s also high in zinc, which is important for tissue repair and immune function.
- Lamb’s healthy fats, selenium, zinc, and B vitamins all promote a healthy heart.
- Our bodies don’t produce omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, so we need to get them from foods — in a healthy proportion. Most Americans take in too many omega-6 fatty acids, many of which are proinflammatory, and not enough omega-3s. Grassfed lamb, like nuts, seeds, and fish, is high in omega-3s.
- Conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, is an unusual omega-6: It helps improve inflammatory and immune responses. Grassfed lamb contains almost twice as much CLA as conventionally raised lamb.
- An unsaturated fat called palmitoleic acid in lamb has strong antimicrobial properties.
- Because (like apples, pears, and rice) lamb is considered a hypoallergenic food, it is often included as an option within elimination diets that restrict many other foods.
Shopping and Storage Tips
- Like its relatives, including bison, antelope, goats, and cattle, lamb is healthiest when raised on pasture grasses. To be sure you’re buying lamb raised in a natural (not confined) environment, look for the “100% grassfed” label (“organic” and “pasture-raised” don’t ensure this).
- Good lamb tends to be pricey. Plan to serve smaller portions and pair it with hearty sides.
- Buy lamb raised close to home to get the freshest meat and support your local economy. To find local farmers near you, try eatwild.com and localharvest.org.
- Lamb is highly perishable, so put it in the refrigerator immediately and keep it at cold temperatures. Eat lamb cuts within three to five days and ground lamb within two days.
- Cut lamb on a separate cutting board to prevent microbial contamination. Scrub the board afterward with a bleach or soap solution.
- The safest way to thaw lamb is to allow it to sit for 24 hours in the refrigerator. If you’re planning to cook it immediately, you can submerge it in a tightly sealed bag in cold water, draining after 30 minutes, and repeating until thawed.
- The USDA recommends cooking lamb roasts, steaks, and chops to a minimum internal temperature of 145 degrees F (medium rare), 160 degrees F (medium), or 170 degrees F (well done). Many chefs prefer to cook it to lower temperatures, however.
Easy to make and keep on hand in the freezer, gyros taste better when made a day ahead, and the loaf will slice better when chilled overnight. Serve with a cucumber yoghurt sauce and roasted spring potatoes, roasted cauliflower cous cous, or salad greens.
Makes eight to 10 servings | Preparation time 90 minutes, plus overnight chilling time
- 1 medium onion, minced
- 2 lbs. ground lamb
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tbs. dried oregano
- 2 tsp. dried rosemary leaves
- 2 tsp. ground cumin
- 2 tsp. dried thyme leaves
- 2 tsp. sea salt
- 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
- Roast the minced onion on a baking sheet for 10 to 15 minutes to brown a bit and remove excess moisture. Allow the onions to cool while you prepare the other ingredients.
- Blend all ingredients, including the roasted onions, together in a food processor until smooth. Work in smaller batches if the whole mixture doesn’t fit.
- Line a standard loaf pan with parchment paper, allowing the paper to come up over the edges of the pan.
- Spoon the mixture into the pan and press well to eliminate any air pockets; fold the parchment paper over the meat mixture.
- Set the loaf pan in a larger pan, and add enough hot water to reach halfway up the sides of the loaf pan, creating a bain-marie, or water bath. Bake the gyro loaf for 45 to 55 minutes, or until the temperature reads 165 degrees F in the center.
- When the loaf is fully cooked, remove it from the oven and allow the loaf to rest in the pan for 30 minutes. Using the parchment paper as handles, lift the loaf out of the pan, allowing the fat to drain off.
- Cool the loaf at room temperature for 30 minutes with a plate resting on top of it to press it gently.
- Wrap the loaf well and chill overnight. When the loaf is chilled, slice thinly. You can then sauté slices with onions and peppers and serve as you wish.
Pan-Seared Lamb Chops
Good-quality lamb needs little adornment. A simple drizzle of balsamic reduction and some fresh seasonal vegetables (like the spring combo below) are perfect. If your lamb chops are on the smaller size, or have significant bones, plan to serve more chops per person.
Makes four servings | Preparation time 20 minutes
- 1 tbs. olive oil
- 4 lamb chops (with or without bones)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 8 cipollini onions, or small red onions
- 1 large fennel bulb, cored and cut into 8 slices, fronds reserved for garnish
- 1 bunch radishes, cleaned and cut in half
- 1/4 cup chicken stock or water
- 3/4 cup balsamic vinegar, simmered to reduce to 1/2 cup
- Heat a heavy skillet over medium-high heat and add the olive oil.
- Season the lamb chops with salt and pepper and add to the hot pan.
- Sear the chops, about four to five minutes on each side. Remove the chops, cover with a sheet of aluminum foil, and set aside to rest while you prepare the vegetables and sauce.
- Add the vegetables to the hot pan and sauté for five minutes.
- Add the chicken stock or water to the pan, cover, and cook for another five minutes to braise.
- In a small saucepan, heat balsamic vinegar and simmer until it has reduced to 1/2 cup.
- Serve the chops and vegetables with a drizzle of the balsamic reduction. Garnish with the reserved fennel fronds.
Thai Lamb Stir-Fry
This zesty mixture is great over a bed of brown-rice noodles or brown rice. Update this dish through the year by using seasonal vegetables at their peak.
Makes four to six servings | Preparation time 30 minutes
- 2 tsp. sesame or sunflower oil
- 1 lb. lamb meat (leg or stew meat) cut into 1/2-x-1-inch slices
- 1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
- 2 tbs. minced gingerroot
- 2 to 3 tbs. Thai red curry paste
- 2 cups thinly sliced carrots (about 2 medium)
- 1 bunch asparagus, cut into 2-inch lengths
- 1 15-oz. can coconut milk
- 8 oz. brown-rice noodles, steamed brown rice, or roasted potatoes
- 1/2 cup fresh Thai basil, chopped
- 1/4 cup fresh mint, chopped
- 1 lime, cut into wedges
- Heat the sesame oil in a cast-iron skillet and add the lamb and onions. Sauté until the onions begin to caramelize.
- Add the gingerroot, curry paste, carrots, and asparagus. Sauté five minutes, then add the coconut milk.
- Simmer until the vegetables are al dente. Season with salt if needed.
- Spoon the stir-fry over brown-rice noodles, brown rice, or roasted potatoes.
- Top with chopped Thai basil and mint, and serve with lime wedges.
Provençal Roast Leg of Lamb
A roast leg of lamb doesn’t have to be an all-day process. If you’re time pressed, ask your butcher for a boneless leg, which requires a shorter roasting time and allows you to work the seasoning more thoroughly throughout the roast. Serve with a green salad.
Makes six to eight servings | Preparation time 2 hours
- 3 cloves garlic
- 5 leaves fresh sage
- 1/4 cup pitted niçoise or kalamata olives
- 1 tbs. capers
- 2 tbs. red-wine vinegar
- 2 tbs. olive oil, plus extra for the roasting pan
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 2 1/2 lbs. leg of lamb, boneless
- 4 cups grape tomatoes
- 1 cup thinly sliced red onions
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
- Blend garlic, sage, olives, capers, red-wine vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper together in a food processor until smooth.
- Rub the olive-caper paste all over the lamb leg and then tie with butcher’s string to hold it into a roast shape. Place in a roasting pan that you’ve drizzled with olive oil.
- Roast for 30 minutes, then add the tomatoes and sliced onions.
- Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees F and roast for another 60 to 90 minutes, or until the lamb registers 130 to 135 degrees F.
- Allow meat to rest for 15 to 20 minutes before slicing and serving.
Greek Lamb Burgers
For a different take on hamburgers, try this recipe that adds Greek flavors to the mix.
Makes six servings | Preparation time 15 minutes
- 1 lb. ground lamb
- 1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
- 2 tbs. minced Kalamata olives
- 2 tbs. minced sun-dried tomatoes
- 2 tbs. minced red onion
- 1/2 tsp. sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Mix together all the ingredients, form into patties, and sauté in a cast-iron pan, like you would regular hamburgers.
Versatile enough to serve with eggs or on pizza, this merguez sausage uses North African spices and is easy to make. It doesn’t even need to be stuffed into a casing: Simply form it into patties and cook.
Makes six to eight servings | Preparation time 15 minutes
- 1 lb. ground lamb
- 2 tbs. harissa sauce
- 1 tsp. smoked Spanish paprika
- 1 tsp. ground cumin
- 1 tsp. ground coriander
- 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp. turmeric
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 2 cloves garlic, minced or run through a garlic press
- Mix all ingredients together and chill overnight to allow the flavors to meld over night. If desired, shape into patties before cooking.
Lamb Curry Stew
This light and fragrant stew easily changes with the seasons. Simply use your favorite seasonal vegetables.
Makes six servings | Preparation time 45 minutes
- 1 tbs. ghee or coconut oil
- 1 lb. lamb stew meat, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 cup diced yellow onion (about 1 medium)
- 2 tbs. minced gingerroot
- 1 tsp. turmeric
- 1 tbs. garam masala
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 15-ounce oz. can diced tomatoes
- 4 cups chopped cauliflower
- 2 cups chopped collard greens
- 4 cups chicken stock
- 1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
- Chopped scallions (optional)
- Heat the ghee or coconut oil in a heavy 4-quart saucepan or Dutch oven.
- Sear the stew meat, then add the onion, ginger, and seasonings, and cook over medium-low heat for 10 minutes, until onion and lamb cubes are browned.
- Add the tomatoes, cauliflower, and collard greens, stirring to coat with seasonings, and cook for five minutes.
- Add the chicken stock, cover, and simmer for 15 to 25 minutes. When the lamb and vegetables are tender, check the seasonings, adding more salt and pepper if needed.
- Serve in bowls with chopped fresh cilantro and, if desired, chopped scallions.
Spicy Lamb Ribs
A terrific appetizer, this dish becomes a meal when served with a salad of shredded cabbage and pomegranate seeds. When purchasing the lamb ribs, ask your butcher to cut a couple racks of lamb for you, separating the bones from the top of the rack and the chops.
Makes six to eight appetizer servings | Preparation time 1 hour
- 2 tbs. sunflower-seed oil or other high-heat oil
- 1 lb. lamb ribs, cut into 2-rib pieces
- 2 tbs. sunflower seed oil or other high-heat oil
- 1 bunch scallions, cut into 1-inch pieces, green and white parts
- 6 shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, diced
- 1 tbs. minced gingerroot
- 3 cloves garlic, sliced thin
- 2 dried hot chilies
- 1/2 tsp. Chinese five-spice powder
- 6 tbs. tamari
- 1/4 cup maple syrup
- 1/4 cup mirin or sake
- Heat the oil in a large cast-iron skillet, wok, or Dutch oven over high heat.
- Sear the lamb ribs all over and then add the scallions, mushrooms, ginger, garlic, and hot chilies. Stir-fry the lamb ribs with the vegetables for five minutes.
- Combine the five-spice powder, tamari, maple syrup, and mirin, and add to the skillet. Stir to deglaze the pan, and then turn heat to low.
- Cover and let simmer for about 35 to 45 minutes, until meat is tender and falling off the bone.
- Transfer ribs to a serving platter, and skim off as much excess fat as you can from the sauce.
- Simmer the sauce, uncovered, for five more minutes to thicken a bit.
- Pour over the ribs and serve. Top with chopped fresh green onions if desired.