Lamb is one of those foods that people seem to love or hate – no middle ground. Folks in the “hate it” camp were typically traumatized somewhere in their formative years with an overwhelmingly pungent bite of lamb, and they’ve never looked back. Isn’t that true of many foods we think we can’t stand until we’re exposed later in life, by stroke of good fortune, to their better versions? Brussels sprouts and beets come to mind… but, today we’re talking lamb, and it definitely deserves a second chance.
The gamiest and most pungent lamb meat is not actually lamb at all, but rather mutton. Mutton is meat from an adult sheep, more than one year old. While mutton is featured in cuisines around the world, for example in English, Indian or Middle Eastern cooking, it’s rarely sold in the U.S. anymore. Most lamb sold in the United States is truly “lamb”, meat from an animal that is less than one year old. This younger meat is milder in taste, high in nutrients and unsaturated fat, and very tender. Spring lamb is a somewhat obsolete term that originally described young, tender lamb, aged between three – five months old, typically only available during spring months. With modern animal husbandry practices, however, young, tender lamb is available year round.
Most lamb sold in the United States is from the United States, or imported from Australia and New Zealand. American lamb is considered milder than imported lamb, and the cuts are larger – so, an American leg of lamb will be larger than an Australian or New Zealand leg of lamb. These taste and size differences are due to variations in breeds, feed and age of the animal at harvest. Whether purchasing lamb from America, Australia or New Zealand, look for light red meat with fat that is creamy white. Buy fresh when possible, and use weight as your guide for quantity since cuts vary in size. American, Australian and New Zealand lamb is all considered top quality meat.
With the traditional association of mild, tender lamb with springtime, it’s easy to understand why lamb became an Easter feast favorite. Combined with woody herbs like rosemary and thyme, aromatics like garlic, and other seasonings like fragrant olive oil, Dijon mustard and lemon zest, it’s even easier to understand why lamb is a feast any time of the year.