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When’s the last time you cooked lamb? The 42 Burners crew is used to playing with all kinds of cuts in the test kitchen, but a recent visit from the American Lamb Board reminded the food editors just how underrated the meat still is in the U.S. On tap to represent Team Lamb was Don and Carolyn Watson, the owners (and shepherds!) of Napa Valley Lamb. A small family-owned company, they produce two to three thousand lambs per year that mostly go to top restaurants in the Bay Area, including Quince and Manresa.
Don took the test kitchen through the five major cuts of lamb: shoulder, rack, loin, leg, and breast/foreshank. The top-selling cuts in the U.S., in order of popularity, are shoulder, loin, and rack. “The most creative chefs want shoulder because it’s laced with fat and has different muscle groups, so they can make something really nuanced out of it,” says Don. He also highlighted a new cut that’s been gaining steam at the grocery store: sirloin chops, which are cut from the lamb leg. The portions are more convenient (a whole leg serves six to eight, whereas a package of sirloin chops serves two to three), and they’re super versatile—the chops can be roasted, grilled, slow-cooked, or turned into kebabs.
The food editors commented on how lighter-hued all the meat was, which Don explained indicates the age of the lamb. A rose-colored product denotes that the lamb was milk-fed and hasn’t been out on the pasture for a year. Once a lamb consumes enough grass, and thus iron out of the soil, it yields a garnet-red product. Don whipped up a quick marinade for the meat in the blender with a bunch of California rosemary he brought, plus a handful of test kitchen pantry staples: lemon, garlic, red wine, olive oil, and salt and pepper. After a quick turn in a hot cast-iron skillet, the team got to taste the milk-fed lamb, which everyone agreed was milder and more tender.
The 42 Burners crew was also surprised to learn that lamb is raised in every U.S. state, even Hawaii. Texas, California, Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota are the top producers. There are 85,000 family farmers and ranchers caring for more than 6 million sheep throughout the country, but they’re still producing a relatively small amount of meat. That’s why the lamb you often see at the supermarket is from New Zealand or Australia—60 percent of the lamb consumed in the U.S. is imported. Fortunately, the American lamb industry is growing, especially in the Midwest and East, where more farmers and ranchers are becoming direct marketers, which means they maintain ownership of their land and sell directly to farmers’ markets and chefs.
Once you get your hands on some local American lamb, what to do with it? Deputy food editor Greg Lofts has all kinds of ideas. Since it’s summer, start by firing up the grill and whipping up lamb burgers, kofta kebabs, or date-glazed lamb chops. Or splurge on a whole leg of lamb, which Greg says “is always a showstopper, whether you do a roulade or simply roast it. It’s this big beautiful thing that’s easier to prepare and carve than it looks.” Once the weather starts to turn, Greg recommends Scotch broth, lamb curry, or slow-cooker Persian lamb stew—the meat lends itself well to all kinds of cozy, comforting applications.