How to cook the best lamb
Kiwis love eating lamb but when it comes to cooking it a lot of us are a bit more apprehensive. We've got all the tips, timings and recipes you need to learn to cook New Zealand lamb to perfection, whether it's a Sunday roast, barbecue, or slow-cooked tagine.
New Zealand lamb is coveted around the world for its rich taste, tenderness, and the fact that it is ethically sourced. It also has the benefit of combining well with spices and other highly flavoured ingredients. In New Zealand, lamb is closely associated with roasting at Easter in roasts and stews or for quick-cooking as chops, but it’s a versatile meat with lots of different cuts suited to different cooking methods.
Tougher cuts are ideal for slow-cooking and make great braises and stews while prime cuts can be quick-cooked, barbecued or roasted and are best eaten pink. For those looking for something a little different, Lamb also comes conveniently minced which makes it a great alternative to beef in burgers and kebabs, as well as for cooking that most traditional of lamb dishes, shepherd’s pie.
Know your cuts
Understanding methods for cooking New Zealand lamb is crucial to ensure you get the most out of your meat. This section takes you through the different cuts and highlights which cooking methods are best suited to each.
Lamb backstrap is a premium cut that comes from the back of the animal near the spine, trimmed from the middle of the loin. This cut has a slightly milder flavour than a leg of lamb and is free from fat, gristle and bone. In contrast to other cuts of lamb, backstrap is wonderfully lean and meaty, meaning that an individual portion goes a long way. Because of its low fat content, it is important to watch the cooking time to optimise results.
This flavourful, ample cut consists of nicely marbled meat that has a pronounced sweetness. This fatty cut can be left whole on the bone, or boned then rolled into a roasting joint. It can be traditionally roasted but is best slow-roasted, pot-roasted or braised with liquid until practically falling apart. Shoulder can also be diced for stewing, or cut into shoulder chops. A pre-sliced roast is convenient, but it tends to dry out in the oven.
A boneless fillet of meat that is ideally quickly pan-fried or roasted then sliced. A single neck fillet serves two.
This great looking cut is tender and loaded with flavour. A trimmed rack of six or eight ribs can either be roasted whole and carved, or cut into chops from raw and then quick-cooked. The lamb rack is the most tender, lean meat when trimmed of exterior fat needing only a brief oven roast, best served medium rare. Traditional lamb rack has an exterior fat cover, whilst modern rack has all the fat cover removed. Frenched rack has rib bones trimmed and cleaned of meat down close to the meaty eye of the loin.
The saddle is two racks of lamb still attached normally, boned, stuffed, rolled and tied into a prime roasting joint that feeds six people.
Taken from the hindquarter, the silverside is a small, roughly 400g cut with very little marbling of fat and a wide grained texture. This is a premium lean cut of meat and is perfect for steaks and a quick roast.
A relatively small cut from the top of the leg with no bone and little fat, making it a lean and convenient mini-roast for a midweek meal or those short on time.
Also called a cannon or loin, this is the eye of the meat from the rack and is like the lamb equivalent of beef fillet. Delicate in flavour, the fillet suits gentle quick, dry cooking methods to retain its juiciness. It’s a very lean, neat piece of meat that should be quick-cooked and served rare.
A very fatty inexpensive cut that’s often minced. Whole, it needs to be slow-cooked until tender and can be cooked on the bone, or boned and rolled.
This inexpensive cut, when cooked correctly, is an ideal and economical cut that can yield a flavoursome roast. The flap (also known as lamb ribs or belly) is prepared from the chest area. The meat is relatively tough requiring long slow cooking. Traditionally it is deboned, stuffed, rolled and tied for a delicious roast where most of the fat can render and drip away.
Sometimes referred to as mini roasts, this versatile cut offers an acceissble alternative to a lamb leg roast. This is a boneless square of meat from the top of the leg. The rump can be thickly sliced into boneless rump chops, or kept whole then roasted, or barbecued and carved. When roasted and rested, it is very tender with a lot of flavour. There is a layer of fat and skin on the top which crisps up beautifully when cooked. This can be removed before or after cooking. A whole rump will serve two to three people and is best served pink.
Shanks are from the bottom section of the leg just below the lower leg joint. They are a popular ingredient during winter due to their fabulous texture and rich flavour. Easy to prepare, they simply need slow, gentle cooking to release their full potential. They can be 'French trimmed' which is where a small piece of meat is removed from the bone to make the shank look more appealing.
This is a plump, boneless cut with a medium tender, lean, fine grain. To achieve maximum flavour and texture, the thick flank is best seared then roasted. The whole thick flank forms a neat shape to cut across the grain into steaks making it a more versatile cut that can be used for an excellent small roast or sliced to make neat schnitzels.
Lamb mince makes a great alternative to beef in burgers, meatballs and kebabs, and it is also the essential ingredient in a shepherd’s pie or certain curries.
Lamb schnitzel typically comes from the topside or thick flank. Thin slices cut across the grain of well trimmed, boned topside or thick flank, make neat portion-sized lamb schnitzels. It is a versatile and easy to cook option for a range of everyday meals.
The most versatile of all the cuts, the famous roast leg of lamb is a hero on the Kiwi dinner table. The cut is lean enough to serve pink and with enough fat to remain succulent when well-cooked. A whole leg of lamb on the bone is the iconic Sunday lamb roast, but legs can also be boned, stuffed and rolled to roast. Leg is the best cut to barbecue when it's boned and opened up (butterflied), cut into leg steaks, or diced for kebabs.
A popular cut, butterflied legs of lamb are versatile and obtains a robust meaty flavor. The main reason for opening, flattening and de-boning the leg is to cook faster. Because of its uneven thickness, it is a crowd-pleasing cut, with the thinner components being more textural and the thicker parts being tender and succulent, suiting all individual preferences.
Carvery leg of lamb is ideal when a smaller leg of lamb is required. The aitch bone has been removed leaving the shank bone in for presentation. It has been tied for ease when cooking and carving.
Lamb chops and steaks
Chops are quick to cook and easy to portion but they differ depending on which part of the lamb they come from.
Taken from the rack of lamb, these cuts are incredibly tender and loaded with flavour. These neat chops can come with a layer of fat surrounding the meat which extends to the bone, or they can be French-trimmed to expose the bone. Versatile and easy to cook, cutlets are tender and suit high temperature cooking methods such as pan fry or barbecue.
Cut from the saddle, these meaty chops have a T-shaped bone in the middle and as they're so thick, the meat is quickly roasted. However, due to the fat interspersed within the lean component, loin chops require longer cooking to bring out the flavour and tenderness. When cooked quickly on the grill, they will develop a caramelized crust and have a pink, juicy centre.
A boneless slice of the rump, these are very good value and can be pan-fried or barbecued like a steak.
Often overlooked, shoulder chops are a versatile cut which are typically thinner than other cuts of lamb, meaning when pan fried or barbecued, an equally delicious outcome can be reached. Searing at a high heat allows the exterior to develop a golden crust adding flavour, texture and visual appeal. An excellent alternative to more costly pieces of lamb.
A cut which is often overlooked in the meat cabinet, neck chops are an absolute stunner when cooked long and slow resulting in delicate, tender, falvoursome meat which just falls off the bone.
A cross-section of the leg, these steaks can vary in size and normally have a piece of bone in the middle that the marrow can be eaten out of once cooked. Steaks from the rump end are more tender and suited for fast cooking options, while middle cuts are better suited for slow, moist cooking methods. Both, when cooked correctly, will result in rich flavoursome and tender lamb. A great steak to barbecue.
Know your terms
Here’s a breakdown of all the jargon that you might hear at your local butcher.
To open up and bone the whole leg of lamb so it’s a sheet of meat that cooks quicker and more evenly. A butterflied leg of lamb is normally barbecued but can be roasted.
When a rack of lamb has the bones exposed, neatly trimmed and cleaned of any fat or gristle.
This applies to a leg of lamb that’s been carefully part-boned to create a cavity that can be stuffed. When tied, a tunnel-boned leg of lamb keeps its original shape and is easy to carve.
Small incisions are made in the lamb flesh with the point of a small knife, then stuffed with flavour-enhancing ingredients like slithers of garlic and sprigs of rosemary.
Simple roast leg of lamb recipe
This is one of our favourite recipes for roast leg of lamb. This recipe requires zero fuss as the oven does the hard work and is infused with flavours of garlic and thyme and topped with a creamy meat sauce. Click the image to get the recipe.
Ovens perform differently and barbecuing or pan-frying lamb will involve guesswork, unless you have a digital cooking thermometer. Here are the temperatures of the meat when probed with a cooking thermometer that you need to know to cook lamb to your liking:
50C – very rare
55C – medium rare
60C – medium (pink)
65C – medium well
72C – well done
Lamb is a delicious meat to barbecue, especially over coals when the fat and juices drop onto them and sizzle, creating smoke that flavours the meat. Minced lamb makes great burgers and koftas while individual chops and steaks can also be cooked quickly. A large ‘butterflied’ leg of lamb is the perfect barbecue option when catering for a crowd.
Any good butcher should be able to butterfly a leg of lamb for you, or watch our video on how to do it yourself:
Lamb is eaten globally and can be cooked with a wide variety of flavours. Here are some classic pairings:
Cooked with capers, rosemary and or thyme or served with mint sauce
Cooked with one or a combinations of garlic, olives, anchovies, lemon, basil
Cooked with one or a combinations of cinnamon, saffron, chilli, cumin
Cooked with one or a combinations of cinnamon turmeric, coriander, ginger, lime, cumin, curry paste, garam marsala, yogurt
Slow cooking in liquid transforms tougher cuts of lamb into fork-tender meat. Neck, shoulder and belly, either diced or as whole joints, are the best cuts for slow cooking and need to be cooked for at least 2 hrs at 150C to soften the meat. Lamb is slow-cooked all over the world from veg-packed British stews, Greek kleftiko, Southern-French daubes, North-African tagines and spicy Indian curries.