Americans love lamb, but they rarely prepare it at home. Perhaps because it is more expensive than many other red meats or because of its traditional reputation as a food reserved for holidays, Americans have left cooking lamb largely to the restaurant experts. It’s not surprising that 75 percent of white tablecloth restaurants feature some kind of lamb on the menu.
The lamb we love in restaurants comes from an animal that was domesticated 10,000 years ago as a source of food as well as wool for clothing. It is especially prized in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries, where it is eaten on festive occasions. In western cultures lambs were allowed to age at least one year and were butchered for mutton. The meat lacked the flavor and texture of today’s young lamb, so it was used most often in slow-cooking dishes, like the humble Irish stew, or combined with strong spices for curries. In the United States leg of lamb with mint jelly was a favorite around Easter but, more recently, Americans have raised their culinary expectations, and the finest restaurants are delivering in high style. Chefs have to know where to get lamb, understand how to keep it fresh, and how to calculate this slightly expensive meat into their food costs.
Today, lamb is grown all over the United States year-round from small cooperatives to the large ranches in the west. Nearly four million domestic lambs, raised on natural grasses and some seed, end up on the dinner table each year. The largest supply of meat comes from the animals born during the spring lambing season, which may be as early as January in the warm states of the southwest and as late as May in the colder northern areas. These lambs are slaughtered and processed when they are between the ages of six months to one year and weigh about 120 pounds. The average dress weight is nearly 70 pounds. Lambs at this weight have the best flavor and marbling, without a fatty taste.
“Our breeds are 25 to 30 pounds larger than lambs from Australia and New Zealand,” explains Megan Wortman, executive director of the American Lamb Board. “They have a large rib eye on the rack.” Wortman believes that chefs prefer American-raised lamb for its freshness, adding that many choose to support American agriculture. According to Wortman, the best-selling cuts to restaurants are racks, loins, and shanks, in that order.
Of all the states that produce lamb, Colorado has the greatest reputation, and often is cited on restaurant menus. In fact, “Colorado is only the fourth largest state producer,” notes Wortman. The top three producing states are Texas, California, and Wyoming, though much of the lamb raised in other states is processed and shipped from Colorado.
Wortman points to American lamb’s mild flavor and versatility as the chief reason for its growing popularity among U.S. chefs and restaurant patrons. Aromatic herbs and spices—such as rosemary, tarragon, thyme, cumin, coriander, and curry powder—are often used in signature lamb recipes. A variety of relishes and sauces, including chutney, wild berry compote, stewed apricots, cherries, currents, figs, plums, and red wine reductions (to mention a few) have replaced the traditional mint jelly as lamb condiments.
“It’s a signature dish,” claims Gavin Stephenson, executive chef at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel in Seattle, home of the top-ranked Georgian Room. Most often Stephenson buys lamb from the western states, but in spring he sometimes orders from Salt Spring Island in British Columbia. “The lambs feed on the salt flats, and they eat sea beans. The meat has a wonderful salty taste and is really tender.” Because of high demand and limited supply, Salt Spring Island lamb is extremely costly and not always available from his supplier, Interbay Food Company, near Seattle. When he can get it, he wraps the Salt Spring Island lamb loin in prosciutto and basil, sears it, roasts it, and serves it with basil and goat-cheese whipped potatoes and his own heirloom tomato jam ($49).
Stephenson is not alone in his enthusiasm for American lamb. At The Inn at Pleasant Lake in New London, New Hampshire, Chef/Owner Brian MacKenzie offers rack of lamb as part of a prix fixe five-course dinner menu ($55). Marc Collins, executive chef at Circa 1886, a four-diamond restaurant in the historic Wentworth Mansion in Charleston, South Carolina, offers lamb on each season’s menu as either an appetizer or a main course. Even the seafood restaurant Thalassa in Manhattan’s Tribeca keeps lamb on the menu. Why are these chefs so crazy for lamb? The traditional esteem of this delicious meat adds cachet to their menus and its versatility allows chefs to experiment with any number of creative preparations.
Another aspect of lamb’s appeal to chefs is how well it keeps and marinates. “It has 10 to 14 days of age before we get it, and it can take another few days with us before we cook it,” Stephenson points out. In the fall, lamb can be a bit tougher, so Stephenson marinates it in olive oil and herbs and some acid, but not vinegar. “We Cryovac the meat. It sucks the marinade into the lamb.” Many chefs use a similar technique to keep the meat fresh. To maintain freshness, the staff at Thalassa vacuum-packs racks in a marinade of olive oil, oregano, garlic, and thyme, while Collins breaks down and marinates lamb in a light layer of olive oil, salt, pepper, and rosemary.
Oregano and rosemary are favorite flavor pairings at Thalassa, where lamb shank is slowly braised in St. George wine sauce and served with lemon potatoes ($32). At Circa 1886, Collins’ winter menu features Duet of Lamb, which includes a lamb chop and merguez sausage, with red lentils, a waffle, lemon syrup, fennel cucumber relish and fig vincotto ($32). Both dishes illustrate another benefit of including lamb on the menu: the high perceived value and subsequent higher price threshold it commands.
“Customers are willing to pay a premium price for lamb,” notes Collins, “because they view it as a premium product.”
A survey of other restaurants offering lamb dishes at premium prices confirms this notion. At Chef’s Station in Evanston, Illinois, Chef José Romero’s rack of lamb is offered for $33; Chef/Owner Anthony Goncalves of 42 The Restaurant atop the Ritz Carlton in White Plains, New York, serves lamb en croute for $37; Kelly Liken of Kelly Liken Restaurant in Vail, Colorado, offers a three-course prix fixe menu with loin of lamb for $74; and Chef Loo Rook’s menu at the iconic Annie Gunn’s in Chesterfield, Missouri, lists lamb loin chops for $38.
With premium raised whole slaughtered lambs going for as little as $4.00 a pound, lamb offers a good profit potential for those willing to cut meat in-house and take a nose-to-tail approach. And, as Wortman notes, not only does American lamb have a more delicate flavor and is larger and meatier in size, it’s also available year-round and is up to 10,000 miles fresher than its imported competitors.
Catherine’s for Lamb www.catherinesforlamb.com
Dashing Star Farm www.dashingstarfarm.com
Fox Fire Farms www.foxfirefarms.com
Full Circle Organic Farm www.fullcircleorganicfarm.com
Interbay Food Company LLC, www.interbayfoods.com
Jamison Farm www.jamisonfarm.com
Lau Family Farm www.laufamilyfarm.com
Knob Hill Livestock Company www.knobhilllivestock.com
Martiny Livestock www.martinysuffolks.com
Morgan Valley Lamb www.morganvalleylamb.com
Shear Perfection Ranch, www.shearperfectionranch.com
Schenker Family Farms www.schenkerfarms.com
Superior Farms www.superiorfarms.com
Sweetgrass Farm Winery & Distillery www.sweetgrasswinery.com
Tamarack Vermont Sheep Farm www.tamaracktunis.com