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A Brief Introduction
For centuries, lamb meat has played a starring role in celebrations around the world. Although it has been unfashionable and largely unmarketable for the best part of the last 50 years, but recently it has literally enjoyed something of a renaissance recently with a whole new generation of chefs and home cooks rediscovering its culinary exquisiteness and nutrition goodness.

Lamb, hogget, and mutton are the meat of domesticated sheep. The meat of an animal in its first year is lamb; that of an older sheep is hogget and later mutton. However in India mutton generally means goat meat. Meat from sheep is often a specialty in the cuisines of the Mediterranean, North Atlantic islands, Australia, North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and certain parts of China because other red meats are eschewed for religious or economic reasons. Though it also features quite prominently in the American and Canadian menu.

According to a meat expert research has shown consumers follow their taste buds when it comes to choosing lamb or hogget. However, this classification system has been developed in order to ensure that consumers receive the right product for the money they pay because the three are of dramatically differing economic values (with lamb being the most expensive). The definitions for lamb, hogget and mutton vary considerably across the world. But in very brad and general terms they are defined as follows:-
  1. Lamb - The meat of sheep which is less than a year old and which does not have any permanent incisor teeth. In general, the darker the colour, the older the animal. Baby lamb meat will be pale pink, while regular lamb is pinkish-red. Lamb can be further classified into the following categories:-
    • Baby lamb - A milk-fed lamb between six and eight weeks old
    • Spring lamb - A milk-fed lamb, usually three to five months old, born in late winter or early spring and sold usually before July 1st
    • Yearling lamb - A young sheep between 12 and 24 months old
  2. Hogget - A male sheep or maiden ewe having not more than two permanent incisors in wear
  3. Mutton - A female (ewe) or castrated male (wether) sheep having more than two permanent incisors in wear (around 1-1½ years).

Quality of Lamb and Cuts of Lamb
Recognizing high-quality lamb is as important as deciding on the right cut. When buying lamb it is preferable to go for the leanest cuts with firm, creamy-white fat (although fat colour alone should not be used as a reliable indicator of quality). One must avoid cuts with excessive fat or with fat that looks crumbly, brittle and yellowish (this means it's old). The colour and flavour of the flesh will vary depending on where the sheep was raised: usually lowlands or hillside, or even salt marshes. The consumer should look for pale-pink flesh for a very young lamb, to a light or dark red for an older animal. A blue tinge in the knuckle bones also indicates that the animal is young. Large cuts are often covered in a white papery sort of membrane that should be removed before cooking.

As with most large animals, different parts of the carcass are more suitable for different cooking methods. This is due to several

factors for example the amount of fat or sinew plus the amount of work the area has been put to throughout the animal's life: the parts of its body which are used frequently build up connective tissue and tend to be tougher e.g. the neck which is constantly moved about in order to the animal to graze.

Below is a guide to the various cuts of Lamb. These may vary from country to country with different butchering techniques.

  • Breast - This cut is one of the cheapest cuts and whilst the price is similar to scrag end,  but is much more versatile. It can be roasted on the bone,  boned, stuffed and rolled, or when well trimmed, can be used for mince, burgers or skewers (kebabs). Some butchers also sell this cut in strips which are ideal for barbecues.
  • Flank - Unlike other cuts from the loin area, the flank is much tougher and is usually sold as mince.
  • Foreshank - Also known as Lamb shanks, this cut is suitable for slow roasting, stewing and braising. It has become very popular in recent years especially when braised when a whole shank with the bone is served per person.  It is a very flavourful cut of meat
  • Leg - This is a prime cut with little fat which is excellent for roasting as a joint. It is often cut into lamb steaks suitable for frying or grilling or into cubes for lean kebabs.
  • Loin - The loin is the most tender part of the lamb. It is from this area that loin chops come from as well as medallions, noisettes as well as roasting cuts. Suitable for roasting although the joints tend to be small unless you have a whole saddle which is made up of a double loin roast, from both sides of the backbone.  Frying and grilling are excellent for the smaller cuts.
  • Neck - This is one of the tougher cuts and is generally sold as Stewing lamb or made into mince (ground) meat.  When sold in pieces it is only suitable for very long, slow, moist cooking. Although tough the flavour is very good so well worth the extra cooking.  Best End of neck is traditionally used for Lancashire Hotpot.
  • Rack - A "rack of lamb" is the name given to the whole rib section on either side of the backbone between the shoulder and the loin. A tender and flavoursome cut, it is also expensive and it is suitable for dry heat cooking such as roasting or grilling. This cut has a layer of fat which, although it can be trimmed down, is best left on when roasting as it melts and bastes the meat during cooking. Racks are often "Frenched" which means that the upper ends of the rib bones are scraped clean of meat and fat thereby exposing the bones which sometimes have paper frills popped over the top. Once frenched, it can be used to create a "Crown" where two racks are tied together to form a circle, the middle of which is then stuffed or a "Guard of honour" where the two sides of the rack are stood vertically with the bare bones uppermost and rib ends interlocked to resemble soldiers' swords. Racks are not large pieces: one rack of lamb is usually large enough to serve three people.
  • Scrag - Also known as scrag end or neck end, this is one of the tougher cuts and is therefore one of the cheaper ones. The meat from this area is often more fatty than other cuts and is usually sold chopped or diced for use in stews and casseroles.
  • Shoulder - Shoulder is often sold as two separate joints, blade and arm (knuckle). The whole shoulder is also sometimes called "square cut" which consists of the arm, blade, and rib bones. Suitable for roasting, shoulder is a relatively expensive cut, even more so if you buy it boned and rolled although adding a stuffing before rolling makes it more economical. Many cooks prefer to buy it this way as the structure of the bones in the joint can make carving difficult. Shoulder meat is also often trimmed of fat and sold as cubes for curries, kebabs and casseroles. Shoulder chops are suitable for pan-frying, grilling or braising.
Nutritional Value of Lamb Meat
Lamb has a high nutritional value and is an especially good source of easily absorbed zinc and iron. The recommended daily allowance provided by a three ounce serving of cooked lamb is 30% for zinc (essential for growth, tissue repair, and a healthy immune system) and 17% for iron (needed for the formation of red blood cells). Lamb is rich in B vitamins, especially B12. One serving can provide 74-100% of the daily requirement for Vitamin B12, which is essential for the body's metabolic reactions. Lamb is also nature's best source for an amino acid called carnitine, which is needed to generate energy from fatty acids. Trace elements such as copper, manganese, and selenium are also found in this meat, and it contains a rich supply of high quality protein. Lamb is a food you can feel good about eating because today's lamb is low in fat and an excellent source of vitamins and minerals. Talking very specifically, the nutritional value of lamb meat can be summed as follows:-

  • The foreshank had the lowest fat levels at 3 %, followed by 3.5% for leg and these correspond to about 5% of the daily diet
  • The highest amount of fat was found in the rib at 7 g per 100 g or 11% of the daily diet
  • The amount of trans fat in the loin and foreshank cuts was 0 grams per 100 grams of meat
  • The highest level of trans fat was 0.2 g per 100 grams in shoulder and rib cuts. These same cuts showed the lowest amount of calories per 100g at 110 to 120
  • The highest saturated fat was in rib at 3 g per 100 g and the lowest was 1 g per 100 g in foreshank cuts
  • All cuts, except for ground lamb, showed protein at 20 to 22 grams per 100g, cholesterol at 70 to 75 mg or 25 to 27% of the daily diet and iron at 6 to 8 % of the daily diet.

Storing and Freezing of Lamb
Quickly freezing lamb reduces the chance of damage to the texture or succulence of the meat.

Always store meat in the coldest part of the fridge (on the bottom shelf ). If the meat is in a cling-filmed tray, leave it in the packaging until ready for use. If not, put the meat on a plate, loosely wrap in greaseproof paper or foil, and store in the fridge away from cooked meats and other ready-to-eat foods.

Lamb will keep for about three to five days in the fridge. Mince, offal and small cuts of lamb are best eaten on the day you buy them or within one to two days. Joints, chops and steaks will keep for two to three days and large roasting joints up to five days. Leaner cuts last longer than fatty cuts because fat goes rancid before meat. Never let the meat or its juices come into contact with other foods in the fridge, particularly food that doesn't require further cooking.

Smaller pieces and large joints can be frozen. For ease of use, freeze cuts tightly wrapped in individual portions. Don't freeze lamb for more than six months. When ready to use, defrost, loosely wrapped, in the fridge allowing five hours per 450g/1lb.

Market Availability
The choice of meat at supermarkets has improved in recent years, but usually one will have to settle for what's on the shelf or at the meat counter. A good butcher is likely to stock a greater variety of cuts or be able to order exactly what you want. One may also consider Internet/mail-order companies, which can also provide amazing choice and quality.

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