As a very experienced butcher (50+ years) who deals directly with the public, I have noticed that Lamb is loved and hated by many. I compare this to Liver; people love it or hate it. Here is what I think.
Most Meat Departments carry lamb on a regular basis. The problem is that domestic, California Lamb is more expensive. Right now, lamb is at an all time high. Consequently, most meat departments that worry more about price than quality, have resorted to imported lamb from New Zealand and Australia, which is considerably cheaper.
In defense of these two nations, they may have great lamb, but they sure don’t send it to us! Due to the feed, the grasses that they eat, imported lamb tastes very different. I find it very gamey and strong; while California lamb is delicious and tasty. I believe that most people who hate lamb have unfortunately had the imported versions, and worse yet may have had mutton.
Lamb or sheep meat has three versions. Lamb meat is processed during it’s first year. Hogget is what lamb meat is called in it’s second year, and mutton is at least, in it’s third year. Quite frankly, if you have had mutton you may never eat lamb again, or cook it in your house. Mutton, in my opinion, is horrible and will stink up your whole house in some cases.
California lamb, often called Spring lamb, is awesome since it is young and tender and seems to eat just the right blend of foliage and grasses to produce awesome flavor. At Lakeview Supermarket and Deli we regularly carry a number of delicious lamb items. I love arm and should chops cut from the lamb shoulder block. Lamb loin chops are the cute little portions that look like tiny little T-bone and porterhouse chops. Lamb shanks are cut from the shoulder area creating fore shanks, or from the leg, creating rear shanks. Both of these are used in stews and other dishes like curries or braised recipes.
Everyone has heard of leg of lamb; and makes a great roast. But, I have often said that is hard to get a group of 4-6 people in the same room that all like lamb (for the reasons I stated above.) Ground lamb is great, but is now quite expensive. It has been used in blends forever in meat balls, with other ground meats and added to enrich many dishes.
Speaking of expensive, rack of lamb is the king of high-priced lamb. You will see these on the cooking shows often, but most of us common folks cannot afford rack of lamb or lamb rib chops, also known as lamb lollipops. What’s worse is that a lamb rib chop, or lollipop with that elegant long bone, only has a single bite or two. The lamb loin chops are two to three times bigger and way cheaper. For example, in this time of ultra high lamb prices a whole loin will weigh about 2-2 1/2 lbs and cost about $20 a pound. That two pound loin will give you 6 beautiful super center-cut thick chops, that will average about $7 each. You will need at least two for a decent serving. The last time I was in a gourmet restaurant I paid $79 for three chops and a sprig of Rosemary. So, $7 each is still a good deal for a great lamb dinner.
On The contrary, a rack of lamb is about $28 per pound, has a long essentially worthless bone and a bite or two on each chop. Since millionaires are few and far between in Lake County, our store does not carry rack of lamb.
Lastly, let me tell you about our Supplier of California lamb. Superior Farms buys lambs from scores of local California ranchers that raise small herds of lambs in the thousands, not tens of thousands. Each rancher cares for and cherishes their little lambs. They raise them up to the appropriate size and then ship them off to Superior Farms for inspection and grading.
We actually have a couple of Superior Farm ranchers right here in Lake County. If you thought you hated lamb; try real California Spring lamb and you might just be surprised. My recommendation is you try the Shoulder chops. They are $4 cheaper than center lamb chops and big enough that you might only need one. Lamb arm chops are also reasonable and a little leaner if you have a fat phobia.
So, in a nutshell, buy only California lamb even if you hated it before. Try the shoulder chops, loin chops, and save your money so someday you can afford a rack of lamb!
Kenny at Lakeview Supermarket and Deli