Lamb is meat from sheep less than 1 year old. Most are brought to market at about 6 to 8 months old.
Lamb is usually tender because it is from animals less than 1 year old. However, look for good marbling (white flecks of fat within the meat muscle), and meat that is fine textured and firm. In color, the meat should be pink and the fat should be firm, white, and not too thick.
There are five basic major (primal) cuts into which lamb is separated: shoulder, rack, shank/breast, loin, and leg.
The "rack" is the unsplit primal rib (sometimes called the hotel rack) of the carcass which includes ribs 6 through 12. The rack is split to make two primal lamb rib roasts. A "lamb crown roast" is made by sewing two rib roasts together to form a circle or crown.
Chops can come from various primal cuts. "Loin" chops and "rib" chops are the most tender. Less expensive "blade" and "arm" chops (from the shoulder) and "sirloin" chops (from the leg) can be just as tender, but they are not as visually attractive because the meat is separated by bands of connective tissue.
The fell is the thin, paper-like covering on the outer fat. It should not be removed from roasts and legs because it helps these cuts retain their shape and juiciness during cooking. The fell has usually been removed at the market from smaller cuts, such as chops.
Lamb as red meat
Oxygen is delivered to muscles by the red cells in the blood. One of the proteins in meat, myoglobin, holds the oxygen in the muscle. The amount of myoglobin in animal muscles determines the color of meat. Lamb is called a "red" meat because it contains more myoglobin than chicken or fish. Other "red" meats are beef, veal, and pork.
How to Handle Lamb Safely
Select lamb just before checking out at the register. Put packages of raw lamb in disposable plastic bags (if available) to contain any leakage which could cross-contaminate cooked foods or produce. Lamb is kept cold during store distribution to retard the growth of bacteria.
Take lamb home immediately and refrigerate it at 40°F for use within 3 to 5 days, or freeze (0 °F). If kept frozen continuously, it will be safe indefinitely.
It is safe to freeze lamb in its original packaging or repackage it. However, for long-term freezing, overwrap the porous store plastic with storage wraps or bags to prevent "freezer burn," which appears as grayish-brown leathery spots and is caused by air reaching the surface of food. Cut freezer-burned portions away either before or after cooking the lamb. Heavily freezer-burned products may have to be discarded for quality reasons. For best quality, use lamb within 6 to 9 months.
For fully-cooked, take-out lamb dishes such as Kabobs, Gyros, or Chinese food, be sure they are hot at pickup. Use cooked lamb within 2 hours (1 hour if the air temperature is above 90 °F) or refrigerate it at 40 °F or below in shallow, covered containers. Eat within 3 to 4 days, either cold or reheated to 165 °F (hot and steaming). It is safe to freeze ready-prepared lamb dishes. For best quality, use within 2 to 3 months.
There are three safe ways to defrost lamb: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave. Never defrost on the counter or in other locations. It's best to plan ahead for slow, safe thawing in the refrigerator. Ground lamb, stew meat, and steaks may defrost within a day. Bone-in parts and whole roasts may take 2 days or longer.
Once the raw product defrosts, it will be safe in the refrigerator 3 to 5 days (for roasts and chops) and 1 to 2 days for ground lamb before cooking. During this time, if you decide not to use the lamb, you can safely refreeze it without cooking it first.
To defrost lamb in cold water, do not remove packaging. Be sure the package is airtight or put it into a leakproof bag. Submerge the lamb in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes so that it continues to thaw. Small packages of lamb may defrost in an hour or less; a 3- to 4-pound roast may take 2 to 3 hours.
When microwave defrosting lamb, plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving. Holding partially-cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present wouldn't have been destroyed.
Foods defrosted in the microwave or by the cold water method should be cooked before refreezing because they may potentially have been held at temperatures above 40 °F.
It is safe to cook frozen lamb in the oven, on the stove, or grill without defrosting it first; the cooking time may be about 50% longer. Do not cook frozen lamb in a slow cooker.
Recipes featuring lamb as a main ingredient can be found in the lamb recipe category.