How to choose and cook lamb for Easter

If you’re not familiar with lamb, choosing the right cut for Easter can all seem a bit overwhelming, especially given how expensive a meat it is.

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What is lamb?

Lamb is the meat of a sheep. Depending on where you live, the specific term lamb can have different meanings:

  • In the UK, Australia and New Zealand, lamb refers only to the meat of a young sheep (up to 12 months of age). The meat of older animals is generally referred to as mutton.
  • In the US, lamb refers to any sheep meat products, regardless of age, however most lamb meat sold in the US is about 12 to 14 months of age.

What does lamb taste like?

Lamb is a red meat, not dissimilar to beef in texture, but quite different in taste.

Compared to beef, lamb has a stronger flavour and aroma, with the difference best described as earthy, grassy or gamey.

The flavour difference is due to a type of fatty acid that is more prevalent in sheep (and goats) than in cattle. The flavour is concentrated in the fat of the meat, so cutting off as much fat as possible before cooking will reduce the flavour if you’re preparing it for someone who finds it a bit overpowering.

The flavour is noticeably stronger in older animals, and is also heavily influenced by what the sheep eats.

American lamb vs Australian or New Zealand lamb

It might seem like lamb is lamb, but there is an important difference in how sheep are fed in the US compared with how it’s done in Australia and New Zealand.

In the latter southern countries, lamb is raised almost exclusively on pasture, often known as grass-fed when buying meat. Grass-fed lamb tends to be leaner than grain-fed lamb. It also produces a stronger flavoured meat, which some people describe as more “gamey”.

In the US, lamb tends to be grass-fed for most of it’s life but then fattened at the end of it’s life on grain (known as grain-finishing). This results in more heavily marbled, less lean meat. It also produces milder flavoured meat, which some lamb-eaters prefer over the stronger grass-fed taste.

Why is lamb so expensive?

Regardless of whether you’re buying local or imported lamb, it is one of the most expensive red meats you can buy. And there are a couple of reasons for this.

Much of the beef we eat today is “factory-farmed”, meaning the animals are kept in close proximity to each other in pens in a feedlot. They’re fed in troughs and generally cope with the situation fairly well.

Sheep however don’t cope with feedlot conditions. Their stress levels lead to poor-quality meat, disease and worse, which means they need to be raised on pasture, in paddocks. This requires more space, making raising sheep more expensive.

There’s also a simple size factor at play, While much of the infrastructure required to raise sheep is the same as that required to raise cattle, sheep are much smaller animals, resulting in significantly less meat per animal.

As a result lamb is significantly more expensive to get to market than beef, and therefore more expensive for us to buy. But the good news is – it’s worth it. Especially for a special treat like Easter lunch or Christmas dinner.

What are the most common cuts of lamb?

The primal cuts of a sheep carcass are very similar to those used with beef, but the final cuts are different because of the smaller size of the animal and the differing musculature. And again, like so many things, the cuts may have different names depending on where you live.

There are many different cuts of lamb, but in terms of choosing one for an Easter feast, the most popular are:

  • Rack of lamb
  • Chops
  • Leg
  • Shoulder
  • Shanks

Rack of lamb

A lamb rack is the same cut as the popular beef prime rib. It comes from the rack primal cut, which is a cut of the ribs.

It’s a tender cut that presents beautifully for a festive meal. It is different from a beef prime rib in that the meat of a lamb rack is typically less marbled with fat. This means it is better cooked more towards the rare end of the spectrum rather than the well-done end.

One way that a lamb rack is definitely like prime rib – it’s one of the most expensive cuts of lamb meat.

Closeup of raw lamb rib chops or cutlets.

Lamb chops

The two most popular types of lamb chops for a special meal like Easter are the rib chop or cutlet, and the loin chop. Both types are quite small – you’ll typically need two to three per person.

A rib chop or lamb cutlet comes from the rack. The equivalent cut of beef is the tomahawk steak (bone-in rib-eye). They can be purchased as they come off the carcass, or they can be “frenched”, where the fat and sinew is trimmed away from the rib bone.

Closeup of raw lamb loin chops on a timber surface.

Loin chops come from a different primal cut, the loin. Compared with rib chops or cutlets, loin chops are a little larger, not quite as tender (but still a tender cut), and are cheaper to buy. Depending where you live they may also be easier to find in the grocery store.

Lamb leg and shoulder

A classic roasting cut, lamb leg is typically the whole upper hind leg, or a boneless rolled leg.

Similarly, shoulder is usually the whole shoulder, or sold as a boneless rolled cut. Shoulder cuts tend to have more connective tissue, so they can really shine when slow cooked to fall-apart tenderness.

Lamb shanks

Shanks are a bone-in cut from the lower leg. Like beef shin or osso bucco they are a tough cut with plenty of connective tissue, so they need a long slow roast or braise to make them tender.

How to cook lamb

The different cuts of lamb are suited to different styles of cooking – some hot and fast, some low and slow.

How you like your lamb cooked also plays a role. The leaner more tender cuts, like chops and lamb rack, are suitable to be eaten quite rare. Others, like the fattier meat of the leg, are better cooked a little longer to give the fat time to melt and become less chewy.

Cooking lamb chops

The most common types of lamb chops, rib (cutlets) and loin, are well suited to pan frying. They are relatively thin and their lean, tender meat is ideal to hot-sear to a medium-rare finish.

Cooking time will vary depending on your chops, your pan, your stove top and your preference for how well done they’re cooked. Amongst the recipes I reviewed, the cooking times varied from 3 to 8 minutes per side.

Oven-baked lamb chops

If you’d like to bake your lamb chops you can, but it’s not the most popular approach, so you’ll need to look specifically for these recipes. I compared five recipes for oven-baked lamb chops and there was a lot of variation. So much so that I’d have to wonder which to choose to get a good result. Why? Because cooking times varied enormously.

Four of the five recipes have you sear your chops first, and the oven temperatures are all similar (375-425°F/190-220°C), but the time in the oven varied from as little as two minutes to as much as forty-five! Granted, the lower-limit here (2-5 minutes after searing) was for rib chops (cutlets) which are wonderful rare. And the longest time in the oven (30-45 minutes) was for chops which were not seared before going into the oven. The other recipes ranged between eight and twenty-five minutes in the oven after searing.

With this enormous variation I have to imagine some of these recipes are going to leave you with enormously over-cooked lamb chops, raw lamb chops, or maybe both cases are true. So if you want to oven-bake your lamb chops, I recommend you monitor them closely with a meat thermometer, at least the first couple of times.

Cooking a lamb rack

Although a lamb rack is the same meat as rib chops (cutlets), because it is uncut it needs a different approach to cook properly.

All ten of the recipes that I reviewed roast their lamb rack. Seven of these sear it first to add the wonderful umami flavours of the Maillard reaction.

Like chops (and in reality, almost all foods), your cooking time will vary for the reasons mentioned above, plus the approach you choose to cook your rack.

Among these recipes varies, there are two different groups to consider.

Searing then roasting

Based on the recipes I reviewed this is the most popular approach to cooking a lamb rack.

Searing time varies from author to author, but averages out at about five to ten minutes or so, depending on the heat of your pan.

Once the meat goes into the oven, there is much more variation, in both oven temps and roasting times.

The authors’ preferences for oven temperatures range from 350°F (180°C) to 430°F (220°C). Cooking time in the oven ranges from as little as 8 minutes to as long as 30. And don’t assume that the shorter times match the hotter oven temperatures, because that’s not always true amongst these recipes.

As I mentioned earlier, how you like your lamb cooked will play a big role here too.

Roasting without searing

Of the three recipes that only cook their lamb rack in the oven, two do so in a really hot oven of 450°F (230°C). The third uses a more moderate oven of 400°F (200°C).

The cooking time for all three recipes is fairly similar, ranging from 20 to 30 minutes, with the 400°F recipe the longest here.

Roast lamb

This may be a bit subjective, but I’m guessing that when most people think of doing “a roast” they mean a big piece of bone-in or boneless rolled meat, typically cooked for an hour or more. And in the case of lamb, this typically means either a leg or shoulder.

While both are large cuts, they are quite different in terms of the texture of the meat. Shoulder muscle is a tougher cut of meat, with considerably more connective tissue. Cooked just to medium-rare (for example), shoulder meat would be tough and chewy. Leg on the other hand can be beautiful and juicy at a similar internal temperature.

As a result, most recipes treat a lamb leg as a traditional roast, cooked just long enough to reach your desired level of doneness. Shoulder on the other hand is treated as you would a piece of pork for pulling – cooked low and slow for many hours.

Roast leg of lamb with a carving fork.

Cooking a lamb leg

Of the fifteen recipes for lamb leg that I compared,  nine were for a traditional roast. Oven temperatures varied from 300°F (150°C) to 400°F (200°C), although a few used a short stint at higher temperatures (up to 425°F/220°C) or under the broiler to brown the exterior of the meat more thoroughly.

As expected, the cooking times varied wildly based on the size of the cut and the oven temperature used, but times averaged about 15-20 minutes per pound (33-44 minutes per kg).

The ideal cooking time is obviously the time needed to reach the internal temperature that matches your desired level of doneness, which I’ll cover a little further down.

Slow-roasted and braised leg of lamb

The other six recipes were for slow-cooked lamb leg, with lower oven temps (275-325°F/135-160°C) and much longer cooking times (most in excess of 4 hours). Four of these were braised rather than roasted, being cooked covered along with a reasonable quantity of liquid, typically stock, wine or both.

The goal of either of these techniques is to produce fall-apart tender meat. This is the same technique used to cook lamb shanks, from the lower leg, which I cover in detail in my lamb shank post.

Partly pulled slow-cooked lamb shoulder on a wooden board.

Cooking a lamb shoulder

Shoulder meat is a little less versatile than leg, with most people finding it too tough or chewy to eat at medium-rare or even medium-well.

Fortunately this meat is heavily laden with connective tissue, whose collagen breaks down into gelatin, which gives slow-cooked meat it’s wonderfully unctuous mouth-feel. This process takes time though, like the slow-cooked lamb leg recipes.

Of the ten recipes for lamb shoulder that I compared, seven cook for four hours or more. Three of these cook for six-and-a-half to eight hours at temperatures of 230-250°F (110-120°C).

One of the other three recipes was for shoulder chops, cooked for two-and-a-half hours at 300°F (150°C) which can be considered a long slow cook for a thin cut like this.

Internal temperature of cooked lamb

Unless you’re a true braising aficionado and are monitoring your lamb’s internal temperature closely to ensure maximum collagen conversion and minimum moisture loss, internal temperature is not a big focus for the slow-cooked lamb recipes.

But for a rack of lamb, a leg roast, or either loin or rib chops, targeting your ideal level of doneness is worth doing, especially if (like me) you enjoy your lamb on the rarer side of medium. And lamb can definitely be enjoyed quite rare (just like beef), especially the leaner, more tender cuts. Your lamb is safe to eat if it’s a little pink inside. And in my opinion, the pinker the better!

The most accurate way to figure out if your lamb is cooked is to use a meat thermometer to measure the meat’s internal temperature. If you haven’t used one before, a meat thermometer is a device with a long, slender probe that you insert into meat (or any other food) to measure its internal temperature. They are inexpensive, and indispensable. They’re particularly helpful for big pieces of meat, like a leg of lamb (or a baked ham, prime rib and more).

For smaller cuts like chops or when I’m reverse-searing chicken breasts I use this digital fast-reading meat thermometer, and it works brilliantly, giving me a precise internal temperature in about four or five seconds. Simply open the oven, slide the oven rack out, and pop the thermometer probe into the thickest part of the meat. You’ll know if you need to keep cooking, how much more it needs, and after two or three measurements you’ll get a sense of how quickly the temperature is rising too.

For a big cut of meat like a lamb leg though, you’re better using a meat thermometer you can leave in the meat in the oven. There are various options available, from simple inexpensive analogue options, to more advanced wireless models that connect to an app on your phone. Whichever way you go, they perfect for watching the temperature on a big piece of meat that’s spending an hour or more in the oven.

Lamb internal temperatures

For the cuts that suit a rarer finish (loin and rib chops, rack and leg), the following is a good guide:

Lamb DonenessInternal Temperature
Rare135°F ( just under 60°C)
Medium-rare140-145°F (60-65°C)
Medium160°F (~70°C)
Well done170°F (~75°C)
Source: websites of the American Lamb and Australian Lamb associations.

Medium rare is ideal for lamb chops and rack, but if you’re anything like me, the rarer the better!

Roasted frenched racks of lamb on a white plate.

Choosing a cut of lamb for Easter

As you can see, there are a number of great cuts of lamb available. So pick a cut that suits your budget, your meal and your tastes.

If you’re feeding a small family, or just you and your better half, chops are a great choice. You can buy exactly as many as you need and they’re fast and easy to cook. Lamb shanks are also a great choice for a couple or a small group, because you can buy them individually, but they’ll need much longer to cook.

For groups a little larger, a lamb rack is a great choice. It’s still fairly fast and easy to cook and can be presented in stunning fashion.

For bigger groups, a leg of lamb or lamb shoulder are a great choice. The price per pound is lower, and a single piece can potentially feed eight or more people. If you want a nice medium-rare roast leg is a great choice, and if you want to wow your guests with fall-off-the-bone tender lamb, shoulder is perfect.

What to serve with lamb?

Lamb goes beautifully with most of your favourite beef roast sides, like:

and more.

As far as condiments go, mint sauce is very popular with lamb, beautifully complimenting the flavoursome meat. And if you like a bit of spice, harissa paste is a great choice too.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the difference between lamb leg and lamb shoulder?

Lamb leg has limited connective tissue and typically has a good quantity of intramuscular fat, making it juicy and tender at normal roast internal temperatures.

Like beef or pork, lamb shoulder has more connective tissue and tends to be tougher when cooked to normal temperatures. It’s therefore better suited to a long, slow cook, giving time for the collagen to break down to gelatin.

What’s the difference between lamb chops and a lamb rack?

Lamb rib chops (cutlets) and lamb rack are the same piece of meat – a lamb rack is simply unsliced lamb rib chops.

Lamb loin chops are different to lamb rack, coming from further down the animal’s spine.

What’s the difference between rack of lamb and leg of lamb?

While both are good cuts for roasting, they are quite different types of meat.

Lamb rack is a lean, tender cut from the ribs of the animal. It has limited marbling and is perfect for a rarer finish.

Leg of lamb is fattier and has more connective tissue, giving it a more pronounced lamb flavour and a juicier finish when cooked to higher temperatures (medium and beyond). It also tends to be a much larger (and cheaper) cut, capable of feeding more people.

What’s the internal temperature of medium-rare lamb?

140-145°F (60-65°C).

How do you cook lamb chops?

Lamb loin and rib chops are great pan-fried for 3 to 8 minutes per side (depending on how thick they are and how you like them).

Recipes included in this review

I compared quite a number of recipes for this review, so I’ve pinned them all on my Lamb for Easter Pinterest board

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