The science (and joy) of fall-apart tender lamb shanks

Braised lamb shanks achieve a rich, delicious flavour few other cuts of meat can match. And while it takes a little time, cooking this tasty inexpensive cut to perfection is easier than you think.

Jump ahead to discover how 30 recipes from professionals, celebrities and bloggers compare on their path to making the most of lamb shanks. Or read on to learn about the science of how tough cuts of meat become the most tender meats you can eat.

What is braising?

Braising is a technique that uses a combination of dry and wet heat over a long period of time. A typical braise involves the following steps:

  1. Sear the meat to get it nice and brown (dry heat).
  2. Saute or brown aromatics like onion, garlic and carrot.
  3. Deglaze the pan with a liquid, like stock or wine.
  4. Return the meat to the pan and add more liquid to partially submerge it.
  5. Bring the liquid to a boil then lower to a simmer, typically for two hours or more (wet heat).

All of the recipes I reviewed are for braised lamb shanks, and this was not because I specifically chose braised recipes. It’s because braising is the ideal technique for a cut like shanks.

The science of cooking tough cuts of meat

There are a few important differences between the different cuts of meat we use, such as the amount of fat (marbled and discrete), the density of the muscle fibres and more.

But when it comes to cuts like shanks, there is one very important factor that makes all the difference – connective tissue.

Connective tissue in meat

Connective tissue holds everything together in mammals. It connects bones to muscles, supports internal organs, and importantly for our shanks, keeps muscle fibres together in bundles.

Connective tissues also plays a very important role in how we enjoy meat, because it is tough. It’s chewy and rubbery and for most of us, can ruin a cut of meat.

There is more connective tissue in muscles that work hard or continuously. The muscles of the legs, the shoulders and those between the ribs are common examples. And so they tend to be the tougher cuts of meat. Unless of course we do something about it.

Dealing with connective tissue in meat

Connective tissue is tough because it’s composed largely of collagen, a long, tightly wound protein. In order to be able (or at least willing) to eat tough cuts of meat, we need to break down the collagen into something more palatable.

One approach that is commonly used is to mechanically break down the collagen by grinding or mincing the meat. This simply chops the collagen fibres into smaller chunks that can be easily chewed and swallowed.

The other approach is to chemically modify the collagen into something more manageable. It turns out that collagen is soluble in water, and under the right conditions can be broken down into something much more palatable – gelatin.

The secret to tenderising tough meat – converting collagen to gelatin

Gelatin is totally different to collagen. It’s juicy and tender, and gives slow-cooked meats the incredible mouth feel we know and love.

And when we cook meat we can convert the long, chewy collagen fibres into gelatin with careful control of three factors – water, heat and time.

The role of water in tenderising meat

The process of converting collagen into gelatin involves hydrolysis, which is where water breaks down molecules. Without water, hydrolysis can’t happen.

This is why moisture is so important for tough cuts of meat. And while there is water in meat, it escapes as it cooks, slowing down hydrolysis. Which is why braising is so perfectly suited to the job.

 The role of heat and time in converting collagen to gelatin

Collagen is a complex, tightly-wound protein. It takes time for it to unwind and break down. The process typically takes an hour or so once the right temperature is reached.

The conversion to gelatin doesn’t happen much until the collagen reaches about 160 (71°C). So we need to get the internal temperature of the meat to at least this point. This takes time because meat is not a good conductor of heat. And once we have it there we also need to keep it there.

So between getting the meat to the right temperature, and keeping it there long enough to break down enough collagen to make the meat fall-apart tender, you can see why braising a large piece of meat often takes three or four hours.

Given this relationship, you might wonder why you can’t blast it hotter, or cook it longer, or both, for an even better result. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as that.

How meat changes during cooking

While this heat is good for our collagen, it’s actually adversely affecting the muscle proteins, the “meat” in our meat.

As meat cooks, the proteins contract, making them shorter. This is why a burger patty shrinks so dramatically during cooking.

This contraction also squeezes moisture out of the meat, which is why a well-done steak is drier than a medium-rare steak. And if too much moisture is squeezed out, the meat proteins become dry and stringy, no matter how much gelatin and flavoursome stock they’re floating in.

Red meats are well done at 160°F (71°C). But the hydrolysis of our collagen is only just kicking into high gear at this temperature. So you can see why too much heat, or more time, start to adversely affect the meat. We break all the collagen down, but leave the muscle proteins themselves dry.

So a good braise manages this balance with just enough heat, and for no longer than needed.

A lamb shank on a bed of cous cous in a white bowl with the text 30 popular recipes for lamb shanks compared.

What’s the most popular approach to braising lamb shanks?

To understand the most successful approach to cooking lamb shanks, I compared 30 recipes from professionals, celebrity chefs and popular bloggers. They’re all listed at the bottom of the page. And for a large number of recipes, there’s surprisingly little variation in both ingredients and cooking method. There is certainly some, but a lot less than I expected.

This is partly because braising is a well-understood and relatively inflexible method of cooking. And it’s also because some ingredients just work really well with slow-cooked lamb shanks.

Popular ingredients for braising lamb shanks

The recipes vary quite a bit in how many ingredients they use, from a couple with only 5 or 6 to others with 20 or more. But even amongst this degree of variation, there are several very consistent inclusions.

Closeup of a whole tomato and another sliced in half on a timber surface.

Tomatoes

Lamb is a rich, almost gamey meat, especially with a tough cut like shanks. And strong meats go very well with acidic ingredients that cut through the rich savouriness.

The humble tomato does this very well. As a result, 22 of the 30 recipes include some type of tomatoes. Several of these use more than one type.

Tomato paste is easily the most popular choice, usually two or three tablespoon’s worth. A few use a bit more, and Anne Burrell’s recipe on Food Network uses about 24 tablespoons! This does attract several negative comments about it overpowering the dish though.

A few authors use canned whole or diced tomatoes, a couple use fresh tomatoes and a couple more use tomato sauce/passata.

Lamb shanks without tomatoes

If tomatoes aren’t your thing, there are eight recipes here that don’t use any at all.

It’s worth noting that most of these use some quantity of another acidic ingredient, such as wine, vinegar or citrus fruit juice.

They also tend to use a bit more liquid than some of the other recipes.

I’ve listed the recipes without tomato separately at the bottom if you’re interested.

Braising liquid for lamb shanks

More than one author points out that the braising liquid is the flavour backbone of the sauce, and most of these recipes take that to heart. The majority use two or three flavoured liquids for their shanks.

Stock

Stock is overwhelmingly the most popular liquid for braising lamb shanks, being used in all but four of the recipes.

Darker stocks like beef are a little more popular, but many use chicken stock, and a few leave the choice up to you.

Several authors highlight the importance of using high-quality or even homemade stock to make sure your flavour base is good enough to stand up to the strong taste of the lamb.

An sealed red wine bottle lying down in front of a glass of red wine.

Wine

Wine is easily the most popular second choice, appearing together with stock in 21 recipes, with water in one and on it’s own in another.

You may not think of it this way, but wine is actually reasonably acidic, not dissimilar in pH from apple or orange juice. And white wine is a little more acidic than red wine.

Among the recipes that use wine, red wine is the more popular, making eighteen appearances. It is commonly used with red meats because its more robust taste stands up against the savouriness more clearly.

The other five instead use white wine, no doubt giving their sauces a lighter finish, but still having a good level of acidity to cut through the rich meat flavours.

And don’t forget – don’t cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but it should be something you like. Otherwise who will finish the bottle?

Other braising liquid choices

There are a few other braising liquids used, typically together with stock, wine or both.

Four recipes include some type of vinegar. There’s no popular choice here because all four use a different type.

There are also a number of unique choices, including beer, orange juice and port wine. And the recipe from Martha Stewart uses only the juices found in the five large fresh tomatoes she uses.

Flavours and other ingredients

There are a variety of ingredients used, but several are much more common than others.

Closeup of onions and heads of garlic in a wooden bowl.

Aromatics

Every recipe includes one or more aromatic ingredients, especially the well-known vegetables of a mirepoix or soffritto used to create a deep flavour base for soups, stews and sauces in almost every cuisine. The main ones appearing here are:

  • Onion. A variety of different types are used, but almost every recipe uses one of them.
  • Garlic.
  • Celery.
  • Carrots.

The majority of the recipes also include one or more herbs. Rosemary and thyme are the most popular, along with bay leaves.

Other flavour options

Some of the recipes don’t include any ingredients beyond what I’ve talked through above (apart from lamb shanks!). But many include a number of other ingredients for specific flavours. I won’t go through them all, but some more frequent or more interesting options include:

  • Cinnamon, the warming spice popular with lamb in Middle Eastern cooking.
  • Cumin and paprika.
  • Mustard.
  • Chili peppers in some form (dried, flakes, etc).
  • Citrus fruit juice, peel or zest.
  • Mint.
  • Dried fruits, including raisins and currants.
  • And a few one-off choices appear, like allspice, nutmeg and star anise.

So beyond a basic recipe for braised lamb shanks, you have plenty of very tasty options to add into the mix.

Cooking your lamb shanks

There’s less variation in how the authors go about cooking their shanks, including the process they use and how long it takes.

The process of cooking lamb shanks

As I mentioned earlier, braising is a well-understood and fairly consistent process.

  1. Sear the meat.
  2. Saute aromatics.
  3. Deglaze the pan with braising liquid.
  4. Return the meat to the pan.
  5. Simmer until the meat is fork-tender.

And most authors follow this process almost exactly.

Searing the lamb

This first step is all about flavour. Searing the lamb shanks over high heat kicks off the chemical magic that is the Maillard reaction, producing an array of delicious tastes and aromas. These flavours then merge into the braising liquid during the long cooking time, adding a wonderful depth of flavour to the dish.

A couple of quotes from the authors beautifully highlight the impact of this step.

Anne Burrell says “this is an incredibly important step; do not rush it.”

And Nagi from Recipe Tin Eats goes quite a big step further:

“The only key tip I have is to brown that shank as well as you can….If you ever see a slow cooked stew recipe that doesn’t call for browning the meat before slow cooking, proceed with caution!”

Strong words indeed! But almost every author agrees, with only Martha Stewart’s and Bon Appetit’s recipes excluding this step. A couple of others approach it a little differently, briefly roasting their shanks uncovered in a very hot oven, but their goal is the same – browning the meat before it goes into the braising liquid.

Braising the lamb

After the meat is seared, the aromatics are sauteed and everything is put together in a Dutch oven or baking pan, it is cooked for a good length of time to break down the collagen as we discussed earlier. And how this is done is fairly consistent as well.

How much liquid?

The recipes are for a variety of different numbers of serves, but there’s one factor that is consistent amongst most of them regarding how much liquid they use.

Twenty-four authors do not fully cover their lamb with liquid, typically having it come somewhere between one-quarter and three-quarters of the way up the side of the meat.

The other six make a point of fully-submerging the shanks in the braising liquid, more like a traditional stewing technique. They still produce well-regarded results, the main differences being the amount of sauce available when you serve up, and how thick it is.

Stovetop or oven?

While almost every author starts their lamb on the stovetop, all but three continue to cook it in the oven.

There are certainly convenience reasons for this, like freeing up the stove for preparing side dishes, but these are not the main reasons. The main reason is because the indirect heat of the oven is more consistent, making it easier to maintain the ideal low simmer.

Heating a large Dutch oven or other pot from a hot plate or flame underneath certainly works, but is more prone to temperature variations throughout the liquid and the air inside it if the pot is covered. The oven reduces this variability by heating from all sides.

Covered or not?

Another point on which the authors are almost unanimous is whether or not the pot should be covered.

Twenty-four recipes have you cover the pot while the lamb braises. And more than a few stress the fact it should be tightly covered.

A few authors uncover the dish for the last half-an-hour of cooking time, but most leave it covered the entire time, keeping the meat moist. As we know, that moisture is key for hydrolysing the collagen in the shank’s connective tissue.

Still, six authors don’t find it necessary. They all recommend making sure you keep an eye on the amount of liquid in the pot, and also more frequently turning the shanks during cooking. But they all produce well-reviewed results without covering the pot.

Oven temperature

There’s a fairly consistent pattern in the chosen oven temperature, with low and slow obviously favoured.

Twenty-two recipes are cooked in the range of 300-350°F (150-175°C), with only a couple a bit cooler and three hotter.

Amongst these, 350°F (175°C) is the most popular, used by twelve authors. And it’s interesting to note that the others don’t seem to take any longer to cook on average.

Cooking time

The most consistent recommendation for how long your lamb shanks will take in the oven is between two and two-and-a-half hours. Twenty-one recipes are in this range, often with a half-hour window provided. And three of the four stovetop recipes are the same.

Surprisingly the hotter recipes are not really faster to cook on average, and the cooler ones not much slower. No doubt different ovens, and author preferences for just how fall-apart their meat is come into play here.

Only one author, Katerina from Diethood, offers an internal temperature to know when your lamb is done. She suggests the shanks are cooked when they reach 150-160°F (66-71°C). Keep in mind though that this may not be hot enough for the most tender results, because most collagen conversion to gelatin happens at 160°F (71°C) and above. And some say the internal temperature needs to reach 200°F (93°C) or even 210°F (99°C).

Again, time also plays an important role here too. Lower temperatures will work as long as they’ve been held long enough.

The short answer: cook your lamb shanks until the meat is falling off the bone, or can be easily cut with a fork.

A browned lamb shank sitting upright on a bed of vegetables with the text master the joy of lamb shanks that fall off the bone.

Bringing it all together

Lamb shanks are a delicious and inexpensive way to enjoy this wonderful meat. And with some time, you can easily braise them to perfection.

The most popular approach to braising lamb shanks

Based on 30 recipes from professionals, celebrity chefs and popular bloggers, the most successful approach to braising lamb shanks is:

  1. Sear your shanks, taking time to get them beautifully browned on as much of the exterior surface as possible, then remove them from the pot.
  2. Saute your aromatics, especially onion, garlic, carrot and celery.
  3. Deglaze the pan with your braising liquid. A combination of a good quality stock and red wine is a great choice.
  4. Return the shanks to the pot so that they’re sitting in the liquid, but not fully submerged.
  5. Bake in a 350°F (175°C) oven, covered.
  6. Remove when the meat can be cut with a fork or spoon, almost falling apart. This is likely to take 2 to 2½ hours.

And as a final step (if needed), remove the meat and vegetables and simmer the sauce to reduce it to the thickness you want.

Choosing the best recipe for you

There are hundreds of lamb shank recipes out there, and most of them are very similar at their core, so how do you choose the right one for you and your family?

Based on the variations I’ve seen here, and the comments of the readers of many of these recipes, here are some factors to consider before you start trying to modify a particular recipe:

  • How much you like tomato. Most lamb shank recipes contain some type of tomato. Some use a little, and some a lot. And if you don’t like it at all, there are a number that don’t use tomato at all.
  • Your preference for alcohol. Most of the recipes contain wine, typically red, but some white. If you like wine, choose a recipe that uses your preferred style. And if you don’t like it, or don’t drink it, there are recipes that only use stock or other braising liquids.
  • Classic, or not? There are many recipes for a simple classic lamb shank braise. Tomatoes, stock and wine, onions, garlic, a herb or two and maybe carrot and celery but not much more. Equally, there are plenty of wonderful variations – Greek, Middle Eastern, Asian and more. Pick a recipe that matches what you’re looking for.

Seems obvious!

I know this advice probably sounds really obvious, and maybe even a bit condescending, but that’s not my intent at all. In doing my reviews I read a LOT of recipes, and I see so many comments that are one of two twists on the same problem:

  • “I replaced this with that, and something else with something different, and it was really disappointing!”
  • “I replaced this with that, and something else with something different, and it was amazing!”

The first comment is frustrating for the reader and the author. The reader put lots of effort and ingredients into something they didn’t enjoy. And the author put lots of time and effort into creating a recipe that for most people produces great results. If the reader had picked the right recipe for their tastes, they wouldn’t have needed to make all the substitutions, and they most likely would’ve had great results.

The second type of comment is unbelievably common. Arguably it’s not such a big deal because they had a great result. But sometimes they make so many substitutions it’s nothing like the authors recipe. I’ve read comments with five or more significant substitutions or additions. At that point they’re reviewing their own creation, not the author’s. If they’d picked the right recipe to begin with, they would have created the dish as the author intended. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting, but you’re missing out on what the author intended it to be.

So take the time to pick a recipe that suits your tastes.

Recipes included in this review

Lamb shank recipes with tomato

Lamb shank recipes without tomato

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