Grilled Lamb

How To Grill Lamb: Tips, Techniques & Taste


There is no ethnic group—except certain religiously-backed vegan sects in India–that possesses a prohibition against the consumption of lamb. It has a long history with humans, and is one of the oldest domesticated animals in our pastoral pantheon. But, unlike the herding predecessors of the Hindus, the lamb’s sacred status with the desert-dwelling peoples—who stem from the Middle Eastern lands around the Fertile Crescent—was bound intimately with the fact that it was delicious to eat. Today, many people in Western cultures don’t readily connect grilling with the flavour of lamb. This is a sad shortcoming—one that you should help to remedy by showcasing lamb at your next BBQ.

Differences Worthy of Note

Lamb and mutton are, of course, two different forms of the same animal. We know this. But how can you tell the difference when you’re standing in front of the case at your local butcher’s shop or meat counter? First, any cut lamb is more diminutive. It’s from an immature animal. Second, the colour will be decidedly different. Lamb meat is bright pink, with pure white fat. If it’s on the bone, that bone should display a red striation, which is indicative of the stage of the lambs growth. Mutton is nearly purple. The fat deposits are more richly aged, and invariably are yellow, rather than white. If it’s on the bone, those bones will be pure white.

What Cuts Are Best

When you’re considering grilling lamb, and you should, the ideal cuts to select will be the loin, leg, rump, and ribs. You’ve likely seen the complex arrangement of lamb ribs known as a crown or crossed swords, which uses the roasting method, but the ribs are excellent for grilling as well. The trick to obtaining a tender cut of lamb from the grill is in the preparation done by your chosen butcher. We’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s talk about bones. Yes, you can purchase cuts without bones, but they make for excellent stock bases.

When buying lamb with the bones, if you don’t want to tackle the task of removing them yourself, ask your butcher to do it and package the bones separately. There are a number of complex techniques for removing the bones and dressing the meat that form the basis for an entire article on their own. The basic techniques involve removing the layer of fat from the meat and using a sharp boning knife to delicately separate the meat from the bones. You can pull the fat away with your hands almost entirely, with the aid of a few careful strokes of your boning knife. Set aside these portions for that stock we spoke about.

Preparing For the Grill

The important thing to remember is that you want an even thickness to your selected meat. Once the bones have been removed, pound your lamb cut with a meat mallet. This helps to soften the muscle tissue and break down the fat or connective tissues remaining. Next, consider your marinade. While many people advocate marinading times in excess of a day, there’s not much truth the concept that it imparts extra flavour or actually tenderises the meat more than a good six-hour stint. You can, of course, marinade overnight for convenience without undue harm, but the process doesn’t actually contribute to tenderness unless you’re considering time periods long enough that the muscle tissue actually begins to decay—and no one wants that. However, since marinades don’t penetrate deeply, no matter how long you wait, for the thicker portions, you can cut slits and insert entire cloves of garlic for added flavour.

The basic elements of a lamb marinade include oil, an acidic component, and an herb or spice combination. Lemon or red wine are common acidic elements, olive oil is traditional if it is used at all, and garlic, oregano, and basil are the flavour components. Other traditional contexts for mutton or lamb are stews, braises, or dishes involving pastry—the flavour of this animal is perfect for curry, tagine, moussaka, and of course, shepherd’s pie.

When you’re ready for the grill, be sure that the lamb has a good coating of oil, since lamb tends to stick to the hot cooking surface. Alternately, lamb’s strong flavour lends itself well to dry rubs with herbs and spices—chilli, garlic, rosemary, thyme, dry mustard, cumin, cracked black pepper, and even nutmeg and cinnamon in moderation make for excellent flavour combinations. Don’t be shy about grilling lamb, one of the oldest and most mouth-watering ways to celebrate a big event, such as Tuesday or successfully parallel parking on a Saturday.

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