Spring is such a great season for epicureans. There is a bounty of fresh ingredients and with the change-over from heavy cooking like braising to the grill we see an influx of lighter dishes being brought to the table. Besides produce we see items like the spring lamb coming to the table. In both the Jewish and Christian religions lamb is a traditional meal served during the spring holidays. In the Jewish religion the Torah states that there should be a sacrifice of a lamb the night before Passover and the meat should be eaten on the first day of the holiday. In Christianity the lamb is a traditional food served for an Easter feast which is a carryover from the Jewish tradition. The reason that this food is equated to these holidays is the abundance of young sheep during the spring season.
Sheep live for at least 10 years, but when they are young they are called lamb. The meat that is eaten off of a sheep that is older than 1 year is called mutton. Sheep are a very important part of the worldwide market, producing wool and milk and meat. This meat is usually tougher than lamb and needs longer cooking times and moisture while cooking to help tenderize it. When the meat is less than a year it is much more tender and fits into the quicker cooking methods used in the warmer months.
Sheep came to America with Columbus and now there are 40 breeds, out of the 900 worldwide, producing milk, food and wool. An average sheep can produce 8 pounds of wool a year, in its one shearing per year. This amount of wool can make 80 miles of yarn.
The three major producers of lamb in the world are Australia, New Zealand and the United States, most notably Colorado. The domestic breeds are the largest of the varieties so if you like large muscles this is the best type to buy. This would be especially so for racks of lamb. Since most American lamb is grain fed this will also have the least gamey flavor. New Zealand produces the smallest and the youngest of the breeds.
Australian lamb was traditionally grown for wool production so the meat was less desirable than other countries’ meat. In recent years they have worked hard to create a more desirable product for food and have bred their sheep with American breeds to create a more desirable product for eating. This lamb meat is cheaper than a domestic product.
The lowest quality meat comes from the New Zealand lamb. These breeds are used to produce wool but the quality and quantity of meat is much less than the other varieties. These breeds are also grass fed rather than grain fed which adds to the “gamey” taste you might experience. This is a very common product used when cost is a bigger factor than quality. This is the youngest of the products brought to market, usually 6-7 months old.
Lamb consumption in the United States is on the decline, down to about a pound a year per person. This is a great contrast to Icelanders that consume 55 pounds per year. The Icelandic lamb is only available in the fall and usually in a higher end store. China has the largest amount of the 1 billion sheep in the world, but it is used for wool production more than for a food source.
If you like the flavor of lamb but do not like the price of it, there are many cuts that you can buy that are cheaper and easy to use. The most tender cut, as with most animals, is the center cuts such as the ribs. These muscles work very little so they are tender. The young lamb, under one year, is tender but some muscles even though they are not used are still tough. The tender cuts are the rack and the loin chop, but a less expensive cut of lamb would be a shoulder chop or a rib. These cuts have excellent flavor but they cannot be cooked on the grill or other dry heat methods. These cuts have great full flavor but should be braised to tenderize the tough cuts of meat.