With Easter right around the corner, sales of lamb have been increasing. And that, paradoxically, is part of the problem for the lamb industry.
"People generally think of lamb for special occasions and holidays, and that's about it," the marketing director of the American Lamb Board, Megan Wortman, said. So after Easter, sales will go back down to pre-holiday levels. And those levels tend to be low: Annual lamb consumption in America is only one pound per capita, compared with 66.5 pounds for beef and 50 pounds for pork.
Industry sources cite many reasons for this, including the lack of a concerted marketing effort (there's no lamb equivalent to "Pork: The Other White Meat" or "Beef: It's What's for Dinner"), the squeamishness of some people about consuming such a young animal, and the simple fact that many Americans don't like lamb's robust flavor profile.
As a result, the boutique meat revolution has largely left lamb behind. Consider, for example, that people have learned to discuss all sorts of variables when it comes to beef: Prime versus Choice, dryaged versus wet-aged, grass-fed versus grain-fed, Wagyu versus Kobe. And more people are becoming fluent in the ways of heritage pork breeds. But for most people — even fairly serious foodies — lamb is just, well, lamb.
That's a shame, because lamb is at least as nuanced a product as any of the other meats. Here's a quick primer:
Grading Lamb carcasses receive quality grades — Prime, Choice, and so on — from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, just as beef does. The main criterion, as with beef, is intramuscular marbling, which contributes tenderness and flavor. Only about 2% of the American beef supply grades out to Prime, but top-grade lamb is slightly more plentiful — 8.1% last year, according to the USDA. Yet you almost never see a butcher shop or a menu touting "USDA Prime lamb." Yet you almost never see a butcher shop or a menu touting "USDA Prime lamb." If in doubt, ask your waiter or butcher. And whatever the grade, look for plenty of marbling, just as you would when shopping for beef.
Country of origin About 55% of the lamb we eat is produced domestically; the rest comes from Australia and New Zealand. Different chefs and butchers have differing preferences, but everyone seems to agree on two points: New Zealand lamb is the least expensive and the smallest (if you ever see those tiny lamb chop "lollipops" offered as hors d'oeuvres, they're almost certainly from New Zealand), and American lamb is the largest and priciest.
"We used to say that our lambs were bred primarily for the meat, while the others were using wool breeds and their meat was just a byproduct," Ms. Wortman said. "But the Australians have tinkered with their genetics, and now it's a darn good product. Honestly, I have a hard time differentiating Australian from American."
Walter Scheib had to use American lamb during the 11 years he served as the executive chef at the White House. After he left Washington in 2005, he came to prefer the Australian product. "We found that American lamb was much larger and was a little bit tough, a little chewier, as if they'd let them grow past the ideal weight," he said. "The flavor of the Australian lamb is perfect — lamb-y, but very mild, and extremely tender."
One reason for that tenderness: Most Australian lamb is sealed in Cryovac bags and kept at about 37 degrees during a six-week boat trip to America — if you remove the boat, that's essentially the same wet-aging process often used to tenderize beef.
Aging Aside from the de facto wetaging of Australian lamb, you rarely see restaurants or butchers offering aged lamb meat. But this weekend, all the restaurants in the B.R. Guest management group — which in New York includes Dos Caminos, Fiamma, Isabella's, Atlantic Grill, and Blue Fin — will be serving dry-aged lamb specials for Easter.
"Lamb has a strong enough flavor to begin with, which is why you don't see it dry-aged very often," B.R. Guest's corporate executive chef, Brett Reichler, said. "But we found that 15-day aging tenderizes the meat really nicely, and provides a richer flavor." If the specials do well, he said, the aged lamb may be offered more frequently.
Spring lamb The term "spring lamb" used to refer to meat from lambs that had been born in the spring (the traditional birthing season) and slaughtered when very young. Now the term is applied rather loosely, usually to smaller, younger animals.
"The lamb producers will actually grow the lambs larger in the winter, when people are doing big roasts, and smaller in the summer," the coowner of the O. Ottomanelli & Sons butcher shop in Greenwich Village, Frank Ottomanelli, said. "So in the summer, people say, ‘Why are these chops so small?' But the meat is much sweeter. And in the winter, the chops are nice and big, but I'll have customers say, ‘It wasn't as tender as that meat I bought from you a few months ago.'"
Lamb vs. mutton Technically speaking, mutton refers to meat from a sheep more than a year old. It's hard to find in New York, since most American lamb is slaughtered at about eight or nine months. But Keens, the old-school chophouse on 36th Street, has had a 28-ounce mutton chop on the menu for decades. The dirty little secret: It's actually 10-month-old lamb, but Keens continues to call it mutton as a nod to history. By any name, it's a hearty, robust-flavored treat.
Heritage breeds Although pigs and turkeys are the star animals of the heritage breed movement, there are heritage lamb breeds, too. A good example: the Katahdin, which is wool-less (it just grows a thin hair coat and requires no shearing), so it doesn't produce much lanolin, the greasy substance that can make some lamb taste gamy.
Heritage Foods USA offers meat from Katahdins, as well as from Dorsets, Romneys, and other breeds. But the group's co-founder, Patrick Martins, said sales have been sluggish. "With pork, chefs are saying, ‘Yeah, send me the whole loin, with all the back fat — I'll cook it three different ways,'" he said. "But with lamb, it's like, ‘Give me a boneless leg,' and that's it.
"There just isn't as much of a lamb culture here in America," he said, summing up the industry's woes. "It's just a tougher nut to crack."
Where To Eat Easter Lamb
Want to do your part to boost America's rate of lamb consumption? Here are some good places to start:
B.R. Guest Restaurants All the restaurants under the B.R. Guest ownership umbrella will be offering dry-aged lamb specials this weekend. For the full restaurant listing, go to www.brguestrestaurants.com.
Cheburechnaya (92-09 63rd Dr., Rego Park, Queens, 718-897-9080) This kosher Uzbeki kebab house offers a wide range of spectacular — and spectacularly inexpensive — lamb-on-a-stick options, including cubed lamb, delectable lamb riblets, lamb heart, lamb testicles (a bit rubbery), and even cubed lamb fat (surprisingly wonderful).
Heritage Foods USA (www.heritagefoodsusa.com) This pioneering organization offers mail-order service for meat from rare lamb breeds, including the woolless Katahdin.
Keens Steakhouse (72 W. 36th St., 212-947-3636) Open since 1885, Keens is a classic slice of old New York, not least because of its double- and triple-cut lamb chops (tender, mild, juicy) and its signature "mutton" chop (a bit heartier, with a punchier taste).
Milos (125 W. 55th St., 212-245-7400) Every year, on the Saturday night before Greek Easter, Milos spit-roasts 16 lambs on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. The resulting meal is served shortly after midnight, so worshippers attending midnight mass at nearby Greek Orthodox churches can head directly to the restaurant to break their Lenten fasts. This festive scene will take place this Saturday night.
O. Ottomanelli & Sons (285 Bleecker St., 212-675-4217): Instead of simply phoning in orders to the wholesale markets, as many butchers do, Frank Ottomanelli goes to the market every day to personally choose the lamb carcasses that will end up as chops and roasts in his Greenwich Village shop.
Per Se (10 Columbus Circle, 4th floor, 212-823-9335) Thomas Keller recently began serving Pure Bred Lamb, a "holistic" brand raised on seven family farms in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The excellent Pure Bred meat is also available for retail sale at Dean & DeLuca (560 Broadway, 212-226-6800, and 1150 Madison Ave., 212-717-0800), Jefferson Market (450 Sixth Ave., 212-533-3377), and Grace's Marketplace (1237 Third Ave., 212-737-0600).