Selecting Lamb

Written by David McCarthy, Australia

This selecting lamb article is being published to follow the extraordinary success of our beef article. I must admit I wasn't aware of how much interest articles on meat selection would have. Of all the articles we have published, selecting beef is by far the most frequently read online.

This is very pleasing because for too many years supermarkets in general have been using all types of presentation tricks to hide the true quality of meat that you select; this is why you will never see a chef buying supermarket meat.

The first thing you need to know is that lamb only comes from an animal slaughtered between 3 months and one year old. After that it becomes mutton, even if it is being sold at lamb prices. How do you identify lamb when buying? The size of the leg is a very good indicator. A young animal is small. Also country of origin is a good indicator because we all know that lamb is between 3 months and a year old and they start being born in early spring through to early summer. Therefore it would be foolish to expect to buy lamb that is product of a northern hemisphere country after, say November. Why? Because if it is born in April is is starting to get old by November.

However, in the southern hemisphere the seasons are opposite so New Zealand lamb starts getting slaughtered around late December or early January and continues through to around May or June. Most New Zealand lamb is slaughtered at 4 months and you can usually trust the product. The same cannot be said of other lamb producers who claim all meat from the sheep is lamb.

Selecting Lamb

A good joint of lamb should have a good depth of lean meat covered by a moderate layer of fat. The skin should be pliable to touch, not hard or wrinkled. Leg and shoulder joints should have a plump rather than flat appearance. Finally a blue tinge in the knuckle and rib bones indicates a young animal.

You must remember that all imported meat has been frozen, as well as some home produce, and meat that has been frozen has a less delicate flavor than fresh and it looks different: The lean meat of a frozen carcass is paler and does not have the bloom of fresh meat. The fat is whiter and crumbles more easily. If the fat is very brittle it is a sign that the meat has been frozen for a long time; it will generally shrink during cooking and have a bland taste.

Nutritional Aspects of Lamb

Lamb is a delicately flavored meat and a rich source of iron and other minerals. It is especially rich in B complex vitamins, essential for for the release of energy from all foods and for the general health of the skin and nerve tissues.

Lamb Joints and Uses

  • If you are roasting (baking) lamb it is best to use the leg, shoulder or loin cuts. Rosemary and garlic are the cooking herbs most complimentary to lamb.
  • If you wish to use chops then loin chops or best end of neck chops are the tastiest, either grilled, barbecued or fried.
  • If you are cooking in a casserole, slow cooker or braising then neck, chump chops and rib is best.
  • There are other parts that I do not go into because I never use them and that includes the breast and the scrag.(Scrag is the thin end of the neck). Also Noisettes. This is a rolled piece of meat taken from the loin with the fat trimmed off. They are normally about 6 ounces (170 grams) each in weight and are round and these are suitable for grilling or frying.


If, when you arrive home with your shopping you find that you have mutton rather than lamb then the only way to cook it is very slowly. I favor slow roasting (about 4 hours) in a cooking bag with some rosemary and crushed garlic. It will shrink back from the bone but it is the only way to make it tender.

Lamb is a beautiful tasting meat and should almost melt in the mouth. But as this article indicates you must be careful when buying it and never, ever, trust a supermarket that labels it as lamb. You will buy much better from a an old fashioned butcher.

I am very fortunate to have a butcher that operates next door to a slaughterhouse less than 15 miles from my home. I'm happy to drive that far to be sure that I am getting good meat. I know that not everybody is so fortunate but if you apply the checks from this article you will find decent meat.

Finally I may sound very anti supermarkets and I wish to point out that this is not true. I believe they serve a purpose in the food chain and sometimes you do find a good one, but if they are very honest they will have to admit that very often honest marking of products is rated below marketing hype.

This article is copyright © David McCarthy.

This article reflects the views of the author and is not meant to be medical advice. As with anything dealing with your health, you should see a medical professional for prevention, diagnosis and treatment of specific health problems.

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