Lamb: What to look for and how to cook it

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American Lamb is the meat that comes from sheep that are less than a year old. Sheep raised in the United States are generally processed at 7 to 10 months of age.

Lamb meat is made up of muscles held together by collagen and silverskin. Collagen is a soft white connective tissue that will break down into gelatin when heated. Silverskin is a rubbery connective tissue that will not break down and thus should be trimmed from the lamb prior to cooking.

Lamb is a primary protein in many countries throughout the world, especially in regions of North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Europe. American lamb is a popular menu item thanks to the larger cut sizes, its distinctive flavor profile, freshness and tenderness.

Neumeister Sappington-02

US Sheep Production

There are more than six million sheep in the United States and more than 80,000 sheep farms and ranches, the vast majority of which are family owned and operated. Flocks in the East and Midwest are smaller, usually between 50 to 300 animals, while operations in the West range from those same small flock sizes up to 10,000 sheep. Sheep are raised in every state. Leading sheep production states are Texas, California, Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota.

The most common breeds of sheep in the United States are Dorset, Hampshire, Rambouillet and Suffolk. These breeds are known for their larger size.

American sheep are reared on a high-quality natural forage diet. Depending on quality, American lambs are marketed directly from the range or pasture while others are grain finished for a short period of time before being processed.



Values provided by the American Lamb Board, referencing the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 17 (2008)

American lamb is naturally nutrient rich. It is an excellent source of high-quality protein. On average, a 3-ounce serving of lamb has 175 calories and meets almost half of an average adult’s daily reference value for protein. Lamb is an excellent source of vitamin B12, niacin, zinc and selenium. It is a good source of iron and riboflavin.

Compared to other meats, lamb contains less fat marbling throughout the meat. With much of the fat limited to outside edges (the fat cap), it is easily trimmed if desired. Forty percent of the fat in lean lamb is monounsaturated fat, the same kind found in olive oil. A 3-ounce serving of lamb delivers approximately 100 mg of the essential omega-3 fatty acid, alpha linolenic acid. A 3-ounce serving of lamb provides nearly five times the amount of alpha linolenic acid compared to a 3-ounce serving of beef.

Uncured fresh lamb ribs. Ready to cook ribs.

Cuts of Meat

The four primal cuts, or major sections, of American lamb are:

  • SHOULDER, which includes the first four rib bones of each side and the arm and neck bones.
  • RACK, which consist of eight rib bones located between the shoulder and the loin of the lamb.
  • LOIN, which is the cut between the rack and leg that includes the 13th rib, the loin eye muscle, the center section of the tenderloin, the loin strip and some flank meat.
  • LEG, which contains the last portion of the backbone, hip bone, aitchbone, round bone, hindshank and tail bone and includes part of the sirloin, the top round and the bottom round.

Popular fabricated, or ready-to-cook, cuts are:

  • RACK OF LAMB (or rib roast) has eight rib bones. American Rack of lamb is noted for its larger ribeyes. Chefs may request that their suppliers provide the racks frenched to specifications or they may french the racks in-house. Frenching is the removal of at least 1.5 inches of meat from the bone ends of a rib roast or rib chops.
  • SHOULDER CHOPS, also called blade and arm chops, require a shorter amount of cooking time than other cuts, making them an economical and flavorful choice for quick and easy meals.
  • LOIN CHOPS, sometimes called T-bone chops, are lean, tender and flavorful and are one of the most readily available cuts at the grocery store and butcher shop.
  • LAMB SHANKS are lean and flavorful, and practically melt off the bone when they are slow cooked.
  • LAMB LEG can be prepared with or without the bone. The bone adds both flavor and richness to the meat.
  • GROUND LAMB is growing in popularity. It can be substituted for other ground meats. It is usually an 80/20 blend containing lean meat and trimmings from the leg and shoulder.

American Lamb Kofta Meatballs and Green Chutney

Culinary Tips

  • Fresh lamb should be stored in the refrigerator at 32°F to 38°F. Freeze at 0°F or below.
  • Tougher cuts of meat from working muscles, such as the shoulder and leg, have more connective tissue and are less tender. They should be prepared using moistheat cooking methods, such as braising or stewing.
  • More tender cuts of meat, such as rack or loin, should be prepared using dry-heat cooking methods such as roasting or grilling.
  • Lamb should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F for medium-rare, 160°F for medium, and 170°F for well done. Ground lamb should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160°F.
  • Remember, the lamb will continue to cook slightly upon standing, so remove it from the heat source at a somewhat lower temperature than you prefer.
  • To help with moisture retention and tenderness, let lamb stand for 5 to 15 minutes before slicing.
  • A boneless leg is a favorite of many chefs because it can be stuffed with a range of ingredients or simply roasted and sliced.
  • Lamb spareribs are often referred to as Denver ribs.
  • Tying a lamb roast helps to maintain a consistent shape and cook evenly.
  • Merguez, a spicy North African sausage traditionally made with lamb, is growing in popularity.
  • Some top flavors that complement the flavor of American lamb are mustard, rosemary, lemon, garlic, mint and harissa.

Rack of Lamb with rosemary and spices

Fun Facts

  • Meat from a sheep less than one year of age is called lamb. Meat from an older animal is referred to as mutton.
  • No artificial growth hormones are used in lamb production in the United States.*
  • Many cities, municipalities, forests and even vineyards use sheep for land management purposes, including weed control, crop clean up and to prevent forest fires.
  • Shepherds often use guard animals, such as dogs, llamas and donkeys, to help protect their flocks.
  • The vast majority of American Lamb will grade as choice or prime.

* Although growth hormones are not used in lamb production in the United States, they are legal to use.

AmLamb_twocolor_1This content is sponsored by The American Lamb Board.

The American Lamb Board is an industry-funded research and promotions commodity board that represents all sectors of the American Lamb industry including producers, feeders, seed stock producers and processors. The Board, appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, is focused on increasing demand by promoting the freshness, flavor, nutritional benefits and culinary versatility of American Lamb. The work on the American Lamb Board is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Board’s programs are supported and implemented by the staff in Denver, Colorado.

For additional information, please visit The “Curriculamb,” a free, comprehensive culinary education resource on American lamb and has been ACF-approved for 4.5 continuing education hours.