heep were one of the earliest staple animals as humans made the transition from hunters to farmers. Meat, milk and wool all come from this useful, relatively small ruminant, making it most likely to succeed as one of the first domesticated animals. And sheep graze happily on meager pasture, so they can be reared in marginal, rocky areas. Also going for them (or their shepherds) is their flocking behavior. It does make it easy to keep track of them when they are out in pasture.
As testament to their success as a domesticated species, there are more than 200 breeds in existence today, each developed to a specific purpose. Some are bred for wool production, like the Merino, others for milk, like the East Fresian, which is responsible for much of the sheep milk in the world (which gets made into some of the best cheese!). In France, the Lacaune breed is the sheep of choice for producing the milk to make the legendary Roquefort cheese. And some breeds are best for succulent meat, like Cheviot, Dorset, Rambouillet or Suffolk sheep. And many breeds are good for all three.
Lamb vs. Mutton
Lamb refers to meat from young sheep less than 12 months old, which is tender and mild in flavor. The meat from a sheep older than one year is called mutton, and it has a more intense flavor and somewhat less tender texture. Some cultures prefer to eat mutton (we’re looking at you, Great Britain!), and have developed recipes that require long slow cooking to break down the meat and tenderize it. There is another category called yearling mutton, which refers to meat from a sheep between 1 year and 2 years old. Yearling mutton will be darker, somewhat coarser and firmer with more fat and obviously larger overall than true lamb. Americans will be more likely to eat young lamb than mutton, when they do hunker down to their one pound of lamb a year.
Why We Should Eat More Lamb
The other red meat is good for you! Lamb meat has eight essential amino acids in the proper ratios, has high-quality protein, and is high in B vitamins, zinc and iron. And lamb is pretty lean compared to other red meats. Most of the fat is on the outside, not marbled throughout the meat, so it’s easily trimmed off. About 36 percent of the fat in lamb is saturated fat, and the rest is mono or polyunsaturated fat. And then there is the CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) which is a unique antioxidant that the human body cannot produce, but must get from eating herbivores like sheep, goats or cows. Lambs that get to eat clean pasture and range in the sunshine produce the most CLA.
D’Artagnan sources humanely-raised lamb from Australia, where there is a strong tradition of pasturing these wooly ruminants. A cross between the Dorset, White Suffolk and Border Leicester-Merino breeds, the sheep dine on clover and rye grasses, ensuring a sweet, mild flavor that is not gamey (a common complaint of uninitiated lamb eaters).
Domestic lamb is raised in the Rocky Mountain region by a small cooperative of family farms. They raise the heritage Rambouillet/Suffolk mixed breed on high altitude pasture, and finish them with a grain supplement. Like the farmers in our other cooperatives, they insist on following natural processes, never administering antibiotics or hormones.
The Rocky Mountains are an ideal place to raise lambs, with hundreds of thousands of acres of open pastures for grazing, comfortable temperatures and plenty of water and sunshine. This pristine and healthy environment minimizes stress on the animals and produces robust, well-fed lambs. Lambs grown in this environment are meatier than lambs grown in many other areas due to the optimal growth environment and unique genetics.
Lambs are raised to an average age of 6-9 months, which means their meat is quite tender with rich flavor. The grass and grain diet contributes to a mild, less gamey flavor than that which many associate with lamb.
Racks, shanks, leg of lamb, lamb tenderloin, lamb shoulder—where to begin? Whatever the cut, the key to tasty lamb is not to overcook it! Nobody will be won over to the flavor of lamb if they are offered dry, grey, overcooked meat. Cook to medium rare, or 130 degrees F, which is the temperature that most chefs prefer for lamb, leaving all the juices, texture and flavor intact. In general, rack of lamb is great when roasted braised, or grilled. Leg of lamb can be marinated and roasted, and shanks respond well to braising and roasting. And if you are too timid to start with a lamb rack, try lamb merguez sausage - a favorite in North African and French cuisine.