Adding to the Menu
Nearly 10 years ago, I made the commitment to eat lamb on a regular basis. It was a slow process but now lamb is the most common protein eaten at our household, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Growing up we did not eat lamb or mutton. These products were not a staple of our diet and we lacked the knowledge to prepare an array of lamb or mutton entrees.
My hometown community had a negative opinion of lamb, which most people accepted as true without direct experiences. Cabrito, young goat, was a delicacy and only a few pit masters in the area dared to cook it. Yet, most of the goat meat never made it to the serving line, as the cooks (and loiterers) ate it straight off the pit.
We were typical “Beef Loving Texans.” Although, we raised more sheep and goats than cattle, it rarely crossed my mind why we did not support these industries similarly to our support for the beef industry.
Lamb, mutton, and goat meat have unique flavors and aromas, which my children truly enjoy as they have grown up eating these on a regular basis. However, my wife and I had to learn to appreciate that they are different from other red meats.
As you are likely aware, flavor comes from the fat. To me, lamb flavor has a sweetness to it that other red meats do not. I’ve come to hold it in high regard. Mutton has a bolder flavor that can be too much for those who don’t eat sheep meat regularly.
Diet of the animal when the fat is deposited can change the flavor. Grains tend to result in milder flavor; whereas, grass tends to result in bolder flavor. The older and fatter the animal the more intense this can be.
Odor is released from the fat during the cooking process. In some cases, the smell from this can resemble how the animals smell alive, which obviously turns people away. This is compounded when cooked inside a home and/or a sealed cooking method. If the raw product has mild animal odor, it will likely be more prominent during the cooking process. As such, I suggest cooking it outside!
For me, the smell of sheep or goat does not come through in the flavor of cooked product. Mutton or goat meat, particularly mature billies, can have this effect. For many international cultures, these more intense flavors are actually preferred, and they have honed their cooking techniques to make them more pleasing to the palate. I would suggest trying a recipe outside of what is considered traditional American fare if you want to experiment with mutton, and I bet you will be pleasantly surprised.
Lamb fat has a lower melting point than beef, which can result in flare ups on the BBQ pit. Keep a close eye on lamb over an open flame! The fat also tends to congeal at a lower temperature, so to me it is important to eat lamb while it is hot or the fat will become tacky. This tackiness will stick to the roof of your mouth and provide an undesirable eating experience. If the majority of the fat is cooked away, then temperature is not as important.
Some people have a difficult time overcoming prior perceptions and they may never be able appreciate these products. Others can overcome these barriers quicker and will likely be a “fan of lamb” in shorter order. Fortunately, the poor perceptions of sheep and goat meats are fading away and the general public are less antagonistic to these products from the beginning.
Often I hear stories of people who have tried lamb in a restaurant and the dish was prepared with an over-abundance of spices and sauces to mask the flavor. My advice is to start simple, grill some chops at home with your favorite steak spices, and don’t bother with a sauce. You can always add more next time, but simplicity almost never fails in this case.
Lamb and goat meat are expensive to purchase at the grocery store, particularly compared chicken or pork. Generally, grocery stores only carry the more expensive cuts that sell for $5 -15 per lb. They tend to have higher margins built in because their sales volumes are low. But they regularly discount lamb or goat meat products to market them before it expires. This is where we started sourcing it.
Cheaper imported products can be purchased but I prefer to support American farmers and ranchers. Plus, I like domestic product better than imports, and I am always perplexed when I see lamb on a menu and it is marketed as being from New Zealand or Australia. While I believe imports have their place, I also believe we have the best product in the world here in the US.
A less expensive way to source lamb or goat meat is to take live animals to a local butcher and purchase half or whole animals. This keeps the overall costs down. It also keeps a supply of product in the freezer to be used without planning too far ahead. Processing costs generally add $2-4 per pound, plus you have transportation costs both ways.
The most cost-effective way to put lamb or goat meat in your freezer is to harvest and process the animals yourself. Currently, this is my preferred strategy. For $4 to 6 per pound, I have several diverse cuts that I can prepare in a number of ways and maybe more importantly my children learn first-hand where our meat comes from. The time spent harvesting, processing, and packaging go by quick and are completely worthwhile.
Making the transition to eating lamb and goat meat on a more regular basis takes time and effort. But I have valued the process immensely. Prior to this, I was jaded with perception and unfamiliarity. Not only do we now get to enjoy some of the finest proteins around, but I can promote my industry with experience and conviction. Eating homegrown meat is enjoyable not only to the palate, but the sheep producer in me realizes the opportunity I have capitalized on to raise, harvest, and eat my own food.
To provide feedback on this article or request topics for future articles, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 325-657-7324. For general questions about sheep and goats, contact your local Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service county office. If they can’t answer your question, they have access to someone who can.