Each week this summer, Cara Nicoletti of The Meat Hook is helping us get to know our favorite cuts a little bit better – and introducing you to a few new ones, too. Read on, study up, then hightail it to your nearest butcher.
Today: We're talking lamb chops -- 3 different kinds, to be exact, and the best way to cook each one.
Lamb has long been associated with Springtime: It is eaten during spring holidays like Easter and Passover, and a large crop of lambs are born during this season. When we first emerge from our winter fogs, lamb recipes jump to greet us. We pair it with spring vegetables, brighten it up with fresh mint, and pile it with tart, late-spring rhubarb. However, once summer rolls around, lamb recipes become scarce. Today, we are going to right this wrong -- and the solution is lamb chops.
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Many people don't know that there are actually three types of lamb chops, all delicious in their own right. It's time to bring lamb into your summer grilling rotation -- it's time to talk chops.
Let’s start with what is widely considered the king of all lamb cuts: the rib chop. These are the equivalent of a ribeye steak on a cow, and are recognizable by the long, thin rib bone extending from the tiny lollipop of meat. Prized for their rich flavor and tender bite, they are the most expensive cut on the animal.
If you're one of those that likes to gnaw your meat to the bone, ask your butcher for an "un-frenched" chop, or one that hasn't had the last few inches of meat and fat trimmed off. Rib chops are best when cooked to medium-rare, around 130° F. Allow them to rest for about 5 minutes before serving.
Next up is the loin chop, which sits between the ribs and the leg of the animal -- it’s the lamb equivalent of a porterhouse or T-bone steak. There is much more meat on a loin chop than on a rib chop, and the meat, although ever so slightly less tender and flavorful than a rib chop, is still absolutely delicious -- and it goes for a significantly lower price. Like the rib chop, it’s best cooked to medium-rare, or 130° F, and should be allowed to rest before serving.
Last but certainly not least, there is the shoulder chop --my personal favorite. It's also the least expensive of the three by a large margin. The shoulder is a hard-working and fatty area on the animal, which means that chops from that region are less tender than a rib or loin chop. However, they have a significantly bolder flavor; in my opinion, the trade-off is well worth it.
Shoulder chops are larger in size than rib and loin chops, and have a tougher muscle structure. This means that you will want to cook them slightly longer than a rib or loin chop, and at lower heat. They also benefit from a brine, a rub, or a marinade to help break down the tough muscle fibers. When cooking, give the chop a hard sear on the hotter side of the grill -- about 2 to 3 minutes per side -- before moving the meat to a cooler zone. Cook until it's just at the edge of medium-rare. about 135° F to 140° F. The shoulder has more fat and connective tissues than the other chops, so it needs to cook slightly longer to help them break down. Allow your lamb to rest about 10 minutes before serving.
Before heading to the butcher for your lamb, remember these three tips:
Go thicker: Because the eye of the meat is so small on the rib and loin chops, get them cut thickly -- about 1 1/2 inches is ideal. This will give you some leeway and help make sure you won't overcook the meat.
The Ole' Salt and Sit: Like steaks, lamb chops should be salted and allowed to reach room temperature before cooking. Allow 20 to 30 minutes for the rib and loin chops, and 30 to 40 for the shoulder chop. This will ensure even cooking, and the pre-salting will act as a kind of quick brine to tenderize and flavor the meat.
Conquer your fears: If you love the taste of lamb, go out on a limb and try purchasing a slightly older animal. Mutton has a very negative connotation in the U.S., but a more mature animal will have more flavor and better-developed marbling and fat. You just might find that, when it comes to sheep, you prefer a more mature specimen.
What's your idea of the perfect lamb chop? Tell us in the comments!
Cara Nicoletti is a butcher and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Cara started working in restaurants when she moved to New York in 2004, and was a baker and pastry chef for several years before following in her grandfather and great-grandfathers' footsteps and becoming a butcher. She is the writer behind the literary recipe blog, Yummy-Books.com, and author of Voracious, which will be published by Little, Brown in 2015. She is currently a whole-animal butcher and sausage-making teacher at The Meat Hook in Williamsburg.