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How to cook lamb properly?

Lamb is something that I've always eaten at a restaurant, but have never made at home.

I tried to make a lamb curry the other day, which failed big time.

I figured if I bought lamb stew meat, that if I cooked it for an hour, like I would with chicken for
a curry, that it would be okay. It came out tough as hell.

If it says lamb stew meat, does that mean you only cook it till medium, so you don't over cook it?
I thought all stew meats were all the same?

Also, I want to make lamb kebabs, what kind of lamb is that?


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  1. I never buy anything they call stew meat, it could be leg meat which cooks fast or shoulder meat which takes hours. I make Indian/Pakistani lamb dishes all the time, but I only use the meat from something I know (leg, shoulder, necks etc).

    For curries, what I recommend, is buying bone in shoulder chops and trimming the fat. Cook the dish (on the bone) and serve it as is. Indian dishes (except in restaurants) are meant to be messy and eating off the bone is normal.

    BTW, sometimes it might take more than an hour to get the meat tender, most likely what you had as stew meat was shoulder meat. This can take up to 2 hours to get tender.

    1. Stew meat need cooking low and slow -- low temperatures for an extended amount of time. Your reward is that you end up with a silky rich mouthfeel. Depending on the cut, it could need not just two hours, but perhaps longer. Marinating in oil and red wine vinegar can help this process considerably -- toss the chunks of meat into a bowl or ziploc with the marinade (and spices!) and leave it in the fridge all day or over night. This will add lots of flavor, and shorten the cooking time.

      (all stew meat is low and slow, by the way -- tough cuts need to be cooked til tender -- way past medium)

      I use leg or shoulder for kebabs -- marinating as above, then threading onto skewers and grilling.

      1 Reply
      1. re: sunshine842

        I do a lamb biryani with a 24 hour marinade using yogurt and tons of spices. It eventually bakes about an hour. I think the long marinade and cook time helps to soften any old cut of lamb. I even toss in the bits of fat & fish them out before serving--adds lots of flavor.

      2. We eat lamb at home more often than we do any other meat. And we cook in variety of styles, including our own north European traditions.

        For long cooked dishes, whether it is curry, tagine, navarin or stew, the process is pretty much the same. We use shoulder or leg meat, cutting it into medium sized chunks (say 25mm cubes). Leg will usually cook quicker than shoulder, but doesnt have as much flavour from the fat. Leg dishes might be ready in about an hour, shoulder will be nearer two - certainly longer than it might take for an equivalent chicken dish.

        For kebabs, I'd usually use leg meat because you need quick cooking without too much fat.

        1. To be slightly redundant...
          you gotta cook the stew meat much longer - essentially until its tender - whether it be two hours or half a day.
          I don't think you can compare cooking lamb to chicken.
          When I make beef/pork/lamb/goat stews (or curries) I generally buy whatevers cheap. Cheap usually means tough and tough usually means long cooking times.

          I don't do much lamb, but other than stews, I think the cut will dictate the type and length of cooking (along with age of the beast, etc).

          1. As mentioned earlier, you need to cook lamb stew low and slow to get the tender morsels you're seeking. It's better to use something with a little more fat, like shoulder, but I'll confess to using stew meat since it's easier to get. When making curry, it's particularly important to stir the pot every now and again to make sure that the onions in your base don't scorch during the long cooking process. Ideally, they will break down and form a lusciously thick sauce that drapes over your tender lamb.

            For kebabs, I use lamb cuts from the leg, usually tenderized with citrus juice and grated onion.

            1. I'm a big fan of Lamb curries. It's like making a stew with stewing beef.
              Cook over low heat for the day (at least 3 to 4 hrs) to get the meat broken
              down. Test it once in a while to see where its at but dont be in a hurry.
              The long slow cook lets all the flavors meld nicely. I usually buy a shoulder and break it down myself.

              1. I usually cook rack of lamb, and since it isn't my favourite meat I've always tweaked it a little the night before. I coat it with a good dollop of olive oil, S & P, and rub it with 1-2 garlic clovescut in paper thin slices and leave it in the fridge overnight. I think this would improve the tougher cuts as well--you could add one of the predominant spices as well to really have it take on more flavour.

                5 Replies
                1. re: applgrl

                  Now, of course, a rack is a quick cooking job. Maybe around 20 minutes in the oven set at 180.

                  1. re: Harters

                    (that's 350 for the Fahrenheit folks)

                    1. re: sunshine842

                      Sorry - I forget that America still uses fahrenheit. Or does Belize still use it as well?

                      1. re: Harters

                        No worries-- my recipe books are now scribbled full of conversions, as are all of the recipes I save on the computer...so now it's mostly second nature. I noticed whilst shopping in the UK last week that I was only looking at the price per kilo now, though, as that's now my frame of reference!

                        Decent weather all week (not great, but decent) -- the Peaks are always good, but better in decent weather.

                        1. re: sunshine842

                          We may have passed each other - I was in the Peaks last week as well :-)

                2. I knew, I was doing something wrong. I love these helpful hints. I will try all your suggestions. It doesn't help that lamb is pretty expensive. Yummy, can't wait to try these lamb ideas! :)

                  1. Mentioned briefly already, but marinading lamb in yogurt will definitely help to tenderize it. However, if you are going for a more southeast asian curry (thai red or green etc) then marinate in coconut milk/cream. Hope that helps you.

                    1. Many Indians use Pressure Cookers to quickly soften tough cuts of meats before continuing with the Currying.

                      1. Although I'm sad to hear others have had problems with this, I'm glad I'm not alone. Misery loves company?

                        I've cooked Indian food for years and lamb has always been a problem. I've consistently used shoulder (Julie Sandhi specifically calls for it) and usually follow the cooking times of the recipes in the cookbooks. Usually Jaffri or Smitra Chandra say to simmer for two hours, and it always ends up tough, and very, very dry. Based on what others are saying here, does that just mean it needs more cooking time? On the way to being fall-apart tender, do the lamb cubes simply need to go through a stage where they are dry and tough as leather?

                        Also, how much trimming do others do? When I get boned lamb shoulder from Whole Foods, I tend to assume I'm going to need 1.5 lbs to get 1 pound of useful meat, due to the amount of fat and gristle. Instead of trimming down my cubes with great precision, should I just toss in the pieces, gristle and all, and assume it will "melt" down? Sometimes I wonder if I'm just ending up with meat that is too lean for long cooking.

                        It took me a long time to understand that I was cooking at to high a temp, basically at a low boil, and thus ruining my meat that way. However, since realizing the error of my ways, and moving into an apartment with a simmer burner on my stove, I've become quite good at holding a low simmer.

                        This has long been a major cooking issue for me. Indian is my favorite style of food to cook, and my favorite cuisine, and in so many other things, I think I'm quite good for a home cook, but red meat curries almost always end up with me producing tough, dry, seemingly over cooked meat. Learning to get moist, flavorful, fall apart lamb in my curries is like the great white whale of my cooking life.

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: The Big Crunch

                          yes -- tough cuts (like shoulder or stew meat) will go though a period where it's very tough, like a clenched fist (which it is, in effect).

                          Keep simmering -- it will loosen up quickly.

                          And you're right -- don't trim it -- the fat helps flavor and keep things moist, and all the gristle and connective tissue will break down and give you a silky sauce.

                          And try a pressure cooker if that doesn't work -- I like my pressure cooker enough that I am wondering why it has fallen so far out of favor with many cooks.

                          1. re: The Big Crunch

                            As I wrote earlier, I think my long marinade in yogurt-flavored spices helps to begin the tenderizing process. If you continue to have tough lamb, consider a vindaloo recipe--the acid will help, too. Altho', as Sunshine842 writes, that toughened meat often will soften up, given time.

                            1. re: The Big Crunch

                              What temp are you cooking it at? A major problem might be how high you are simmering it. If you use lamb shoulder or neck slices for more authentic Indian (preferably bone-in) I recommend putting it in an oven (not on the stove unless you use a heat diffuser and have it on very low). I usually set the oven (which I have an oven thermometer confirming, at about 275). That way the meat doesn't boil all the flavor. 2 hours should be enough at 275.

                              Most cooks cook the food at too high a temp. If the sauce is at more than a slight simmer (a few bubbles here and there, it might (and I say might) be too hot).

                              If you look at Molly Steven's Treatise on Braising, she goes in to this in detail. Works across most foods.

                              1. re: The Big Crunch

                                Oh, also, on the other hand, as a later post mentions, shorter time at higher temps (via the pressure cooker) work well too.

                              2. For curry, I buy the boneless leg at Cosco, cut it into small chunks, and brown. Transfer to large pot and add enough water to cover meat. When liquid starts to simmer I add the curry bars (the curry sauce I use comes in a form similar to a chocolate bar); usually 2 pkgs for 4lbs. Let simmer over low flame as curry bars melt, stirring frequently.

                                1. Just in case you're tempted... DO NOT cook your curry in a pressure cooker - the smell will linger for weeks! I had to spring clean my entire kitchen, wash the rugs and the drapes and wipe down all the fixtures. Valuable lesson learned: use the pressure cooker only to tenderize the meat!

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: Marianne13

                                    Our place already smells like Mumbai, so the pressure cooker can't make it any stronger.

                                  2. 1. buy lamb shoulder; 2. butcher it yourself (I know it's a pain, but the end result it worth it) 1" cubes; 3. sear the meat before you stew or curry (don't overcrowd the pan--or it will steam not sear) 4. then stew or curry until the meat is so tender it starts to fall apart.

                                    For kebabs, I would use boneless leg meat, just my preference.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: jayeno

                                      Jayeno, yup, the shoulder is key. When you don't butcher it, you never know what cut it is.