NDSU Extension Service - Ramsey County


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Lamb - A Seasonable Favorite

Lamb – A Seasonable Favorite


                Sheep have been raised by humans beginning about 9,000 years ago in the Middle East making lamb a long standing source of protein for human.  Many Americans think of lamb as a springtime food, but it can be enjoyed year round.  The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline (1-888-674-6854 toll-free) has several reminders for us about lamb.

                What is the difference between lamb and mutton?
                Sheep carcasses are classified as lamb, yearling mutton, or mutton depending on their age as evidenced by their muscles and bones.  The flavor of lamb is milder than mutton. Lamb is produced from younger animals, typically less than a year old, and mutton is produced from older animals. Most lambs are brought to market at about 6 to 8 months old. A lamb weighs about 140 pounds and yields approximately 46 to 49 pounds of edible lean retail lamb cuts, semi-boneless.

                How is lamb inspected?
                All lamb found in retail stores is either USDA inspected for wholesomeness or inspected by state systems which have standards equal to the Federal government. Each lamb and its internal organs are inspected for signs of disease. The "Passed and Inspected by USDA" seal insures the lamb is wholesome and free from disease. 

                What does the grade mean?
                Grading for quality is voluntary. A processing plant may request to have its lamb graded for quality based on traits such as tenderness, juiciness and flavor. USDA-graded lamb sold at the retail level is Prime, Choice, and Good. Lower grades (Utility and Cull) are mainly ground or used in processed meat products.  Lamb quality grades take into consideration maturity (lamb, yearling mutton, and mutton), conformation, and the palatability-indicating characteristics, such as fat streaking within the flank and firmness of the lean.

                What to Look for When Selecting Lamb
                When shopping for lamb, look for meat that is fine textured and firm that has red coloring and white marbling (white flecks of fat within the meat muscle). The fat trim should be firm, white, and not too thick. The USDA quality grades are reliable guides.

                Retail Cuts of Fresh Lamb
                There are five basic major (primal) cuts into which the lamb carcass is separated: shoulder, rack, shank/breast, loin, and leg. It is recommended that packages of fresh lamb purchased in the supermarket be labeled with the primal cut as well as the product, such as "shoulder roast" or "loin chop."

                What is a rack of lamb?
                The "rack" is the primal cut, more commonly known as the rib. The rack contains 9 full ribs and can be split (along the back bone) into two lamb rib roasts. A "lamb crown roast" is made by sewing two rib roasts together to form a circle or crown.

                What is a lamb chop?
                Chops can come from various primal cuts. "Loin" chops come from the loin and "rib" chops come from the rack (or rib); these are the most tender and most expensive chops. "Blade" and "arm" chops (from the shoulder) and "sirloin" chops (from the leg) are less expensive but may be just as tender.

Raw Lamb. Select lamb just before checking out at the register. Put packages of raw lamb in disposable plastic bags (if available) to contain any leakage which could cross-contaminate cooked foods or produce that will be eaten raw such as salad.


Marinate lamb roasts, steaks, or chops in the refrigerator up to 5 days. Lamb cubes or stew meat can be marinated up to 2 days. Boil used marinade before brushing on cooked lamb. Discard any uncooked leftover marinade.

                Safe Cooking
For safety, the USDA recommends cooking lamb patties and ground lamb mixtures such as meat loaf to a safe minimum internal temperature of 160 °F as measured by a food thermometer. Cook all organ and variety meats (such as heart, kidney, liver and tongue) to 160 °F. Cook all raw lamb steaks, chops, and roasts to a minimum internal temperature of 145 °F as measured with a food thermometer before removing meat from the heat source. For safety and quality, allow meat to rest for at least three minutes before carving or consuming. For reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook meat to higher temperatures.

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