FOCUS ON: LAMB...from Farm to Table

LAMB . . . from Farm to Table

Lamb is the oldest domesticated meat species. It has been raised by humans beginning about 9,000 years ago in the Middle East. In many countries, lamb is the major source of meat eaten. Many Americans think of lamb as a springtime food, but it can be enjoyed year round. The following information answers many questions callers have asked the Hotline about lamb.

What is Lamb? Lamb is meat from sheep less than 1 year old. Most are brought to market at about 6 to 8 months old. If the phrase "Spring Lamb" is on a meat label, it means the lamb was produced between March and October, but lamb is available all the time.

A lamb weighs about 120 pounds and yields approximately 60 to 72 pounds of retail lamb cuts, which include bone and fat.

Mutton is meat from sheep more than a year old. It is likely to be less tender than lamb and have a stronger flavor.

How are Lambs Raised? During weaning, lambs gradually begin feeding on pasture or coarsely ground grain. They are raised on hay and feed consisting of corn, barley, milo (a type of sorghum), and/or wheat supplemented with vitamins and minerals. Lambs are usually "finished" (grown to maturity) in feedlots where they are fed specially formulated feed.
Can Hormones and Antibiotics Be Used in Lamb Raising?

Zeronal, a synthetic hormone, may be used to promote efficient growth in feedlot lambs. The hormone is implanted on the lamb's ear and is time released for about 30 days. A withholding period of 40 days is required before slaughter.

Antibiotics may be given to prevent or treat disease in lambs. A recommended withholding period is required from the time antibiotics are administered until it is legal to slaughter the animal. This is so residues can exit the animal's system. FSIS randomly samples lamb at slaughter and tests for residues at limits set by the Food and Drug Administration. Data from this monitoring program have shown a very low percentage of residue violations.

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?

Inspection is mandatory; grading is voluntary, and a plant pays to have its meat graded. USDA-graded lamb sold at the retail level is Prime, Choice, and Select. Lower grades (Utility and Cull) are mainly ground or used in processed meat products. Retail stores may use other terms which must be different from USDA grades.

USDA Prime lamb has more fat marbling, so it is the most tender and flavorful grade. However, it is higher in fat content. Most of the graded lamb sold in supermarkets is USDA Choice or USDA Select. The protein, vitamin, and mineral content of lamb are similar in all grades.

What to Look for When Selecting Lamb

Lamb is usually tender because it is from animals less than 1 year old. However, look for good marbling (white flecks of fat within the meat muscle), and meat that is fine textured and firm. In color, the meat should be pink and the fat should be firm, white, and not too thick. The USDA quality grades are reliable guides.

Recommended Lamb Products

Spicy Lamb Sausages - Merguez - Pork-Free - 6 Links

USDA Prime Fresh American Lamb Rib Chops French Style 4-1.1/4 thick

Garam Masala for Meat Curry - 2 oz

How Is Ungraded Lamb Different? All lamb is inspected for wholesomeness. The overall quality of ungraded lamb may be higher or lower than most government grades found in retail markets.
Retail Cuts of Fresh Lamb There are five basic major (primal) cuts into which lamb 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 unsplit primal rib (sometimes called the hotel rack) of the carcass which includes ribs 6 through 12. The rack is split to make two primal 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 and "rib" chops are the most tender. Less expensive "blade" and "arm" chops (from the shoulder) and "sirloin" chops (from the leg) can be just as tender, but they are not as visually attractive because the meat is separated by bands of connective tissue.
What is the "Fell?" The fell is the thin, paper-like covering on the outer fat. It should not be removed from roasts and legs because it helps these cuts retain their shape and juiciness during cooking. The fell has usually been removed at the market from smaller cuts, such as chops.
How Much Lamb Is Consumed? According to USDA's Economic Research Service, each American eats about .8 pound of lamb yearly.
What Does "Natural" Mean? All fresh meat qualifies as "natural." Products labeled "natural" cannot contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, chemical preservative, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient; and the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed (ground, for example). All products claiming to be natural should be accompanied by a brief statement which explains what is meant by the term "natural."
How and Why is Some Lamb Aged? Lamb is aged to develop additional tenderness and flavor. Usually only ribs and loins of high quality lamb are aged, and these are mainly sold to restaurants. Aging is done commercially under controlled temperatures and humidity. Since aging can take from 10 days to 6 weeks, the USDA does not recommend aging lamb in a home refrigerator.
Why is Lamb Called a "Red" Meat? Oxygen is delivered to muscles by the red cells in the blood. One of the proteins in meat, myoglobin, holds the oxygen in the muscle. The amount of myoglobin in animal muscles determines the color of meat. Lamb is called a "red" meat because it contains more myoglobin than chicken or fish. Other "red" meats are beef, veal, and pork.
Additives Additives are not allowed on fresh lamb. If it is processed, additives such as MSG, salt, or sodium erythorbate must be listed on the label.

Recommended Books

How to Roast a Lamb: New Greek Classic Cooking

The Meat Buyers Guide: Meat, Lamb, Veal, Pork and Poultry

The Everything Indian Cookbook: 300 Tantalizing Recipes From Sizzling Tandoori Chicken to Fiery Lamb Vindaloo

Learn How To Cook : Cooking With Meat, Beef Lamb and Pork- Marvelous Meats

Dating of Lamb Products

Product dating is not required by Federal regulations. However, many stores and processors may voluntarily date packages of raw lamb or processed lamb products. If a calendar date is shown, there must be a phrase explaining the meaning of the date.

Use or freeze products with a "Sell-By" date within 3 to 5 days of purchase. If the manufacturer has determined a "Use-By" date, observe it. This is a quality assurance date after which peak quality begins to lessen but the product may still be used. It's always best to buy a product before its date expires. It's not important if a date expires after freezing lamb because all foods stay safe while frozen.

Rinsing Lamb It isn't necessary to wash raw lamb before cooking it -- just blot the surface with new paper towels. Any bacteria which might be present would be destroyed by cooking.
How to Handle Lamb Safely

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. Lamb is kept cold during store distribution to retard the growth of bacteria.

Take lamb home immediately and refrigerate it at 40 F; use within 3 to 5 days, or freeze (0 F). If kept frozen continuously, it will be safe indefinitely.

It is safe to freeze lamb in its original packaging or repackage it. However, for long-term freezing, overwrap the porous store plastic with storage wraps or bags to prevent "freezer burn," which appears as grayish-brown leathery spots and is caused by air reaching the surface of food. Cut freezer-burned portions away either before or after cooking the lamb. Heavily freezer-burned products may have to be discarded for quality reasons. For best quality, use lamb within 6 to 9 months.

Ready-Prepared Lamb. For fully-cooked, take-out lamb dishes such as Kabobs, Gyros, or Chinese food, be sure they are hot at pickup. Use cooked lamb within 2 hours (1 hour if the air temperature is above 90 F) or refrigerate it at 40 ?F or below in shallow, covered containers. Eat within 3 to 4 days, either cold or reheated to 165 F (hot and steaming). It is safe to freeze ready-prepared lamb dishes. For best quality, use within 2 to 3 months.

Safe Defrosting

There are three safe ways to defrost lamb: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave. Never defrost on the counter or in other locations. It's best to plan ahead for slow, safe thawing in the refrigerator. Ground lamb, stew meat, and steaks may defrost within a day. Bone-in parts and whole roasts may take 2 days or longer.

Once the raw product defrosts, it will be safe in the refrigerator 3 to 5 days (for roasts and chops) and 1 to 2 days for ground lamb before cooking. During this time, if you decide not to use the lamb, you can safely refreeze it without cooking it first.

To defrost lamb in cold water, do not remove packaging. Be sure the package is airtight or put it into a leakproof bag. Submerge the lamb in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes so that it continues to thaw. Small packages of lamb may defrost in an hour or less; a 3- to 4-pound roast may take 2 to 3 hours.

When microwave defrosting lamb, plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving. Holding partially-cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present wouldn't have been destroyed.

Foods defrosted in the microwave or by the cold water method should be cooked before refreezing because they may potentially have been held at temperatures above 40 ?F.

It is safe to cook frozen lamb in the oven, on the stove, or grill without defrosting it first; the cooking time may be about 50% longer. Do not cook frozen lamb in a slow cooker.

Marinating Marinate lamb in the refrigerator up to 5 days. Boil used marinade before brushing on cooked lamb. Discard any uncooked leftover marinade.
Storage Times

Since product dates aren't a guide for safe use of a product, how long can the consumer store the food and still use it at top quality? Follow these tips:

  • Purchase the product before the date expires.
  • Follow handling recommendations on product.
  • Keep lamb in its package until ready to use.
  • Refrigerate lamb roasts and chops 3 to 5 days (ground lamb, 1 to 2 days); and 3 to 4 days after cooking.
  • If product has a "Use-By" Date, follow that date.
  • If product has a "Sell-By" Date or no date, cook or freeze the product by the times recommended above.
  • For best quality, use frozen lamb roasts and chops within 6 to 9 months; ground lamb, 3 to 4 months.
Partial Cooking NEVER brown or partially cook lamb to refrigerate and finish cooking later because any bacteria present wouldn't have been destroyed. It is safe to partially pre-cook or microwave lamb immediately before transferring it to a hot grill or conventional oven to finish cooking.
What is the Yield of Cooked Lamb? After cooking bone-in lamb leg or roast, one pound of raw weight will yield 8 to 9 ounces of edible meat. Ground lamb or boneless cuts will yield about 10.5 ounces of edible meat.
Safe Cooking For safety, the USDA recommends cooking lamb patties and ground lamb mixtures such as meat loaf to 160 F on a meat thermometer. However, whole muscle meats such as steaks and roasts may be cooked to 145 F (medium rare), 160 F (medium), or 170 F (well done). For approximate cooking times for use in meal planning, see the following chart compiled from various resources.

Times are based on lamb at refrigerator temperature (40 F). Remember that appliances and outdoor grills can vary in heat. Use a meat thermometer to check for safe cooking and doneness of lamb.


Lamb Leg, bone in 5 to 7 lbs.

Roast 325?

20 to 25 min./lb. Medium rare 145?
25 to 30 min./lb. Medium 160?
30 to 35 min./lb. Well done 170?
7 to 9 lbs. Roast 325? 15 to 20 min./lb. Medium rare 145?
20 to 25 min./lb. Medium 160?
25 to 30 min./lb. Well done 170?
Lamb Leg, boneless rolled 4 to 7 lbs. Roast 325? 25 to 30 min./lb. Medium rare 145?
30 to 35 min./lb. Medium 160?
35 to 40 min./lb. Well done 170?
Shoulder Roast or Shank Leg Half 3 to 4 lbs. Roast 325? 30 to 35 min./lb. Medium rare 145?
40 to 45 min./lb. Medium 160?
45 to 50 min./lb. Well done 170?
Cubes, for Kabobs 1 to 1 ?" Broil/Grill 8 to12 minutes Medium 160?
Ground Lamb Patties 2" thick Broil/Grill 5 to 8 minutes Medium 160?
Chops, Rib, or Loin 1 ?" to
1" thick
Broil/Grill 7 to 11 minutes Medium rare 145?
15 to 19 minutes Medium 160?
Leg Steaks 3/4" thick Broil/Grill 4" from heat 14 to 18 minutes Medium rare 145?
Medium 160?
Stew Meat, pieces
1 to 1 ?"
3/4 to 1 lb.
Cover with liquid; simmer 1 ? to 2 hours Medium 160?
Breast, Rolled 1 ? to 2 lb. *Braise 325? 1 ? to 2 hours Medium 160?

*Braising is roasting or simmering less-tender meats with a small amount of liquid in a tightly covered pan.

Refer to the microwave's oven manual for microwaving lamb, and check it with a meat thermometer.

For additional food safety information about meat, poultry, or egg products, call the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854); for the hearing-impaired (TTY) 1-800-256-7072. The Hotline is staffed by food safety experts weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time. Food safety recordings can be heard 24 hours a day using a touch-tone phone.

The media may contact the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at (301) 504-6258.

Information is also available from the FSIS Web site: