Butchering a Lamb Meat: Fabrication in a World of Cut, Boned, and Packaged Parts

by Nina Rubin
April 2006

Chef Geoff Gardner Demonstrating at 
The New England Foodservice and Lodging Expo

Listen quietly, and you almost hear the buzz: the faint whisper of "local," "seasonal," and "organic" in the air. We all know that there's a push to understand the origins of what we eat, the who-what-when-where-how of food production. But somehow, despite all of the questioning and soul searching, there still seems to be a lack of understanding of a crucial part of the picture: What happens between the farm and the oven?

Take meat, for instance. How many people are truly familiar with the early preparation techniques—that is, the initial steps that necessitate knowledge of how the animal is actually put together? The world of meat fabrication has been whittled down to a handful of hardy individuals, and everyone else seems to be ordering their meat pre-cut, boned, and delivered to their doorstep, so much so that it is safe to say that butchering is in danger of becoming a lost art.

These days chefs and meat retailers usually go through a middleman - someone who receives the whole animal and prepares the cuts to exact specification. This, of course, saves time and energy, and is the obvious choice for someone who is not comfortable with or knowledgeable about butchering. But the downside, according to Chef Geoff Gardner of Sel de la Terre in Boston, is that there becomes a noticeable separation between the origin and the end product. What you don't know is when and how was the meat slaughtered, how it was treated and stored prior to fabrication, and how exactly was the animal butchered? Therefore, Chef Gardner believes that food professionals have a responsibility "to remember where our food comes from and how it's all put together."

So let's start with the basics. Think of this as a crib sheet, just in case you were sick the day they taught Butchering 101 in culinary school. Lamb is a good starting point. It's smaller and more manageable than, say, a cow, and these fabrication concepts can be applied to other animals.


Words to Know: A Meat Fabrication Lexicon


  • Blade bone – the shoulder blade
  • Bottom Round – a section of the hind leg
  • Breast – the chest area on the front side of the animal
  • Butcher – to take a whole animal and break it into primal cuts
  • Butterfly – to cut down the center, but not entirely through the meat, and then lay it flat and open
  • Calf – top layer of skin
  • Cap – fat
  • Chine bone – backbone; the chine bone must be cut with a saw
  • Chuck end – the portion of the rack closest to the neck
  • Chump Chop – a cut of the loin; identified by the small round bone in the center (see Loin Chop)
  • Crown Roast – a half-rack that has been trimmed and tied in a circle; often served with paper hats on the tips of the ribs
  • Eye – the round or cylindrical piece of meat on the rack
  • Eye of the Round – a section of the hind leg
  • Fabricate – similar to butchering, but fabrication generally refers to starting with primal or secondary cuts and trimming them down further
  • Fell – surface fat
  • Foreshank – (see Shank)
  • French – to remove the first several inches of meat on and around the rib bones
  • Hind Shank (see Shank)
  • Lamb – sheep that are less than one year old (see Mutton and Yearling Mutton)
  • Loin – the two sections (minus the bone) of the saddle (see Saddle); the loins sit on top of the bone, whereas the tenderloins sit underneath; the loins contain the chump chops and loin chops
  • Loin Chop – a cross-section of the loin that includes the loin meat, bone, and tenderloin; identified by the T-shaped bone in the center (see Chump Chop)
  • Loin end – the section of the rack closest to the saddle
  • Mutton – sheep that are over two years old (see Lamb and Yearling Mutton)
  • Offal – the edible internal organs (ex. brains, heart, liver)
  • Primal cut – the primary cuts, starting with the whole carcass; the less detailed work, as compared to the secondary cuts
  • Prime Grade – the highest level in the USDA lamb grading system; followed, in descending order, by Choice, Good, Utility, and Cull
  • Rack of Lamb – all of the ribs of the animal; a "half rack" is one side
  • Saddle – the section on the backside of the animal after the ribcage ends (further back, towards the rear of the animal); the saddle is made up of the two loins
  • Scrag – the upper portion of the neck
  • Secondary cut – the latter portion of the preparation process, after the initial, larger cuts have been made
  • Shank – lower part of the leg; the foreshank comes from the front legs, whereas the hind shank is from the back legs
  • Tenderloin – the two sections of muscle on the underside of the saddle; the tenderloins sit underneath the bone, whereas the loins sit on top
  • Top Round – the most tender piece of hind leg meat
  • Yearling Mutton – sheep that are between one and two years of age (see Lamb and Mutton)


Facts & Tips


Flavor

Lamb is often aged for up to a week before being butchered. The meat tenderizes as it ages, developing more flavor.

The parts of the animal that get more use tend to be more flavorful. "More use" means more blood flow, so the meat is darker and tougher—these cuts (e.g. legs) are often best braised or slow roasted. By contrast, the most tender piece of meat on the whole animal, the tenderloin, has a milder taste and a softer texture. Chefs often marinate the more tender parts to strengthen their flavor.

Selection

Lambs with creamy-white fat tend to be younger. Avoid meat with crumbly or yellowish fat unless you're specifically looking for an older animal. Young lamb flesh is typically pale pink. Blue-tinged knuckle bones are typical of younger animals.

Servings

Legs are most often used at carving stations or for larger parties. A rack is sufficient for 2-3 people. It is customary to serve 2-3 loin chops per person. There are about 6 servings per shoulder.

Preparation

The membrane over the surface fat (fell) is often intentionally left intact. The fell helps the meat retain its shape, especially for larger cuts. For smaller cuts, it's recommended that the fell be removed so that it doesn't distort the shape. The fell also helps to retain natural juices when cooking. Essential butchering tools include a saw, cleaver, and paring knife. The shorter the knife, the easier it'll be to cut the meat without damaging it. Knives with plastic handles are recommended for maximum safety (particularly for cleaning purposes).

Storage

Lamb can be refrigerated for up to five days. Roasts can be stored for four to five days. Smaller cuts shouldn't be kept for more than three days. Ground lamb or small pieces last for one or two days. Lamb can be frozen for up to six months. Ground lamb should only be frozen for three months.


A Step-By-Step Guide to Fabrication:


1. Get the details before you start. Know when and how the lamb was slaughtered so that you can wait the proper amount of time before beginning the butchering process. Chef Gardner recommends hanging the carcass in a walk-in refrigerator (~38 degrees) for about one week from the time that it was slaughtered.

2. Take out the offal. Reserve the kidneys, liver, and heart for cooking if desired. When trimming the kidneys out, pull the fat off of them.

3. Saw off the head. Reserve for stock or soup.

4. Saw off the neck. The neck can be braised or used in stock.

5. Take off the forelegs. Chef Gardner's most important tool for this step is his hand. Before even picking up the knife, he feels exactly where the bones are so that he knows where to cut and doesn't accidentally damage a piece of meat that he's trying to save. After the initial inspection, lift up the leg and cut from the armpit towards the body. Note that the two legs are attached by the tailbone.

6. Take off the hind legs. As with the forelegs, pinch with the fingers so that you know where the meat is. Avoid cutting into the loin. Pop the ball-and-socket joint on the femur. Follow it with the knife. Cut off the leg.

OPTIONAL:
Separate the top round, bottom round, eye of the round, and knuckle. Follow the seams and separate the parts using your fingers.

7. Trim off the flank. If it's a small animal, there might not be quite enough meat to cook on its own; if this is the case, reserve the flank with the other braising meats.

8. Saw off the rump-end of the animal. Begin where the saddle ends. If possible, use an electric saw. Reserve for stock or sausage meat.

9. Separate the saddle from the rack. There is usually one rib bone attached on the rack-end of the saddle. Either leave all the ribs on and separate the saddle at the end, or leave one rib bone attached. Use a saw for the separation. Remove the silver skin covering the meat. Slip the point of a knife underneath the skin. Trim in one direction and then the other, taking off as little meat as possible in the process.

OPTIONAL:
Carve the meat off the bone. There are four pieces of meat on the saddle: two tenderloins (underneath), and two loins (on top). Ride a knife close to the bone, starting with the tenderloins, and carefully lift off the meat.

OR
Make loin chops. Cut the saddle into cross sections—each cross section has bone in the center and meat (loin and tenderloin) on either side.

10. Separate the rack into halves. Use a saw. Separate it top to bottom along the chine bone. Hug close to the chine bone, making cuts at the shoulder.

OPTIONAL:
French out the half-racks. The idea is to make the bones equal in length all the way across. Use a cleaver to strike each bone firmly and cleanly. Use a knife to separate the tips that you're discarding.

There are two basic Frenching methods: 1) Score the cap (fat). Use a knife to cut out all the meat between the bones. Pull the cap back and scrape the bones until smooth. 2) Score the back of each rib bone using a knife. Using your fingers, peel the meat away from the bone. The former approach tends to be quicker, while the latter can have a cleaner end result. Whichever one you choose, complete the process by trimming away the excess meat and removing the tendon from over the eye.


Uses/Cooking


Chefs tend to prepare lamb in similar ways. But there are many parts of the animal that are underutilized, or that are begging for a fresh method of preparation. Here's a list of suggestions:

  • Leg – butterfly and roll, grill, roast, sear, stew
  • Loin – grill, roast and slice
  • Neck – grill, roast and slice
  • Rack – grill (as chops), pan-fry, roast
  • Saddle – roast whole or boneless
  • Shank – braise (for gravy or jus)
  • Shoulder – braise, long-roast (for stews or stuffing)
  • Top round – broil, cube (for shish kabobs), roast

Offal:

  • Kidney – sauté; first soak in milk overnight to cleanse
  • Liver – sauté
  • Heart – roast, pickle, braise