Mutton is the meat of a sheep that is at least 1 year old, and typically around 3 years old. It is a relatively fatty meat with a deep red colour and a strong gamey flavour, and tends to be a little tougher than lamb. Younger mutton, taken from sheep between 12 and 20 months old, is known as yearling mutton or hoggett, and has a milder flavour than regular mutton while still being more flavourful than lamb.
A popular meat in the Middle East and Europe, mutton can be an acquired taste for people who aren’t used to its strong flavour, and the milder, more tender taste of lamb is usually preferred in the USA. However, if you enjoy flavourful game meats like venison, wild boar or rabbit, you’re likely to enjoy the taste of mutton, too.
On the Indian subcontinent, and in the Caribbean, the term ‘mutton’ may also be used to describe goat meat. Many ‘mutton’ dishes from these parts of the world are actually made from goat, including the popular mutton curry.
What is lamb?
Lamb is the meat of a sheep that is less than 1 year old. It is a lean, tender meat with a pink or pale red colour, and is usually more expensive than mutton. Lamb that has been slaughtered before it is 3 months old is referred to as spring lamb, and is extra tender, but with a very mild flavour.
Mutton and lamb cuts
Because mutton and lamb come from the same animal, they are both available as the same cuts of meat. As you might expect, a cut of lamb will be smaller than the same cut of mutton, and there are some other key differences too. Mutton is fattier and more flavourful than lamb, but it is also tougher, and will require more cooking, particularly if the meat is taken from a hard working part of the animal like the leg or shoulder.
Where the animal was farmed may also have an impact on flavour and texture. Sheep that are farmed in the USA are typically grain-fed, contain a higher proportion of fat and have a milder flavour. Sheep from Australia and New Zealand, on the other hand, tend to be leaner, grass fed animals, with a stronger flavour.
The shoulder is a flavourful cut, but because shoulder muscles are worked hard while the animal is alive, it can also be tough. Lamb and mutton shoulder should be cooked low and slow, so stewing, slow-roasting and braising are all great ways to prepare this cut. For extra flavour, leave the bone in while you cook it.
Lamb and mutton shoulder is usually sold whole or halved on the bone, but is also available boned and rolled for roasting, diced for casseroles, curries and stewing, or minced for making into meatballs, moussaka and shepherd’s pie.
Taken from the ribs of the animal, this cut produces some of the tenderest and most expensive meat, particularly for lamb. It can be divided into individual chops or cooked whole, and is typically grilled or roasted. In terms of presentation, a rack of lamb is often ‘French trimmed’, which means cutting away the extra fat to expose the ends of the rib bones.
Another tender cut, the loin provides loin chops for grilling or frying, and tender, boneless noisettes. The loin may also be roasted all in one piece, which is sometimes referred to as a saddle of lamb.
Taken from the rear of the animal, the rump is lean, tender and flavourful. It can be pan fried and sliced, or cut into chops and then grilled or fried. Take care not to overcook it, however, as this cut can become tough if it starts to dry out.
Another hard-working cut, the leg has a very strong flavour, particularly if you have a leg of mutton. It can be roasted on the bone, or boned and opened out (butterflied), then roasted or griddled. It can also be sold as stir fry strips, cut into steaks and grilled, or cubed for making kebabs.
A cheaper cut taken from the lower portion of the leg, the shank is full of flavour, but requires slow cooking to make it more tender. Try braising or stewing for a deliciously soft, melting texture and meat that falls away from the bone
Another inexpensive, flavourful cut of meat that requires slow cooking. Neck works well in stews and curries, and is also great for making kebabs.
As we have seen, how best to cook mutton depends on the cut. In general, however, mutton is a tougher, fattier meat, and does best with slow-cook methods like braising or stewing. You may also wish to use a marinade to help tenderise the meat and add extra flavour.
How to cook lamb
As with mutton, how you cook lamb depends on the cut, but the three most popular methods are grilling, braising and roasting. Grilling is great for chops, steaks and burgers, while braising works best for tougher, more flavourful cuts like the shoulder or shank. Roasting browns the meat on the outside while keeping the inside moist, and is perfect for tender cuts like rack of lamb.
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