I'm confused about what is meant by spring lamb. Is all lamb available at this time of the year considered spring lamb? If not, how do I identify it in the shops? And what do you have to do to cook it differently from regular lamb the rest of the year?
Spring heralds the start of the birthing season for lambs in New Zealand. I am lamb’s best friend and simply adore the meat of our New Zealand sheep. In the north of the country, spring kicks in a little earlier as the weather and daylight increases more rapidly, whereas down the south of the South Island it is usually a little later. Just like the grape harvest in New Zealand for table wine — the north ripens first.
So spring lamb is really just a way of letting you know that the lambs are born in springtime — the start of the season — and a guarantee the meat will be juicy, sweet and tender.
So long as you’re buying fresh lamb right now (not frozen from last year), you are buying spring lamb. In Britain spring lamb usually refers to lambs that have been raised during late winter. Their mothers eat silage (unlike our pasture-fed sheep in NZ) and other dried grasses that were harvested for their winter feed the autumn before. So by the time spring arrives there, they are already quite a few months old.
It’s helpful to be familiar with sheep-meat terminology
A lamb is a lamb from the day it's born until around 12 months of age, so long as it doesn't have incisor teeth.
Hogget are juvenile sheep with two permanent incisors, once they have more teeth they become mutton. Some people prefer mutton's more pronounced flavour but for most people spring lamb is the prime meat due to its tenderness and sweet flavour.
Some cooking tips
At the start of the season when the lambs are very small, the key rule is to make sure you don't overcook the meat.
Tender cuts of lamb (loin, fillet and rack) are truly best served pink— or medium rare — and rested in a warm place for 15 minutes before eating. This resting is important (as it is for all meat cooking) as it lets the meat settle and prevents the blood from coming out of the meat once sliced.
I like to brush lamb loins with a mixture of sesame and olive oils and a little soy sauce (instead of salt) and pan-fry until browned all over, then finish in the oven at 170C until pink in the middle. You can test it by slicing into the middle of the loin halfway and seeing the colour (it should only take about 4 minutes). Remember to rest it after cooking in a warm place, not so it will continue to cook, but to relax.
The lamb's working muscles (leg, shoulder and neck) need more cooking as they can be a bit chewy if served too rare, so never cook these less than medium.
You could make a stew from leg of lamb, but to be honest I'd make that from hogget or mutton where the flavour and texture are more pronounced.
Roasting a leg of lamb, with little added flavour, is the best thing to do with it — brushed with olive oil into which you've mixed chopped thyme and rosemary and a few chilli flakes. Or use a thin sharp knife to poke in slivers of sliced garlic then brush with butter and sea salt for a lovely meal.
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