Lamb consumption in the United States is on a decades long decline, with the average American consuming just a single pound per year. Now my family members probably average a pound of lamb per month, and I imagine that many of my Middle Eastern and Indian neighbors do the same. When Americans do eat lamb it tends to be either ‘ethnic’ preparations or premium cuts like frenched rib racks. Even inexpensive cuts command premium prices: where I shop ground lamb is generally twice as expensive as premium ground beef.
But it wasn’t always the case. Lamb has never exactly been a fixture of American tables but was much more popular in the post-war period. Prices were low and consumption was high – about five pounds per year: still a distant runner up to pork and beef but along the lines of annual per capita turkey consumption today.
I first encountered lamb as a budget cut in Smart Shopper’s Cookbook by former Better Homes and Garden editor Loyta Wooding. Written in 1972, Smart Shopper’s Cookbook was written for homemakers struggling with rising food prices. Wooding views meat as the “hub” of every meal, and that staying on a budget shouldn’t mean doing without. The book contains dozens of recipes for beef and lamb and even veal, usually choosing inexpensive but flavorful cuts to keep costs down.
Which was where I first encountered lamb breast, a cut I had never encountered in the wild. From what I could gather from Wooding’s recipes it was a tough cut, always pan-fried and slow cooked to be fall apart tender. A little bit of internet research determined it was analogous to pork belly, thin with streaks and layers of fat – usually sold boneless but sometimes with a few ribs attached. But outside of Wooding’s book and a couple of other old cookbooks I’d never seen a recipe even call for it, much less seen it at a grocery store.
Until a few weeks ago, when my favorite local butcher had tied-and-rolled lamb breast behind the counter for an impossibly low price. I bought all he had on impulse, not quite knowing what I’d do with it when I got home. The cross section was like a jelly roll, with alternating thin layers of fat and meat in roughly equal amounts. There would be no way to trim the fat without taking the meat along with it.
At first I considered cooking this like the old cookbooks suggested: cut the twine, pan-fry to render the fat, and cook it low and slow in a rich stew or slathered in sauce. But for my maiden voyage I wanted to experience lamb breast, not just let it melt into the background of another recipe. Instead I took it lower and slower with the help of my sous vide.
After rolling it around in my head for a whole I opted for a long cook at 135 F, cool enough to keep the meat pink but warm enough to let the fat start to render. This wouldn’t be enough to render the thick lip of fat on the outside, so after sous vide I gave it a hard sear in a cast iron pan. I kept the seasoning simple: salt, pepper, and garlic powder and threw in a sprig of rosemary and mint for a mild Mediterranean vibe. After 24 hours in the sous vide the meat was juicy and tender and a perfect medium rare. When sliced the meat separated neatly from the accompanying fat, but I think most of my family just ate it anyway. And it tastes, well, like lamb. The low temperature sous vide curbs some of the stronger flavors that some people find unpleasant. I can’t describe it any better than “sweet”, but in the sense of medium rare meat rather than sugar. It’s not going to change a lamb skeptic into a true believer but it’s not as aggressive as a lamb chop or stew.
I served the lamb breast sliced thick with a simple pan sauce on top of basmati rice. I leaned in to the Mediterranean vibe with an herbed tomato and cucumber salad, dressed with olive oil and fresh lemon juice and whatever leftover mint that I had on hand. One could also go for a more “continental” preparation with roasted potatoes and a dinner salad, and perhaps even a side of mint jelly. But I’ll be honest that my family enjoyed the leftovers the most – sliced thick and pan fried to render even more of the fat. Inspired by my children’s creativity with the leftovers, the next time lamb breast shows up at my butcher shop I plan to cure and smoke it for lamb bacon. Or maybe I’ll cook up some of Mrs. Wooding’s vintage recipes. I stand by my decision to use a low temperature sous vide for my inaugural cook, but there’s a lot of unexplored potential here. Enjoy!
- Score a few holes in the lamb breast's external fat, taking care not to cut the twine. Season lamb breast on all sides with salt pepper and garlic powder.
- Prepare a sous vide water bath at 135º F. Seal the roasts in individual bags, along with a sprig each of mint and rosemary, using either a vacuum sealer or the water displacement method. Cook for 24 hours
- Remove the roasts from the bags, reserving any accumulated liquid. Pat dry with paper towels and let rest for a few minutes.
- Heat a cast iron skillet (or similar) over high heat - the outside of the roast has plenty of fat so you shouldn't need to oil the pan. Add the lamb breasts and sear for about a minute on all surfaces, turning as necessary - about 5-7 minutes total. Then remove and let rest.
- Drain all but a few tbsp of fat from the cast iron. Deglaze the pan with the white wine and then whisk in the flour to form a thin roux. Whisk in the accumulated juices from the bag in simmer for a few minutes to thicken.
- Remove the twine and slice about ¾" thick. Drizzle the pan sauce over the top.
If you have leftovers they make a great breakfast meat. Slice them thick and pan fry for a couple of minutes on each side. Serve with fried eggs and toast.