Confusion might cloud the issue of what exactly a spring lamb is, but one thing is for sure: roasts that reach the tables of the season’s religious and secular celebrations are welcome respites—with their tangy and savory goodness—after a long winter. And there are slew of options to consider when you head to the butcher, and we’re not just talking about the cut.
More so than other meats, lamb is truly seasonal as sheep tend to breed at particular times of the year. Calling what we eat at Easter and Passover “spring lamb” is something of a misnomer as the animal from which it comes isn’t actually born in spring (it would be far too young to use at that point), but in fall. While most lambs are born in the springtime, those that are don’t reach the market until late summer. The tradition of lamb appearing on the spring supper table can be traced back to Britain, where centuries ago, they were sourced from an English breed known as the Dorset Horn, which naturally gave birth in autumn. The newborns were then nursed through the winter, moved to pasture in the early spring and brought to market just before the holidays.
Modern breeding practices, supplemented by imports from Australia and New Zealand, make lamb available year-round in the United States. However, this also makes for a diversified market that can be tricky to navigate. When buying, it’s important to consider the lamb’s age, diet and provenance, and of course, your personal taste.
The signature gaminess of lamb is the result of pasture grazing, and the more grass-based the animal’s diet, the more intense the meat. In the United States, in addition to grazing, lambs are fed corn and grain which is known as grain-finishing.
Uncommon in New Zealand and Australia, this yields meat with better marbling and a flavor that’s mellower, with a characteristic sweetness. Imported lamb—often only grass-fed—tends to be leaner, with a more robust flavor. These lambs are usually smaller than their American counterparts.
When and how the lamb was processed is also important. Typically, lambs go to market between six and nine months of age, the younger the more tender the meat. So it’s advisable to buy small. Furthermore, some purveyors to dry-age their lamb, which results in a deeper, richer flavor. While such producers as Lava Lake Lamb, in Idaho, dry-age their meat for just a few days, others, like Jamison Farm in Pennsylvania, might dry-age the meat for a week or more, depending on the cut.
Regardless of what you buy, always give thought to where you purchase. After all, when it comes to your holiday dinner, a knowledgeable butcher is likely your best resource.
Visit lavalakelamb.com and jamisonfarm.com.