Mutton (sheep over two years old) is harder to find in the US than it used to be, so you’re looking at more naturally tender cuts from lamb, an animal beloved for its rib chops -- whole-muscle cut perpendicular to the spine. Lamb ribs are comprised of tough muscle, surrounded by extremely flavorful fat, according to Tripp.
“Allowing the fat to render through the muscle is paramount to yield a great product,” he explains. The meat that’s on the rib is very lean, which lends itself to a tough consistency. Basically, you need to break down the protein structure and, at the same time, cause fat to liquefy, which coats the muscle itself, making it softer and more flavorful.
Tripp says that lamb fat has a gamey flavor to it that isn’t for everyone, but it’s overwhelmingly delicious and easy to cook with. He also enjoys seeing lamb belly on menus everywhere. “It’s such a wonderfully flavorful piece of meat and has a consistency similar to pulled pork,” he says.
Lamb being a relatively lean animal in its own right is a tougher cut of meat.
“It has significantly less intramuscular fat because the muscle fibers themselves are denser,” says Tripp. “Based on how a lamb is raised versus a pig, they get a lot more exercise. Any baby animal is going to have softer muscle tissue and more fat, which is why veal is more controversial, as they raise them to be immobile.”
Partially because of its youth, lamb leg -- similar to a ham or beef round -- is one of those muscles smackdab in the middle in terms of toughness. “Lamb leg isn’t overly tough or overly tender,” explains Woodward. “Therefore when you roast it, you have to slice it pretty thin (a 1-inch slice will not be a good eating experience). The tougher a muscle is, the thinner you have to slice it for an enjoyable eating experience."
Lazlo agrees, saying “Any recipes like osso bucco (veal shanks), where you cook it in liquid low and slow, then braise it in a very good stock with celery, carrots, onion, garlic, herbs, and red wine, and cook it for three, four hours. It breaks down all the fibers making it a tender and flavorful dish.”
Whatever animal, cut, and cooking method you ultimately choose, know that low and slow is the way to go. Connective tissues and fats all break down over time at fairly low temperatures, and trying to force that at higher temperatures is just going to scorch and/or dry out the more vulnerable muscle fibers before the collagens melt.
If you’re grilling or roasting and think the meat’s at risk of drying out, don’t be afraid to cover it. You can always uncover and cook more, but you can’t put the water back in the beast. Once you get confident in your skills, take more risk: The right cut can develop a good, tasty bark that gives it a deliciously chewy exterior while preserving some of the inner moisture.
And above all, no matter how much you have to chew it, make sure to enjoy every bite.