Lamb Shanks 101
Value-Priced With Satisfying Flavor
Last Friday I was picking through my favorite farmer's last bin of spinach and feeling a palpable sadness knowing that at least at my neighborhood Greenmarket, the growing season was nearly over. While our Greenmarkets may still have a dribble of end-of-summer produce, the first frosts have arrived and soon there will be little left but root vegetables. But seasonal cooking can give us solace. As when we take the chill off of a cold Sunday afternoon with a long-cooking pot of lamb shanks. Winter cooking? Bring it on!
Lamb shanks are a value-priced cut of meat that with a few hours of slow cooking, can become tender to the bone while developing luxurious flavor with other ingredients like rosemary, or white beans, or garlic.
But first, a little butchery. The shank is the lower front or rear legs of this four-legged animal, essentially the shin. A front shank will be smaller than one from the rear (visualize what a sheep looks like and this will make sense), and also slightly more tender because a sheep's front legs do less work than its sturdier back legs.
Lamb naturally has a kind of gamey flavor and shanks have an even stronger taste than a leg that you'll roast or loin chop that you'll broil. Some maintain that the bigger, rear leg shanks have a deeper flavor, especially if it's American lamb which can be twice the size of the typically milder New Zealand lamb. But all this can get thrown out the window if you buy lamb from a local producer whose animals have been fed and raised for a milder flavor and butchered at a smaller size.
So what to do? When buying shanks, try different ones from different butchers, cook them, and make a note on your recipe page as to how it tasted. You may find a butcher who regularly has shanks that suit your preference.
Shanks are sold on a center bone and have a surface that is covered in a slightly white membrane, which you leave on; it will melt off as it's cooked. They range in size from about a half pound to nearly two pounds, which means a single shank can be more than a single serving, best divided into portions after cooking when it's easier to cut. When buying more than one shank, choose ones of approximately the same size so that they cook together evenly and at the same pace.
Cooking With Lamb Shanks
Lamb shanks are particularly popular in Mediterranean cuisines -- particularly French, Italian, Spanish, Greek, and Moroccan.
With top-to-bottom tendons that prevent the shanks from being completely sliced through, lamb shanks' dense, intense flavor stands up to big personality seasonings. As with lamb shoulder, shanks need a long, slow cook, either in a braising liquid, with a soft, moist ingredient like beans, or roasted in a Dutch oven, mostly with the cover kept on so to retain any moisture.
Here is a basic cooking technique that is perfect for lamb shanks but is also used for stews, fricassees, and braises: first, the shanks are browned in a little olive oil. This is an essential first step to develop layers of flavor and shouldn't be rushed if you want the best result. Browning the shanks, especially because of their uneven shape, can take 6 to 10 minutes and this time is worth it to get the best results.
After the shanks are browned, remove them to a plate or sheet pan. Add aromatics such as onion, celery, carrots, and garlic to the same pan in which you just browned the shanks, cooking them until they're soft and slightly browned. These two steps allow a foundation of flavors to develop. Then deglaze the pan with wine or stock, return the shanks, and more liquid -- usually stock or broth -- to surround but not quite submerge the meat. The shanks can be cooked either by themselves or else surrounded by other ingredients, such as beans or vegetables.
Once you master this method of cooking, you can vary the flavor by changing the spices and braising liquid. In my forthcoming book, The City Cook: Big City, Small Kitchen. Limitless Ingredients, No Time, I have a recipe in which lamb shanks are braised in puréed tomatoes and spices like cinnamon and the dish is served with couscous to soak up the fragrant sauce that forms from hours of cooking.
Another version that is popular in Greek cuisine is braised lamb shanks with orzo. In this classic dish, red wine is used to deglaze the pan and tomato paste and extra garlic are added before the braising begins, adding more depth to the braising liquid. When the lamb is completely cooked, remove the shanks (keeping them warm on a foil-tented plate in the now turned-off oven) and boil down the braising liquid by about one-third, reducing it to a gravy-like silkiness. Cook orzo, a small rice-shaped pasta, and serve it with the shanks, spooning the reduced cooking liquid over the orzo.
Lamb Shanks in a Slow Cooker
All of these recipes, as with almost anything that is braised, can be very successfully made in a slow cooker. Don't skip the important first step of browning the shanks in a skillet on your stovetop, but once that's done, the recipe can be followed exactly but for cooking in a slow cooker instead of your oven. Slow cooking time will vary depending on the size of your appliance, but typically, two hours of regular oven braising translated to a 3-quart slow cooker will take about 5 hours on high and then 2 to 3 hours on low.
Lamb Shanks With White Beans and Rosemary
We have just published a recipe for Lamb Shanks With White Beans and Rosemary that details this cooking method and includes creamy white cannellini beans and chopped canned tomatoes.
I made this last Saturday (the shanks cost $5.99 a pound at Whole Foods and were from a local NY sheep farm) and served it with a side of céleri rémoulade (see our recipe) made with exquisite locally grown celery root from J&A Bialis Farm located in Goshen, New York. The complex and hearty lamb, white beans, sliced carrots, and rosemary partnered perfectly with the slightly tangy and creamy mustard-tinged shredded celery root. With a bottle of Côtes du Rhône, it was a perfect fall dinner.
A final tip: whenever I make a big braised dish like lamb shanks, I always make more than I'll need for dinner because it makes brilliant leftovers, especially as a lunch to carry to work. Reheat it in the office microwave and its aroma is sure to make all your colleagues jealous.