From R., 10 December 2009, Butchering to order – what should you know?
Q: So I’m buying a whole lamb for the first time, and they asked me how I want it butchered. Beyond just listing the things I want (boneless leg roasts, shoulder blade chops, tail fat, shanks, etc., etc), is there a specific thing I should be asking for, or things I should be talking about? I know what I like, but I don’t know the lingo of talking about butchering.
A: Thanks for your question. I always think it’s ballsy to get the whole animal, so hats off to you.
After slaughtering and initial processing (evisceration, etc.), meat is butchered into primal cuts, which in the case of lamb involve separating the muscle groups into leg, saddle (both loins connected with the hip), shank, breast, shoulder, and the like. Meat may be fabricated further into smaller cuts, like rib, loin, and shoulder/arm chops; the shank may be cut into manageable portions as for osso buco; bones may be removed at the customer’s request. The head and organ meats -kidneys, sweetbreads, and brain – often are available but, as they are removed shortly after slaughter to avoid spoilage, if you want these you generally should inform your butcher ahead of time as these are requested less commonly.
So the question is how much you want the purveyors to break down the meat for you. Some of this may depend on the size of the lamb and the number of people you are likely to feed; some may depend on your comfort and skill with a knife. If the lamb is really small – small enough to roast whole, such as a 12-18 lb lamb – you may just want the whole lamb (eviscerated and head removed). If you want the convenience of chops, though, or are unsure of working with the primal cuts, you can ask the butcher to break down the lamb to the requested cuts. Some items, such as shank, you should ask the butcher to cut (to your specifications) unless you intend to use them whole, because you probably lack a meat saw and will be unable to cut through the shank bone effectively. And remember – if you want those lamb brains, sweetbreads, etc., be sure to ask for them.
I wouldn’t count on tail fat from U.S. lamb. Culinarily, that tends to be found only in the fat-tailed sheep of North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, although I understand some producers in the U.S. may now be offering fat-tailed sheep.