How to Cook a Whole Lamb or Goat
Roasting a whole lamb or whole goat is fun! If you have read my pages on cooking a whole pig then you probably know most of the details on how to cook a whole roast lamb as well! While the flavors are distinctly different and the recipes are different, the cooking equipment and process is similar. Basically, you need a large rotisserie and a fire pit and you are good to go!
Roast lamb is a classic specialty of many cuisines including Southern French and Greed, amongst others. From Biblical times, roasting a whole lamb has been a way to celebrate and to give thanks to the universe for all that we have. It is a feast that creates an air of celebration and reverence. So read on and find out how you can create this type of feast in your own backyard!
Finding a Whole Lamb
- As I've mentioned on my Where to Buy a Whole Hog page, sourcing a whole lamb can be hard in some areas. If you know a lamb farmer or raise lambs yourself, great! For those of us who don't we need to find another source. First off, speak to your local butcher, particularly those in ethnic markets (Greek, Asian, Latino, etc.). If they don't have them, they can often special order them for you. If not, you can order them online to be shipped to you. Gedalias is a great source for natural goat meat including whole or half goats.
- Ideally, find a grass-fed, three-month-old lamb around 30 pounds if they are available.
- Of note, unlike whole pigs, lamb is roasted without the skin and with as much surface fat removed as possible. Also, the head is usually removed whereas it is left on for most pigs. Like a pig the internal organs are all removed but the kidneys are often left in place and actually are a very tasty treat for a lucky guest!
- Lamb's tend to be a bit longer than most whole pigs of the same weight but most are lighter (except for small suckling pigs). Most rotisseries which hold a whole hog will be more than adequate to support the size and weight of a 30 lb. lamb.
- I strongly recommend a motorized rotisserie as the cooking process is fairly labor intensive. Because the lamb does not have skin and fat on its surface when cooked, you want to be extra careful to prevent burning the exposed meat. Additionally, lamb really takes well to basting and I find it best to baste often, almost continuously during the cooking process which can take up to 2 hours. A manual rotisserie will get tiring and you will burn yourself to a crisp!
- Ideally, a rotisserie which can be raised and lowered is useful. This allows you to start the roast lamb high above the heat when the firewood is most hot and then to slowly lower it as the head subsides. Conversely, if the lamb is cooking too fast (i.e.. burning) you can raise the spit to decrease the heat at the level of the whole lamb. If you do not have a rotisserie which can be raised or lowered, do not fret! Careful control of your heat source (stirring the coals to increase heat, removing or redistributing embers to reduce heat in areas, etc.) can usually keep your temperature even and at the appropriate level. If all else fails, with the help of several people with pot holders, the rotisserie can be carefully lifted so that it can be propped on bricks or cinderblock to raise it.
- Just like roasting a whole pig, any fire pit will do when roasting a whole lamb. I prefer to use hardwood firewood (particularly good fruit or nut woods like apple, almond, cherry, pecan, etc.) in general rather than charcoal. Lamb really takes to aromatic smoke well, it really enhances the meat's flavor. One of the easiest solutions for a fire pit is simply a large hole, dug into the ground, about one and a half feet deep with dirt heaped up around it. If you don't have an area of earth available to dig a whole, other types of fire pit will do as well as long as your rotisserie will fit at an adequate height above it.
- I like to build a big roaring fire in the pit and keep feeding it for about 3 hours or so before starting to cook. You don't want to be cooking over open flames. Rather, you want a deep core of hot, glowing hardwood embers. These give off intense heat without flame which can burn your roast lamb.
- As your heat dies down during the cooking process you can do three things. First of all, stir the embers with a poker or long skewer to get more oxygen to the ash-covered wood embers. This should increase the heat significantly. Secondly, you can lower your rotisserie spit if possible to get the roast lamb closer to the heat source. If all else fails, add additional fuel (i.e. firewood or charcoal) carefully. If you must do this, I prefer to add it to the side and let it burn down and only push the hot embers beneath the roasting whole lamb when the large flames are gone. Generally, if you had an adequate, deep core of hot embers at the start, these should provide more than enough heat over the 2 hour cooking period.
Trussing the Whole Lamb
- Like a whole hog, a whole lamb needs to be very well trussed to the rotisserie spit so that it does not slip or fall off during cooking. While lambs don't cook for as long as pigs in general, they can still shift as they cook and the meat retracts from the bone.
- Because of the different shape of a whole lamb, they are generally trussed a bit differently than pigs. However, in general, as long as the lamb and its legs are secured tightly to the spit it should be fine.
- The initial trussing of a lamb is similar to a pig. The spit is passed between the legs and through the body cavity just below the bones of the spine to exit through the neck area (generally the head is removed, unlike with a pig roast). After securing a spit fork on either end the spine should be trussed in several areas (about every 6 inches along the length of the animal) with heavy twine or wire. You can do this by passing a large trussing needle through the back just lateral to the spine and then out on the other side of the spine. This creates a loop of twine or wire around both the spine and spit. This can then be tied tightly on the back and the excess cut off.
- Ideally, the legs should then be extended out from the body, forward for the fore-limbs and back for the hind-limbs. The flesh in the under fore-limbs may be cut to facilitate pulling them forward completely. These can be wired or tied into place by the shank (ankle bone) either to the spit itself or ideally to a crossbar.
- After filling the body cavity with herbs and any other ingredients your recipe calls for, it should be laced up with twine or wire tightly. Because there is no skin to tie, simply lacing the belly muscle may not hold. I prefer to pass skewers or large trussing needles at least 2 inches on either side of the opening and then cinch them together tightly with twine or wire.
Ingredients and Recipes
- Unlike pigs which tend to dry out easily and have a mild flavor which requires marinating, brining and/or injecting to keep moist and to infuse flavor, lamb has a distinct and more robust flavor and stays juicy. Also, because you do not have to cook it as long or as completely it doesn't have the tendency to dry out. Lamb takes very well to simple fresh herbs like thyme, savory and rosemary and is perfected by the kiss of aromatic smoke from fruit woods and rosemary. Therefore, whole lamb does not require as much pre-flavoring as whole pigs do. Simple, natural flavors are all that is needed to wake up the roast lamb's own natural flavors.
- I find simple flavoring best, salt and pepper followed by the body cavity filled with an abundance of fresh whole herbs. A basting liquid can be made from many things but I really like lemon juice with salt and pepper and a bit of cayenne and oil. Other options would be white wine, wine vinegar and fruit juices but I prefer to keep it simple.
- You can find several subtle variations of recipes for both cuts of lamb and whole lamb, some emphasizing thyme, some rosemary, some garlic, some oregano. Any way you flavor it, keep it relatively simple so that the lamb's own flavors can shine. I have a classic Southern French whole roast lamb recipe with detailed cooking instructions which is one of my favorites. Simple and classic!
Cooking Roast Lamb
- Most of the details of how to go about roasting a whole lamb can be found on my roast lamb recipe page. However, a couple important points should be mentioned here.
- Lamb is best when still slightly pink, not well done. Unlike pork, there are no safety issues with medium-rare or medium lamb. Don't dry it out by cooking it too long! It will get dry and tough.
- To develop a nice glaze on the surface and to infuse the meat with additional flavor, a whole lamb really takes to frequent basting well. I really like to baste generously almost continuously throughout the cooking period (one and a half to two hours). Make sure you have enough basting liquid ready at the start so that you don't run out! A nice long basting brush (made out of bunches of fresh herbs tied to a broom handle!) is helpful to keep the chef from being cooked himself!
That's it! I hope this helps get you on your way to a wonderful whole lamb roast! Be sure to check out my whole roast lamb recipe for more details on how to cook your lamb. Cheers!
The best place I know of to buy whole hog or lamb rotisseries and other accessories for pit roasts is SpitJack. They are very helpful and have a great selection of supplies that are specifically designed for cooking with fire, either in your fireplace or over a fire pit. Their "Whole Hog" and "Rotisseries" section have many great products.
Done learning how to cook a whole lamb?
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