by Sally Colby
Although there’s a fairly standard way to fabricate (or cut) a lamb carcass, there are options for those who sell inspected meat directly to consumers. Prior to presenting such options, Dr. Jonathan Campbell, Penn State Extension meat specialist, began with a story about the modern inspection system that was developed to keep meat safe.
“The Food Safety and Inspection Service, or FSIS, is free to meat processors for eight hours per day,” said Campbell. “It is required for interstate sales of meat products: beef, pork, lamb, goat and poultry. If you buy meat from a retail outlet, it was inspected at some point by USDA-FSIS.” The service is paid for by tax dollars and was the result of what was exposed in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel “The Jungle.”
The purpose of inspection is solely for wholesomeness and safety of food products, not to promote trade. “They don’t care whether it’s high quality or not,” said Campbell. “They don’t care whether it tastes good or not – only whether you’re complying with safety regulations set forth by the federal government.”
What Sinclair tried to do in “The Jungle” is bring to light the difficult working conditions for people in meat plants. “What he actually did is gross people out,” said Campbell. “Enter a law that most of those in Congress were behind. It passed the House and Senate and was signed by the president at the time.” This action is what brought forth the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906.
While inspection efforts are in place for food safety, Campbell addressed lamb quality, starting with grading. “If you’re a lamb producer and want your lamb graded, be prepared to pay a lot,” said Campbell. “Graders are paid from the time they leave their house until the time they get back home. If there are two lambs to grade at a small packing plant and the inspector lives two hours away, you’re paying for four hours of travel, plus mileage, plus the 10 minutes it takes to grade two lambs.” The cost of grading two lambs could be $1,000, which isn’t an economical venture and which is why small packing plants with 10 to 499 employees (or very small packing plants with fewer than 10 employees) don’t grade beef or lamb.
So why grade lamb? Campbell said that while grading may add value and ensure customers are getting a quality product, the real focus is quality. The product should taste good, look good and perhaps have a price difference for higher quality versus just “okay.”
“That’s what we’re trying to do with lamb,” said Campbell. “What makes quality in lamb? It isn’t muscling or marbling, it’s age. The age of the animal determines a lot of how much that carcass costs. It’s probably the most important factor.”
Pricing can be developed based on yield, which categorizes carcasses for their expected yield of boneless, trimmed retail cuts. Yield grades range from 1 to 5, with 1 as the highest expected yield. Lamb from a carcass with a smaller yield grade number will have a higher proportion of boneless, trimmed cuts.
The maturity of an animal is typically determined by the bone formation on the front cannon bones (trotters) of the carcass. The break joint is a cartilaginous area of the cannon bone that has not yet turned to bone. “As the animal ages, somewhere between eight and 12 months, the break joint transforms to a spool joint,” said Campbell. “As long as an animal has at least one break joint on the front cannon bone, it’s considered a lamb.”
As the growth plates grow together, the end of the bone is rounded and ridged like a spool of thread. While break joints are found in lamb, older animals with more mature bone structures with spool-like ends are classified as mutton, even though they may still be quite young.
The second quality factor is flank streaking, which is the quantity of fat deposited on the inside flank muscles. Campbell explained that the primary flank, on the outside, is what the grader examines at inspection. “The more streaking, or fat deposited in the primary flank, the higher the quality of the animal and determines Prime, Choice, Good or Utility.” Campbell added that 90% of U.S. lambs grade USDA Choice.
Quality is about an expected eating experience, and it’s why a USDA Prime carcass has higher value than a USDA Choice carcass. Yield grade can also affect quality and is related to the amount of fat at the 12th rib, taken with a probe in the middle of the loin eye. Dressing percentage, or carcass yield, is determined by dividing the warm carcass weight by shrunk live weight.
The bone-in yield off a lamb carcass is between 50% to 70%; boneless is between 40% and 50%. “If you have a 100-pound animal with a 50-pound carcass, the packaged and ready-to-sell product will be between 25 and 35 pounds, bone-in,” said Campbell. “Boneless will be between 20 and 30 pounds.” This means the final yield is about 25% of the live animal. Most of the loss is due to the pelt, head, blood, internal organs and fat trim.
Campbell started with a whole hanging lamb carcass and demonstrated how it’s broken down. The first cut, made between the 12th and 13th ribs, divides the front saddle and hind saddle. Next, the neck is removed from the shoulder. Front shanks are cut, then the shoulders. Campbell suggested removing remove the breast portion, which can be used for sausage. He also advised removing as much fat as possible during fabrication because hard fat contributes to poor flavor.
The shoulder is suitable as is for bone-in roasts, or the bones can be removed to create a rolled roast. Short ribs are cut, and the thin slab of meat can be separated from the riblets, then rolled, tied and cured to make lamb bacon. Curing takes four to seven days under refrigeration (36º to 38º F).
The rack can be left whole, or once the ribs are apart from the rest of the carcass, the tissue between the bones can be cut away, resulting in a Frenched rack. “A Frenched rack is typically, but not necessarily, a half a rack,” said Campbell. “For a crown roast you’d take both racks, bend the pieces and tie it.”
Finally, for the hindsaddle, which Campbell said is easy, there are hind shanks, two legs and the loin. “On the loin is the part of the sirloin, and the loin starts where the ridge is on the outer back of the lamb. Lamb loin chops can be double or single. We can also cut leg steaks or sirloin chops as part of the sirloin.” Ground lamb and stew meat can be fabricated from nearly any portion of the carcass that doesn’t have an otherwise specific purpose.
With some guidance and a bit of creativity, those who sell lamb directly to consumers can offer a variety of interesting options as well as cooking tips for each cut. Information on fabricating cuts of lamb and recipes for various cuts is available on americanlamb.com.