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A weekly video spot highlighting an essential knife technique.

Knife Skills: How to Clean and French a Lamb Rack

Slideshow SLIDESHOW: Knife Skills: How to Clean and French a Lamb Rack

Easter's right around the corner, so I thought I'd kick off our new knife skills series with one of the more advanced techniques: how to trim and french a lamb rack.

What exactly is frenching? Well, when applied to meat, it's all about appearances. Stripping meat away from bones in order to give roasts and chops a more attractive presentation doesn't really do much for its texture or flavor, but it sure makes it look pretty on the plate. Think of it as a necktie for your roast.

Once you know a few of the tricks, the process itself is really quite simple, and can just as easily be applied to pork, venison, or beef.

In addition to the illustrated slideshow demonstrating each step, here are a few tips on how to shop for lamb racks this season.

Shopping Tips

  • Look for whole racks that are composed of at least eight rib sections. Even if you plan on cooking the lamb in smaller portions, you'll get more even portion sizes if you cut it yourself at home.
  • Avoid pre-marinated or "herb-rubbed" vacuum-sealed lamb racks. The seasoning often overwhelms the flavor of the meat. Personally, I want my lamb to taste of lamb, not whatever Trader Joe (if that's even his real name) thinks it should taste like. You can always add herbs and seasonings yourself for a more subtle, fresher flavor.
  • Unless a recipe specifically calls for "loin chops," you should be looking for "rib chops," the ones with the long rib bone and single eye of meat, the equivalent of a rib-eye steak from a cow. Loin chops come from further back on the animal and include part of both the loin, and the tenderloin, just like a Porterhouse or T-bone beef steak. It's cooking qualities are different, and thus will not substitute well in most rib chop recipes.
  • Frozen lamb is OK, as long as it's frozen in an air-tight vacuum-sealed bag and contains no ingredients besides lamb. Allow the lamb to thaw complerely overnight in the fridge before using.

American vs. New Zealand/Australian

Political and environmental reasons aside, it's largely a matter of personal taste.

American lamb, which retails at between $15 to 25 per pound is generally raised on a grain-based diet and slaughtered at 134 pounds of weight per animal. The resultant cuts are large and well-marbled, but will have a mild, almost beef-like flavor. In fact, cut away all the fat, and even an expert would be hard pressed to tell what animal it came from. Some people refer to American lamb as "delicate" or "spring-like." I refer to it mostly as "meh."

That said, there are a few great grass-fed American lamb farms that do produce some stunningly flavorful lamb, such as Jamison Farm in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, or Elysian Fields Farm in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania (where Thomas Keller, among many other chefs, gets his lamb). The Jamison farm can be ordered online.

New Zealand/Australian lamb, which is much cheaper, generally retailing for around $10 to 20 per pound is raised on the islands' abundant grass. Without grain to fatten it up, the meat tends to be a bit leaner, but the intense flavor imparted by the grass-based diet more than compensates for this loss—provided you don't overcook the meat and dry it out.

Though slaughtered when only 84 pounds, what they lack in size, they make up for with deep, gamey flavor. Most national chains, including Trader Joe's and Whole Foods carry New Zealand lamb, but ask your butcher to make sure.

Whichever lamb you choose, proper cooking is the key to a great meal. Fortunately, the Food Lab is hard at work on it for tomorrow's post!

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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