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Knife Skills: How to Clean and French a Lamb Rack
The first step to great food is great knife skills. Check out more Knife Skills this way!
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 guide demonstrating each step, here are a few tips on how to shop for lamb racks this season.
- 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.
Now that you know what kind of lamb to buy, let's get cutting.
Step 1: Removing the Shoulder Blade
Sometimes, on large racks, the shoulder blade will be left intact. Remove this bone with by lifting with your non-knife hand and cutting underneath it using a butcher's knife or a paring knife. Save bone for stock or pets if desired.
Step 2: Removing Fat and Connective Tissue
Trim away the thick layer of fat covering the ribs by making a small incision where the shoulder rib was removed at the rib-tip end, and slowly peel away the layer with your non-knife hand. The action is more pulling and separating than slicing.
Step 3: Removing Fat and Connective Tissue
Continue peeling away the fat layer, using a series of small, short strokes to separate the fat, which should come of in a large swath, allowing your non-knife hand to do most of the work. The fat should separate along natural fault lines, leaving a thin 1/8th-inch to 1/4th-inch layer next to the meat. This will help flavor the meat and prevent its surface from drying out as it cooks.
Discard excess fat (or save for rendering or sausage-making, if you are so inclined).
Step 4: Fine-Trimming of Fat
If the fat remains too thick in some areas, hold your knife parallel to the meat and carefully shave off excess until an even layer remains.
Step 5: Trimming Tendon
There is often a large tendon running right underneath the loin. Trim this tendon off, along with some additional fat. At this stage, your lamb rack is ready to cook. However, if you'd like to go the extra step for presentation and French the bones (strip the ends of excess meat), start by flipping the rack over so that the ribs are exposed.
Step 6: Scoring Membrane
Using the tip of your knife, score the membrane along the center of each bone by placing the tip of your knife against he bone starting about an inch and a half away from the cut end of the bones, and pulling your knife slowly and firmly down the bone to its end. Your bone should trace a path right down the center of each bone, not in between the bones.
Step 7: Peeling Membrane
Using a dish towel to grip the slippery fat, pull fat and membrane away from between each rib slowly and firmly. It should pull cleanly away from the bones.
Continue working away from the bones until about two inches are exposed (more or less, depending on the size of the lamb and personal preference).
Step 8: Trimming Fat and Membrane
Flip the rack over and use your knife to cut away the flap of fat and membrane. Discard excess fat, or render if desired (rendered lamb fat is great for roasting potatoes or playing practical jokes on your wife).
Step 9: Cleaning Bones
If you're really lucky, the fat and membrane will have come cleanly off the bones, leaving them bare and pearly white. Most of the time, little bits of meat and fat will remain stuck to the bone, which all but the most OCD will not mind. I consider myself amongst the most OCD, so I use the butt-end of my boning knife, next to the tang, to scrape every last scrap of connective tissue off the bones.
Step 10: Cutting Chops
To divide rack into smaller racks or individual chops, stand it on end, and starting from the exposed rib end, cut between ribs with smooth, single strokes. If you don't get through in one stroke, pick up your knife, place it back in the seam, and pull it again—do not saw back and forth. You'll end up with jagged edges.
Step 11: Finished
A Frenched lamb rack and four double-cut chops, ready for roasting or grilling. Now wasn't that much easier than you thought it'd be? Want to make it even easier? Next time, ask your butcher to do it for you.
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.