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Lamb's always a point of contention in my house. I love the rich, unique flavor and wondrous, delicious fat of lamb, while my wife opts out of it for the exact same reasons. In researching for this lamb-grilling guide, I may have finally swayed her to my side with a set of perfectly grilled lamb chops, further solidifying my notion that the grill makes just about everything better.
So whether you're a lamb lover, hater, or somewhere in between, it's worth trying your hand at lamb on the grill. It's one of the greatest ways to cook this incredible meat.
A Chop Above the Rest
When considering the right chops for the job, you pretty much have three different options. First, the economical shoulder chops cut from the front of animal. These have a fair amount of fat and connective tissue, which gives them a very robust flavor, but negatively impacts tenderness as they can be chewy from too much unrendered fat over a quick, hot cook. That doesn't mean they can't be grilled; they just wouldn't be my first choice.
Moving our way back, next comes the rib chops. These are cut from the center, rib, section of the lamb and usually come with with a long rib bone with an eye of meat at the end. While not the meatiest of the chops, their presentation and smooth flavor make them a prized cut, which is something you'll pay for as well.
While I opted for rib chops for this post (makes a prettier picture), I would have been equally happy with loin chops. These are cut further back, between the ribs and the leg, and have almost the same smooth flavor as a rib chop. Usually looking like little T-bone steaks, they tend to be meatier than rib chops, making them them the best choice when you're looking for a hearty dinner over good looks.
No matter if you choose rib or loin chops, just like with pork chops, you want to go with a thick-cut, preferably around the 1 1/4 to 1 1/2-inch range. This will later give some more leeway in the cook, helping ensure the final product is as good it can be.
Salt and Fat
With either loin or rib chops in hand, it's time to consider prep. Either cut is almost certain to have its fair share of fat. To me, this flavorful fat that softens over the heat is all part of what makes lamb incredible. That being said, too much of it and you'll end up with overly chewy chops.
So I like to use my best judgement and trim off any extraneous hard pieces of fat around the edges of the chops, but leave anything internal in place.
Once trimmed, it's best practice to salt the chops about 40 minutes before they're ready to hit the grill. I'll let Kenji explain the full science behind it, but this acts as a type of brine, first releasing moisture from the meat, then breaking down the meat proteins in a way that they can reabsorb the liquid. The end result is a lamb chop with more concentrated flavor. If you don't have the time on hand, just salt the chops right before they go over the fire and they'll be fine.
Cold Start, Hot Finish
When considering a lamb chop, first think about what you want out of it in the end. A thick-cut chop over a direct high heat will overly to char on the outside before the meat is finished cooking internally, so to avoid that, employ a two-zone approach to cooking, where the grill is split into hot and cold zones by piling the coals all on one side of the charcoal grate. This way the lamb can be seared and slowly roasted separately, giving a combo of perfectly done meat with just the right crust.
Lamb is best when done between rare to medium, medium-rare being my preferred temperature, and with intentional under cooking like this, a nice evenness throughout is also a worthy goal. To achieve this, the reverse sear is in order. While I commonly sear first, then roast, the reverse sear flips that process.
The lamb is started on the cool side of the grill to deliver a more gentle heat to the meat, raising its temperature at a slower pace. I cover the lamb with an overturned disposable aluminum tray (a neat trick I learned from Cook's Illustrated) to help trap in and regulate the heat around the chops. When it reaches a point where it's 10°F shy from being your desired temperature, that's 120°F for medium-rare, the chops are uncovered and moved to the hot side of the grill. They'll quickly sear and come up to the final temperature at the same time—130°F for medium-rare.
Once grilled, let them rest for 10 minutes off the grill, and they're ready to go.
It's All Good
In this how-to series we've covered chicken breasts, pork chops, and fish so far. All of these I like to add an accompaniment at the end to give the final dish a little extra something. Not so much for lamb though—the full flavored, tender meat is thing of beauty , so why hide that natural greatness?
OK, OK, you twisted my arm. There are some great pairings with lamb too, none more apt than mint. A marriage made in heaven, a nice mint sauce seems to only make the lamb be even more, um...lamby. The hefty flavor of lamb can get a light pick-me-up with a simple gremolata, or go the opposite direction and pair one heavy flavor with another using a whole grain mustard. Also, lamb a little hummus never did anyone any harm.
For these ribs chops, I made an accompanying yogurt-mint sauce, which I wholeheartedly enjoyed, but, to my surprise, my wife opted out of it and ate the lamb on its own. For someone who normally doesn't dig on lamb, that's just a testament to how great well grilled lamb chops can be, and why you should really need to grilling them for dinner tonight. Go!