Regal. I think that may be the best word for a crown roast of lamb—lamb racks that are tied together end-to-end into the shape of a crown. And just like the crowns that grace the heads of monarchs, crown roast of lamb is all about presentation.
That may sound like an argument against making a crown roast—I mean, why cook something just for its looks?—but it's not. Presentation is important, especially at the holiday table, and few roasts are as impressive as a crown roast.
I make this point because it explains how I approached this recipe. I started with a few basic premises:
- Racks of lamb are expensive, so even if we decide to cook them in a way that prioritizes presentation, the single most important thing is still to not risk ruining the meat.
- Presentation aside, don't ruin the meat.
- Don't ruin the meat.
The presentation, though, presents a small problem: the crown roast's form makes it a less than ideal way to cook a rack of lamb. Searing it, for instance, is a pretty big challenge—the meaty, fat-capped face of the rack is on the inner wall of the crown, and that's the part we want to sear!
Let's take a step back and look at the anatomy of a crown roast.
Forging the Crown in the Heat of Butchery!
As I wrote above, a lamb crown roast is formed by connecting at least two racks, usually with seven or eight bones each, end-to-end. The racks themselves come from the loins that run on either side of the lamb's spine, with the rib bones attached (for presentation, those rib bones are frenched, or cleaned of meat and sinew). To get the normally straight racks into a curved shape, the butcher makes slits between each of the rib bones on the back sides of the racks (the sides that form the outer wall of the crown roast), allowing them to be flexed like an accordion.
The racks are then sewn together using a butcher's needle and twine, with the ribs on the outside of the crown and the loins on the inside. Another piece of twine is often also looped around the whole thing to help hold its shape. This is something you could do yourself, but it's honestly just as easy to ask the butcher to do it for you—if you're taking the trouble to make a crown roast, you might as well go to a good butcher to get some great lamb and have them take care of that step at the same time.
The crown roast pictured here is a two-rack roast, but you can also have a triple crown roast made with three racks, or theoretically even a quadruple one, though I've never seen that (I have to assume it'd be kind of unwieldy to handle). Unwieldiness aside, the only theoretical limit I can think of is how big your oven is,* since the crown's circumference will grow as racks are added to it. Cooking times, however, should remain fairly constant, since the thickness of the ring of racks doesn't change as the crown grows.
*Well, that and how deep your pockets are.
Approaches to Cooking a Crown Roast
My goal here is to offer a solid method for cooking a crown roast of lamb, with the highest priority being that we don't risk ruining the meat. That objective forced me to make some fundamental decisions about how I was going to cook and serve it, and the first is whether or not to stuff it before roasting.
See, crown roast recipes often call for stuffing or adding a crust before cooking. They look more grand that way, which is a bonus as far as presentation is concerned. But stuffings and crusts also introduce variables that make creating a master crown-roast recipe difficult since different crusts and stuffings have different moisture levels and densities, and therefore different cooking times. Some have raw meat or eggs and require higher cooking temperatures to be fully cooked.
That doesn't mean it's not possible to cook a stuffed crown roast successfully, it just adds a variable that increases the chance of things going wrong. It's just like a turkey: yes, you can stuff it, but if your goal is perfectly cooked meat, the easiest thing is to take that stuffing out of the equation by cooking it separately.
There's another problem with stuffing. On a crown roast, there's a cap of fat that covers the loin on the inner wall of the crown. If we were cooking the racks separately, we'd sear that fat cap, rendering some of the fat while crisping its surface to a delicious crust. But when it's hidden on the inner wall of the roast, there's no easy way to sear it. (I even tried a blowtorch—it's possible but a little awkward.)
Considering all of this, I decided that the best method is to cook the crown roast by itself so that the focus is on getting the meat just right and the surface as browned as possible. Then, as an optional step, we can stuff it after with a pre-made dressing. In the photos here, I'm using warm couscous with dried fruits and pistachios, but really you can do almost any kind of dressing or stuffing. If it seems like too much of a pain to stuff the crown roast after cooking solely for presentation's sake, you can absolutely skip it and serve whatever you want on the side.
Cooking the Crown Roast
Because of its shape, there are a limited number of ways to cook a crown roast. Sous vide—a method we've recommended for regular lamb racks—is pretty challenging due to the shape of a crown roast, and pan-roasting is basically impossible since the most critical surface on a crown roast—the fat-capped loin—is unable to come into contact with the pan.
We're basically left with the oven, and then the main choice is between a low-and-slow roast followed by a short browning step at the end (the reverse-sear, as Kenji has dubbed it), or a high-heat approach.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each.
High-heat is significantly faster than the low-and-slow approach. At 450°F, it took 35 minutes for a three-and-a-half pound crown roast to reach about 130°F, which is about medium-rare. But high heat also gives you a smaller margin of error—forget it for even a few minutes, and you may have just gone past your desired level of doneness.
High-heat can also cook a roast unevenly. It's a bigger problem on larger roasts, like leg of lamb, where the exterior portions of meat come out much more cooked than the meat at the center. But it has an effect on the racks in a crown roast too: because the thicknesses of the loins in a crown roast can vary slightly along their lengths, a high-heat approach is more likely to overcook the thinner portions of loin and undercook the thicker portions. In my 450-°F test roast, I recorded internal temps at the center of the loins as high as 135 and as low as 110°F, depending on where I inserted the thermometer. If you have guests with different doneness preferences, this can maybe be a good thing, but in most cases I'd rather have a little more consistency.
The reverse sear's low-and-slow approach, on the other hand, takes a lot longer, but makes it harder to overcook the lamb, while giving more even results. It also creates a more even temperature gradient from the edge to the center of the roast (meaning your lamb ends up cooked more evenly.) In my tests, it took about one and a half hours for the meat to reach 115°F in a 200°F oven. This is my preferred method, assuming I have the time to do it.
To brown the roast, I remove it from the oven and then crank the oven to its highest temperature—in mine, that means setting it to broil. Once the oven is blazing hot, I put the roast back in, this time with the exposed bones covered with foil to prevent burning, and cook the roast until it's 130°F internally and browned outside. You need to pay close attention during the browning step, since the racks are small enough that they can overcook in this short window. I'd check the temperature every five minutes or so, checking more and more frequently as it gets close to the final temperature.
Once the roast is done, I rest it for about 15 minutes. In all of my tests, I didn't get enough drippings from the crown roast to make a pan sauce, so I recommend serving it with a mint-and-pistachio pesto instead.
All told, it's incredibly simple to make, quite a sight to behold, and freaking delicious. The roast itself is easy to carve by slicing between each rib bone to break it down into beautiful chops that are not overcooked.
If anyone is curious about the frilly little paper hats that people traditionally put on the ribs for decoration, I'll be frank: I think they're frumpy and dated looking. Skip 'em.
Special thanks to Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors for donating the great lamb used for these recipe tests.