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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 the 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 un-rendered 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 come the rib chops. These are cut from the center (rib) section of the lamb and usually come 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 (they make a prettier picture), I would have been equally happy with loin chops. These are cut farther 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 the best choice when you're looking for a hearty dinner over good looks.
No matter whether you choose rib or loin chops, just like with pork chops, you want them thick-cut, preferably in the one-and-a-quarter- to one-and-a-half-inch range. This will later provide some more leeway during the cook, helping ensure the final product is as good as 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 said, too much of it means you'll end up with overly chewy chops.
So I like to use my best judgment and trim off any extraneous hard pieces of fat around the edges of the chops, but leave anything internal in place.
Once they're trimmed, it's best 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 allows them to reabsorb the liquid. The result is a lamb chop with more concentrated flavor. If you don't have the time, 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 cooked directly over high heat will char too deeply on the outside before the meat is finished cooking internally. So, to avoid that, we employ a two-zone approach to cooking, in which 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 you a combo of perfectly done meat and just the right crust.
Lamb is best when it's cooked to between rare and medium (medium-rare is my preferred temperature). With intentional undercooking like this, a nice evenness throughout is also a worthy goal. To achieve this, using 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 gentler heat to the meat, raising its temperature at a slower pace. I replace the cover on the grill to help trap in and regulate the heat around the chops. When it's 10°F shy of your desired temperature—that's 120°F (49°C) for medium-rare—the chops are uncovered and moved to the hot side of the grill. There, they'll quickly sear and come up to the final temperature at the same time—130°F (54°C) for medium-rare.
Once the chops are grilled, let them rest for 10 minutes off the heat, and they'll be ready to go.
It's All Good
In this how-to series, we've covered chicken breasts, pork chops, and fish so far. For 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 a thing of beauty, so why hide that natural greatness?
Okay, okay, you twisted my arm. There are some great accompaniments for lamb, none more apt than mint. A nice mint sauce seems to make the lamb even more, um...lamb-y. The hefty flavor of lamb can get a light pick-me-up with a simple gremolata, or you can go in the opposite direction and pair one heavy flavor with another, using a whole grain mustard. Also, lamb with a little hummus never did anyone any harm.
For these rib chops, I made an accompanying yogurt-mint sauce, which I wholeheartedly enjoyed, but, to my surprise, my wife rejected 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 grilled lamb chops can be, and why you should really make them for dinner tonight. Go!