This Easy Braised Lamb Takes Spicy-Sweet Inspiration From Mexico

Braised lamb shoulder topped with Cotija cheese and radishes, on a tortilla on a plate

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

There are many nights when I want a meal that tastes like someone’s been slaving away for it, but I’d rather that person not be me. This dish is made for those nights.

The long roast time in the oven does all the hard work, breaking down the tough collagen in the lamb shoulder into a sticky and succulent braise. This bone-in cut is extra forgiving, almost impossible to overcook, and I ask the butcher to leave it untrimmed so that it’s equipped with a self-basting fat cap that slowly renders from the gentle heat.

For the average weekend meal, I prefer the affordability of lamb shoulder over lamb leg, which, with its hefty price tag, is better suited to special occasions. Lamb shoulder can be seasoned in myriad ways, but I want the highest flavor-to-work ratio on these especially lazy days, so I turn to bold ingredients for some help.

This Mexican-inspired version depends on dried guajillo and morita chilies to bring heat, smoke, and fruit into play, while tomatillos add lively zip and syrupy dates mellow everything out.

Collage of photos of toasting dried chilies, coriander seed, and cumin seed

I start by snipping the dried chilies into half-inch strips, using kitchen shears, and discarding any seeds or stems. I toast them in a dry pan until their bright red matures to a mahogany hue and pungent chili vapors perfume the kitchen.

Once they're toasted, I add the chilies to a blender and toast the spices, adding both the cumin and the coriander seed to the same dry pan. After the seeds become aromatic and begin to pop, they join the chilies in the blender as well. (See our blender review for recommendations if you're looking for a new model.)

Collage of photos of making a chili paste for lamb shoulder: garlic, spices, chilies, dates, salt, and tomatillos assembled in bowls; dates and tomatillos in the jar of a blender; tomatillos, dates, and chilies in the jar of a blender; ingredients blended into a red paste

Next, it’s time for the blender to take care of the heavy lifting. The dried chilies and spices are blended together with halved tomatillos, pitted dates, salt, and a splash of water to get things moving. At this point, the paste will taste overly tannic from the dried chilies and tomatillos, but trust that as it roasts, it will develop dark, fruity notes of raisin and prune to complement the lamb.

Collage of photos of preparing lamb shoulder with chili paste: scoring the fat cap, seasoning with salt, applying chili paste, spreading chili paste over fat cap

I’ve found in the past that dried chilies can seem muddy when combined with the browned flavor of seared meat and black pepper. Plus, given the long, low-and-slow cook time this roast gets in the oven, you'll get more than enough surface browning even without searing the meat.

Instead, I simply prep the lamb shoulder by deeply scoring the fat cap and seasoning it well with kosher salt. Resist the urge to trim off the thick layer of fat, since it protects and bastes the meat while cooking, yielding a tender and juicy braise.

If you make the lamb a day ahead, you can chill it in the refrigerator overnight; the rendered fat will solidify, making it easy to remove. Even if you don’t cook the dish in advance, you can still skim off the majority of the fat from the juices at the bottom of the pan, using a ladle, after it comes out of the oven.

Braised chili-rubbed lamb shoulder in a Dutch oven

I prefer to braise the lamb shoulder in a Dutch oven so it can heat evenly from all sides, but a roasting pan covered in foil can also get the job done.

I place the seasoned lamb into the Dutch oven before smearing the chili paste over the top, rubbing well into the etched fat. I don’t even bother to rub the entire shoulder in paste, because all the flavors will get to know each other in the pot.

Because this recipe doesn’t contain any stock or other liquid, it may not sound like a braise at all. But, by cooking it all covered, I’m able to trap the moisture and allow that lamb to braise in its own liquid.

Stuffing tortillas with braised lamb shoulder and radish for tacos

Over the next five hours, the oven does all the hard work for me. While I binge-watch old episodes of The Office and spoil my appetite with bagna càuda popcorn, the heat of the oven is tirelessly uncoiling the meat’s proteins, breaking down collagen, and reconfiguring sugars and amino acids into deeper, richer flavors. I know the oven has finished making magic when I remove the lid to find that the meat has fallen off the bone and the once-astringent chili paste has become dark, sweet, and complex.

Braised lamb shoulder tacos.

To serve, I prefer to snag a seat directly in front of the Dutch oven and tear off chunks of meat for a taco—this is a meal that requires no plates. But if I want to round it out, sliced cucumbers, radishes, and crumbled Cotija cheese make this an impressive spread, and no one will know I barely did a thing to make it happen.