Slow-Roasted Boneless Leg of Lamb Recipe

This aromatic roast lamb has a tender texture and a perfectly rosy, medium-rare hue from edge to center.

Slow-roasted boneless lamb leg on a cutting board. Some of it is sliced. There are fresh rosemary sprigs, whole garlic cloves, and lemon wedges next to it.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

Why It Works

  • Cooking at very low temperatures followed by a blast of high heat creates the ultimate contrast with pink meat that extends from edge to edge and a crisp brown crust. It also enhances tenderness.
  • Par-cooking a rub made with garlic, rosemary, lemon zest, and anchovies ensures raw, steamed flavors don't last.
  • Anchovies in the marinade bring out the meatiness of the lamb without overwhelming with any kind of fishy aroma.

It always baffles me when I hear statistics about lamb consumption in the US. Compared to chicken, beef, and pork sales, lamb consumption is a drop in the bucket—two full orders of magnitude lower than chicken consumption. For every 100 pounds of chicken eaten by the average American, we consume less than a single pound of lamb!

And why? It's certainly one of the most delicious meats around, with its, er, meaty texture, and intense flavor. Is it availability? Probably not. Lack of exposure? Maybe. Or is it just that it's often not cooked very well, resulting in an overly gamey flavor and dry texture?

My bet's on the latter, and because I love lamb so hard, I'm going to try my best to remedy that situation, starting with the best way to cook a boneless leg of lamb. I'm talking about a method that delivers mild, flavorful meat with a tender texture and a perfectly rosy medium-rare hue all the way from edge to center, surrounded in a crisp layer of browned, crackly fat.

Sound good to you? Here's how we get there.

Tame the Game: Minimizing Gaminess in Lamb

Lamb meat is, by its very nature, gamey and barnyard-y tasting—it's one of the reasons why the meat is not as popular as mild chicken or beef, and while I personally love that funky aroma, when I cook for guests, I find ways to try and keep it at least slightly under wraps. Australian and New Zealand lamb tends to be smaller and milder in flavor than their larger American counterparts, but I prefer the size of American lamb legs. They're more festive, and it's much easier to end up with a nice rosy red center and crisp exterior.

But here's the thing: most of the compounds that give lamb—or any meat—its distinct flavor tends to be concentrated in its fat. In fact, if you grind lamb fat into a lean beef hamburger or cook a lean beef steak in rendered lamb fat, you'd swear you were eating lamb. The lesson? Minimize the fat and you minimize the gaminess.

This is one of the many reasons I prefer cooking boneless lamb legs to on-the-bone roasts.

Butterflied boneless lamb leg resting on cutting board next to knife.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

Boneless lamb advantage #1: By boning out the leg and butterflying it, you get a chance to remove the large pockets of fat (which tend to be localized around a few major intermuscular glands), thereby reducing its gaminess while also making the lamb easier to carve and more pleasant to eat. Exterior crisp fat is great, but too much soft, greasy interior fat can be excessive, even for a fat-lover like myself.

Removing interior fat from lamb leg with a boning knife.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

If you ask your butcher to bone out a lamb leg for you (or better yet, just buy it pre-boned), it's short work to reduce the excess interior fat. To do it, work your fingers in between the individual muscle groups (It should be easy to feel where the seams are), locating pockets of hard fat in and amongst them. Use the tip of a sharp boning or chef's knife to trim it away, leaving fat around the exterior of the leg.

Flavor Boost: Adding Flavor to Leg of Lamb

Now that we've gone and tamed all that flavor, it's time to add some stuff back to bump it up again. This brings us to the next advantage of boning out a lamb leg.

Boneless lamb advantage #2: you can season it inside and out.

Minced garlic, shallots, lemon zest, and rosemary on a cutting board.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

There are many flavor combinations that go well with lamb—a good North African ras el hanout rub, a slathering of harissa paste with minced garlic, or olive paste with Mediterranean herbs. Even plain old salt and pepper, if all you want to taste is the meat.

This time, I'm going with the classic combination of garlic, rosemary, lemon zest, and some shallots, which bring their milder allium sweetness to the mix.

Cooking garlic, shallots, lemon zest and rosemary in a saucepot to make a rub for interior of roast boneless leg of lamb.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

Both garlic and onions change in flavor as they're heated and don't lose their raw, pungent edge and attain sweetness until they hit well into the 300°+ range. Since we're not cooking the interior of our lamb leg beyond a medium to medium-rare 135°F and our aromatic blend is being applied directly to the interior of the roast, it needs to be cooked before it goes on the lamb.

Stirring red pepper flakes and anchovies into seasoning mixture.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

I cook it down in olive oil, adding a pinch of red pepper flakes for heat, and a few minced anchovy filets (another classic lamb pairing). And don't worry, those filets won't taste fishy in the final roast. All they do is boost the meatiness of the lamb by providing a concentrated source of glutamic and inosinic acids, two proteins that trigger our sensation of savoriness.

The finished seasoning mixture of garlic, shallots, rosemary, lemon zest, chile flakes, and anchovy cooked down in a saucepot for roast boneless leg of lamb in a saucepan.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

The final component of the blend is the most important: salt.

Salt is not only essential from a flavor standpoint, but can greatly impact how much moisture meat retains. While its effects are most prominent in lean, white meats like pork and poultry, red meats also benefit from a method called dry-brining. Essentially, salt will dissolve a specific meat protein called myosin, one of the proteins responsible for the shrinkage that occurs when muscles are cooked. By dissolving this protein, you reduce shrinkage, thereby reducing moisture loss.

Seasoned interior of boneless lamb leg roast with a stovetop-cooked rub of garlic, shallots, rosemary, lemon zest, chile flakes and anchovy.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

So, well-salted meat not only tastes juicier because salt triggers saliva production as we chew, but it actually is juicier—measurably so. For white meat, this difference can be greater than 10%. For red meat, it's slightly less, but it's still present, and the better the penetration and the longer you let salted meat rest, the more pronounced the effect will be.

A hand rubbing seasoning into a raw boneless leg of lamb roast.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

That's why when applying a rub, it's important to really work the salt deep into as many cracks and crevices as possible. Ideally, you want to let the mixture sit on the lamb for at least a day, though with the low-and-slow cook we're going to do down the line, there's still a good amount of time for that salt to do its magic, even if you decide to cook the leg immediately.

Roll and Tie: Prepping a Boneless Leg of Lamb for Cooking

A hand rolling a boneless leg of lamb roast on a cutting board.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

With the rub applied, it's time to roll and tie the roast. If you've ever had any sort of thoughts tending towards bondage-type scenarios, this is a great way to work them out. Not that I have. Or something.

A rolled and tied boneless raw lamb leg roast resting on a cutting board.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

What does all that binding do for us? Glad you asked.

Boneless lamb advantage #3: an even shape makes for even cooking.

A bone-in leg of lamb resembles a cone, with a very thin tapered end and a fat end. Because of this, cooking it evenly is a nearly impossible task: the meat on the thinner end is inevitably going to cook more than the meat on the fat end. This is fine if you've got an uncle or a strange cousin-type thing who enjoys dry, gray meat—heck, it even lets you question their life choices, making for great family dinner table conversation—but assuming that rare to medium meat is on everybody's agenda, a more or less cylindrical shape is what you're after.

Taking Temps: The Best Temperature for Cooking Lamb

From previous testing with prime rib, I know the amount of moisture a piece of meat loses is directly related to the final temperature to which it is cooked. The higher the final temp, the more moisture it loses, and the dryer it tastes.

I also know that higher oven temperatures lead to a bigger temperature gradient within the meat: with a very hot oven, you wind up with a large degree of overcooked meat around the exterior of the roast, which appears as a distinct gray band.

That said, there's a balance to be struck: with lower temperatures, cooking times can get excessively long. I'll generally commit to cooking a prime rib in a 175° to 200°F oven once a year, monitoring it for its 8 to 10 hour cook time. In this case, I found three hours at 275°F offered me the best balance between good results and a reasonable timeframe.

A digital leave-in cooking probe inserted in an uncooked lamb roast.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

A good leave-in probe thermometer can be an early warning system to let you know when your roast is approaching its final temperature, but it's not one that I'd rely on 100%. In my testing, I've found thermometers with probes on leads tend to give less reliable readings over time (especially if you use them in hot ovens or pinch their cables in oven doors often). It's also impossible to properly gauge where the coolest part of the roast is going to be before it is actually cooked, which means you need to remove the hot probe and repeatedly test as you approach the last stages of cooking anyway.

You're better off using the probe as a reminder, but still relying on a good instant read thermometer for the final verification stages.

I like my lamb slightly more well done than I like my beef—a medium/medium-rare 130°F to 135°F is about right. The lamb's internal temperature will continue to rise by about 5°F as it rests outside of the oven, so make sure to take that into account when removing it (you may have noticed I accidentally slightly overcooked mine. I blame the dogs and a finicky photography setup).

Boneless lamb advantage #4: it's easier to take the temperature of a boneless lamb leg. Different materials conduct heat differently. In a lamb leg, the meat is the most efficient heat conductor, followed by the fat. The bone is by far the least efficient, which means that sections of the meat closest to the bone can end up significantly more rare than the rest of the meat. This potentially leads to false-negative temperature readings: if your thermometer's probe is resting too close to the bone, you'll end up accidentally overcooking the rest of the meat.

With a boneless lamb leg, this isn't an issue: the coolest spot in the center of the roast will not be significantly different from the hottest part in the center of the roast.

Cooked lamb roast resting on a wire rack on a rimmed baking sheet.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

The lamb is out and perfectly edible, but there's a difference between edible and fan-f&%king-tastic. That difference usually comes down to how crisp the fat is.

Cooked and crisped lamb roast resting on a wire rack on a rimmed baking sheet.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

After the lamb has rested for half an hour or so (which gives ample time for temperature differentials inside to even out), I pop it back into a 500°F oven for about 15 minutes to fully crisp. The lamb fat crackles and those bits of garlic and shallot brown, lending a rich sweetness to the salty crust. It's all I can do to stop myself from picking it off before I get a chance to serve it.

But first, we must release the prisoner from its restrictions. Scissors are the best tools for this job, followed by carefully slipping the strings off so as not to take any of that crust with them.

Finished lamb roast sliced and resting on a cutting board, with a carving knife and rosemary and garlic next to it.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

I'm sure you can guess what the final boneless lamb advantage is, but we've set up a basic rubric, so let's follow it:

Boneless lamb advantage #5: It's darn easy to slice and serve.

Your meat should be gloriously juicy, crispy on the outside, and because of its low, slow cooking, perfectly evenly cooked and extra-tender.

And on the off-chance that you end up with any leftovers? What then?

A whole lamb sandwich, and one cut in half on a plate.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-ALt

Might I suggest some cold lamb sandwiches? I might?! Joy!

December 2013

Recipe Facts

4.7

(19)

Active: 60 mins
Total: 5 hrs
Serves: 12 to 14 servings

Rate & Comment

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

  • 3 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 1 tablespoon)

  • 1 medium shallot, minced (about 1/2 cup)

  • 6 anchovy filets, minced (about 3 tablespoons)

  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves

  • 1 tablespoon zest from 1 lemon

  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt

  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  • 1 whole butterflied boneless leg of lamb, carefully trimmed of internal fat and connective tissue, 10 to 12 pounds

Directions

  1. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat oven to 275°F (135°C). Heat olive oil in a small saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add garlic, shallot, anchovies, rosemary, lemon zest, and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring occasionally, until shallots and garlic are softened, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl. Add salt and pepper and mix with a fork to combine.

    A four-image collage showing the aromatic seasoning paste being made. The top left image shows a stainless steel saucepan with oil in it. The top right image shows that same saucepan containing Garlic, shallots, anchovies, rosemary, lemon zest, and red pepper flakes. The bottom left image shows those ingredients sauteed together. The bottom right image shows the cooked ingredients, now in a small glass bowl on a wooden cutting board, being mixed together with a fork.

    Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

  2. Rub half of mixture inside butterflied lamb leg. Roll leg and tie securely at 1-inch intervals with butcher's twine. Rub remaining mixture over exterior of lamb. Cook immediately or let rest uncovered in the refrigerator for up to one night for best flavor and texture.

    A three image collage. The top left image shows a butterflied leg of lamb on a wooden cutting board being rubbed with herb paste by a pair of hands. The bottom left image shows that same herb-rubbed butterflied leg of lamb being rolled up by a pair of hands. The right image shows the rolled up leg of lamb, having been tied up with twine, which is enveloping it like a net.

    Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

  3. When ready to cook, place lamb on a wire rack set in a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. Transfer to oven and roast until an instant read thermometer inserted into coolest section of lamb registers 125°F to 130°F (52°C - 54°C) for medium-rare, or 130°F to 135°F for medium (54°C - 57°C), 3 to 3 1/2 hours. Remove from oven and let rest for 40 minutes.

    A two-image collage. The top image shows the trussed leg of lamb, now rubbed with additional herb paste, placed on a wire rack set inside of a foil-lined sheet pan. The bottom image shows the leg of lamb, now roasted and browned, on the same rack. A hand is holding an orange probe thermometer, which shows the internal temperature is 125 degrees Fahrenheit.

    Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

  4. While lamb is resting, increase oven temperature to 500°F (260°C). Return lamb to oven and roast until exterior is deep brown and crisp, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest 5 minutes. Remove twine with kitchen shears, transfer lamb to cutting board, slice into 1/4 inch slices, and serve.

    A four-image collage. The top left image shows the roasted leg of lamb on a wire rack set over a sheet pan lined with foil. The lamb is crispy and browned and the foil is covered with rendered fat. The top right image shows a hand holding a pair of scissors, which are being used to remove the twine that the leg of lamb is trussed with. The bottom left image shows the leg of lamb, twine fully removed, being sliced on a wooden cutting board. The bottom right image shows the leg of lamb, half of it unsliced and the other half of it sliced, revealing showing the color and consistency of the roasted meat.

    Serious Eats / Mariel De La Cruz

Special Equipment

Rimmed baking sheet, wire cooling rack, thermometer, butcher's twine

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Nutrition Facts (per serving)
863 Calories
56g Fat
1g Carbs
84g Protein
Show Full Nutrition Label Hide Full Nutrition Label
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 12 to 14
Amount per serving
Calories 863
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 56g 71%
Saturated Fat 23g 113%
Cholesterol 303mg 101%
Sodium 827mg 36%
Total Carbohydrate 1g 1%
Dietary Fiber 0g 1%
Total Sugars 1g
Protein 84g
Vitamin C 1mg 7%
Calcium 46mg 4%
Iron 7mg 37%
Potassium 1053mg 22%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)