Lamb and mutton: what is the difference, and is one better than the other?
There is indeed a difference, and part of the answer depends on who you ask.
It’s all in the flavor you are looking for; stronger tasting or milder lamb meat.
What’s the Difference Between Lamb and Mutton?
Technically lamb and mutton are both domestic sheep, just at different times of their life cycles.
Lamb is a sheep that is up to a year old, and a spring lamb is just three months of age.
Mutton refers to an adult sheep that is over one year old.
If going for mutton many would recommend a sheep that is three years old.
If it is mutton you are after it is usually because of the stronger, and more gamey flavor.
Other differences in the characteristics are that lamb will be less fatty, and more tender than mutton.
Spring lamb is of course the least fatty, and has the most tender cuts.
Muscles that work longer, such as the legs of an animal, the tougher the meat is going to be.
Mutton tends to be an acquired taste, and more popular in some countries over others depending on people’s tastes.
Mutton is less expensive than lamb and is therefore more popular in countries where incomes are lower.
As incomes rise people tend to go for the more delicate flavor, and tender taste of lamb.
In the Middle East and Europe tolerance for the taste of mutton is more common.
Meat is often slow cooked to give it a richer, more mellow flavor than a quick cooked cut.
What is Lamb?
Lamb is a domestic sheep that is up to one year old.
It is much less fatty, and much more tender than a sheep that is over a year old.
As an animal gets older, its meat gets tougher and stronger in flavor.
A spring lamb is a sheep that is three months old and gives the sweetest and most tender flavors.
One of the most coveted and more expensive cuts in a young sheep are the lamb chops.
What is Mutton?
Mutton is the name given to the meat of an adult sheep, that is over a year old.
This meat tends to be tougher, and more gamey in flavor than a younger animal.
Some people have acquired a taste for the older animal, and prefer the strong taste it provides.
The best cuts of mutton are usually the loin, rib and rump.
Common Cuts of Lamb
Lamb shoulder is a cut that can be boned, stuffed and rolled, or cut into shoulder chops.
Rib chops are a cut that gives you the lamb chops, or rack of lamb when chops are left intact in one piece.
Lamb breast has a lot of connective tissue and cartilage, and is often used to make ground lamb.
The neck is another tough cut that is used to make slow cooked stews.
The shank is another very tough part of the lamb.
Since the legs are being used all the time the muscles and connective tissue are not very tender.
The best way to cook the lamb shank is low and slow, getting it as tender as possible.
Lamb loin is one of the most tender and sought after parts of the animal, this is the cut we get loin roast, and loin chops from.
The sirloin cut is commonly cut into chops and steaks.
The flank is usually braised, slow cooked, or used for ground lamb.
Leg of lamb is typically cooked whole, although it can be cut into pieces and cooked in other ways.
Common Cuts of Mutton
The cuts are similar to lamb, but the flavor profile is the thing that differs the most.
The shoulder is often boned, stuffed and rolled, or cut into shoulder chops.
Rib chops are the cut that gives us chops or ‘the rack’, when the ribs are left together as one piece.
Mutton breast is a cut that has a lot of connective tissue and cartilage and typically used for ground meat.
The neck is another tough cut that can be used for stews, or marinated overnight for delicious shish kabobs
The shank is tough on any animal and must be cooked low and slow, otherwise you end up with an incredibly tough piece of meat.
The loin is one of the most tender cuts of meat from a sheep, and delicious cut into cubes for a barbecue.
The sirloin cut is used for chops and steaks, and the flank is usually braised, slow cooked, or used for ground lamb.
The leg of the animal is most often cooked whole, although it can be cut into pieces, and cooked in other ways.
How to Cook Lamb
How you cook your lamb will most likely be determined by where you live, and what flavors you are used to.
In the United States, depending on the cut, lamb is often prepared rare or medium rare with a pink center.
In the Middle East no one would eat lamb cooked that way, preferring their meat to be cooked well done until every ounce of red color is completely gone.
Some might think to overcook meat this way to be sacrilegious, but to each his own.
Very often in Arab countries any meat is cooked slowly, to the point of the meat falling off the bones.
I personally like slow cooked lamb most of the time, but a medium rare rack of lamb is also hard to turn down.
How to Cook Mutton
Mutton is more often going to be slow cooked, because it tends to be tougher, due to it being an older animal.
Marinating meat for periods of time can also help give mutton a more tender profile.
Another way to make meat more tender is by using a meat tenderizing mallet, this makes the fibers softer and therefore more tender.
Both methods of cooking are delicious in their own ways, and at the end of the day it comes down to personal preference.
There is no right or wrong, enjoy your red meat the way you like it!