Tag Archives: Lamb Cutting

Lamb Cutting: Front

Having removed the scrag when breaking the lamb into primals, the components remaining on the lamb front are the shoulder, the breast, and the shank.

I love having ground lamb in my kitchen, so usually I bone out on entire lamb shoulder just to run it through the meat grinder.  The other half is broken in a bone-in shoulder roast, a boneless breast ideal for stuffing and rolling, and a shank, one of the world’s supreme braising cuts.

Here is half of the lamb front, with the fell still attached.

Lamb front, with fell

We remove the fell to expose the fat cap.

Lamb front, fell removed

Here is the inside of the front, showing the backbone on the top, the first six ribs, and the breastbone on the bottom.

Opposite side of the front

Use a handsaw to separate the front into the shoulder (top) and the breast-foreshank (bottom).  The cut is made roughly parallel to, and a few inches below, the backbone.  The bone-in shoulder make a fantastic roast.

Dividing the front into the shoulder (top) and the breast-foreshank (bottom)

There is a natural seam between the foreshank and breast.  Follow that seam with your knife, and the two are easily separated.

Removing the foreshank from the breast

The breast portion can have the sternum and ribs removed in one piece.

Removing the breast bones from the breast meat

Lamb Cutting: Loin and Flank

The loin primal is divided into two sections.  The forward part, from the thoracic section of the spine, contains ribs, and is usually trimmed to make rack of lamb.  The back part, from the lumbar section, contains no ribs, and is usually broken into lamb chops.


Dividing the Loin Primal into the Rib and Loin Subprimals

This is the whole loin primal, with the fell still attached.

The whole lamb loin

Here is the underside of the loin primal.  You can see the rib section on the left, and the loin subprimal on the right.

The underside of the whole lamb loin

We divide the two by cutting after the last rib bone, then cleaving through the backbone.

Separating the loin primal into the rack and loin subprimal


How to make a Frenched Rack of Lamb

Frenched lamb rack is simply a lamb rack with the long rib bones exhaustively cleaned.  This an extremely popular cut in fine restaurants because of the showy presentation.

First, if it’s still attached, remove the fell from the rack.

Yanking the fell from the lamb rack

Next we remove the layer of meat and fat that is covering the rib bones.  We landmark this cut by looking at the cross-section of the rack and locating the central, round group of muscles.

Cross-sectional view of a lamb rack

We cut away all the meat and fat from the rib bones above the central round muscles.

Cutting away the fat cap to expose the ribs on a lamb rack

Now cut away all the meat and fat from between the ribs bones.

Cutting the meat out from between the ribs on a lamb rack

To get the ribs super-clean, we use butcher’s twine.  Tie a three foot length of twine to something very solid and sturdy, either a heavy table or cabinetry.  Wrap the twine around the base of one of the bones, pull it tight, then slide it over the bone and off the end.  It will pull meat and fat and connective tissue with it and leave the bone cleaner than it ever would get by scraping with a knife.  Repeat for all the bones.

Frenching a lamb rack with a length of butcher's twine

Below you can see how effectively the twine cleans the bones.

Here you can see how clean the twine gets the bones

Now we have to remove the chine, or backbone.  I find this the hardest part.  For a proper French lamb rack, we have to remove the backbone without removing the attached ribs that we just cleaned so diligently.  Despite what you’ve heard, this can be done without a saw.

Making small, exploratory cuts with your knife, follow the feather bones down to the chine as closely as you can, exposing the ridge where the ribs meet the chine.

The feather and chine bones on a lamb rack

Exposing the chine bone on a lamb rack

Now the idea is to pop the ends of the ribs out of the chine.  I use a cleaver, but I am not cleaving through any bones; I’m simply whacking the meeting point so that the ribs are dislodged from the backbone.  Once you’ve broken through the rib-chine adhesion, you should be able to separate the two with your boning knife.  I’ve you’ve broken through some of the ribs so that you have fractured ends, that’s fine.

Here’s the lamb rack with the chine bone removed:

Lamb rack and removed chine


Along the bottom of the meat-end of the rack there might be something that looks like a thick, yellowish rubberband.  On a beef this is called the backstrap.  There is probably a lamb-specific term for it, but I’m not sure.  This absolutely has to be removed, as it is primarily elastin, a connective tissue that doesn’t break down, no matter how much heat, moisture, and acid it is exposed to.  You may have inadvertently removed it when cutting out the chine bone.

The backstrap on a lamb rack: kind of looks like a yellow rubber band

Remove the rib membrane.  The ribs should still be attached to the meat along at least an inch of their length.  There is a membrane covering this section that can be removed.  This is just like removing the rib membrane on pork back ribs.

Finally all we need to do is trim back the fat cap.  This may or may not be necessary, depending on the lamb.  Ideally there will be a fat cap covering the entire section, no more than 1/8″ thick.

Here are the final French lamb racks:

French rack of lamb


Breaking the Loin Subprimal into Lamb Chops

The loin subprimal, the lumbar region of the backbone, is usually cut into lamb chops.   Lamb chops are analogous to the T-bone steaks on a side of beef.  In the picture at left, the round, white bone at the bottom of the chop is the chine bone, or backbone.  Extending up from this is a finger bone.  To the right of the finger bone is the lamb’s tenderloin, roughly one inch in diameter.  To the left is what would be the striploin on a beef.

As always when working with lamb, we start by removing the fell.

Next we want to separate the central loin muscles from the less desirable side meat.  We landmark the separation by looking at the cross-section of the loin, as seen below.

Cross-section of the loin subprimal

Remove the side meat, reserving it for trim.

Trimming the loin subprimal

Now we want to separate the loin into chops.  I cut so that each chop corresponds to one vertebra.  Since the feather bones and chine bones overlap somewhat, we’ll need to use a cleaver.

You can see the individual vertebrae clearly in the picture below.  I make a cut following the line between each vertebra all the way around the loin.

Chine bones, or vertebrae

Then a light cleave through the feather bone, and a heavier cleave to separate the vertebrae, and we have lamb chops.  You should get five or six chops from each loin.

Lamb chops


Boning the Lamb Flank

The lamb flank is a tough, fatty, skinny flap of meat.  It can be braised, but is usually ground.  All that is required to process the flank is to remove the ribs.

Lamb flank

Lamb flank with the sheet of ribs removed

Lamb Cutting: Leg

This post is about preparing a whole lamb leg for a classic roasted leg of lamb, or gigot.  This is the whole leg, straight from the animal.

A whole lamb leg

First remove the tail bone, which you can see running along the top of the leg primal.  On the forward end of the tailbone (to the left in the picture below) is the connection to the pelvis.  Since lambs are so young, you should be able to easily break this adhesion.

The exposed tailbone on a leg of lamb

The leg, tailbone removed:

Lamb leg, tailbone removed

Next remove the pelvis.  This is a complicated little bone.  Follow it as closely as you can, making small, exploratory cuts with a boning knife.

Now we can turn the leg over and remove the fell, which is a layer of skin that has dried during hanging.  The fell may want to pull some fat away with it.  Don’t let it.  We want a thin layer of fat on the leg to protect it in the oven.

Pulling the fell, a layer of skin, from the lamb leg

Trim away the sirloin and the adjacent pocket of fat.  The sirloin is a great cut, but with the tailbone and pelvis removed, it’s an exposed flap of meat that will cook much quicker than the rest of the leg.  The pocket of fat is obviously too fatty to be roasted, plus it contains some glands, which should always be removed from meat.

Removing the sirloin flap and some of the fatty tissue from the groin

Finally we clean up the shank bone.  This is strictly for presentation purposes.  Save the trim for grinding.

The cleaned leg of lamb


At this point the leg contains only two bones: the leg bone (femur) and the shank.  If you wish, you can very easily removed them and divide the leg into boneless roasts.  As young lambs are so fatty, I always save lean trim from the hind leg to balance out my ground meat mixture.


Lamb Cutting: Breaking a Lamb into Primals

This is a whole lamb from Tangle Ridge Ranch.  Notice that, unlike pork and beef, the lamb has not been cut in two down the spine.  The carcass is easy to handle (typically 40-60 lbs, maybe a bit smaller for grass-finished varieties like Tangle Ridge).  It’s traditionally broken into four primals:

  • front,
  • leg,
  • loin, and
  • flank.

A whole lamb from Tangle Ridge Ranch


Removing the front.  The first primal to be removed is the front, which is separated from the rest of the animal by cutting between the sixth and seventh ribs.  You can count the ribs by putting your hand inside the cavity.  Slide a knife between the sixth and seventh ribs and cut all the way up to the backbone, and all the way down to the sternum, which the knife should easily break through.  Use a handsaw to cut through the backbone.

The front is separated by cutting between the sixth and seventh rib

The front, removed


Dividing the front.  Since I have my handsaw out, I usually divide the front into two halves along the spine right away.  First I remove the neck, which on sheep is called the scrag.

Lamb front, scrag removed

Then turn the front over to expose the sternum, or breast, of the lamb.  Use the handsaw to break through the cartilage and open up the chest cavity.

Sawing through the sternum

Saw along the centre of the backbone to divide the front in two.

The lamb front, divided in two
Removing the legs.  Next the legs are separated from the body.  They are usually removed so that the entire pelvis and adjacent sirloin are left on the legs.  There are two ways to landmark this cut.  You can feel along the outside of the hip to find where the pelvis ends, or you can look within the cavity and cut between the last and second last lumbar vertebrae.

The loin, flank, and legs, still attached
Cutting before the pelvis to separate the legs
The legs, separated from the loins and flanks

Dividing the legs.  Again, since I have the saw out, I separate the two legs.  Turn the legs over to expose the underside.  Saw through the lower end of the pelvis.

The underside of the hind legs of a lamb
Cutting through the bottom part of the pelvis

Now pull the legs apart and saw along the centre of the back bone.

The two lamb legs, separated

Dividing the saddle.  We are now left with the middle portion of the lamb, sometimes called the saddle.  At the top, on either side of the backbone, are the loins.  Below them, towards the belly, are the flanks.

The middle of the lamb, the loins and flanks

First we divide the saddle in two by turning it over and sawing along the centre of the backbone.  Be precise, as this is where the prime cuts, the rack and chops, will come from.

Turning the saddle over to expose the spine
The two loin-flanks, separated

Separating the loin and flank.  Now we can separate the flanks from the loins.  The separation point is determined by how long you want the bones on your rack of lamb to be.  I make a cut parallel to the backbone four to six inches down the ribs.  Break through the ribs with the hand saw, and finish the cut with your knife.

The loin-flank
The flank and loin, separated

That’s it, for now.  Our lamb has yielded the following:

  • the two halves of the front primal,
  • a scrag,
  • two hing legs,
  • two loins, and
  • two flanks.

Future posts will describe how to trim these into the familiar ready-to-cook cuts of lamb.