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.