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I love lamb. Nothing tastes quite as good as slow tender roasted lamb, seasoned lightly with rosemary, garlic, and seasoning salt (the good kind... Redmond... Not the nasty MSG filled stuff). It is a tender, clean flavored meat, that is excellent ground, as steaks (though they are ITTY BITTY), as ribs, or roasted. Roasted is easiest.
And then there is mutton.
No matter what I do, I cannot quite LIKE the peculiar flavor of mutton. You know, the stale rancid oil flavor. It seems the older the lamb, the more you get of that flavor, and it is pretty heavy once the animal gets over a certain age. A dislike of that flavor is pretty common, though a large segment of the population simply does not notice it. I am theorizing that this is possibly an ancestral food heritage, which passes genetically - that some groups of people adapted to digest mutton fat, and some people did not, and that the body reacts accordingly. While I have a great deal of Scottish blood, it seems that I missed out on the mutton fat gene.
The technical difference between lamb and mutton is one of age. But it isn't the same age in every breed, or even in every animal. Animals are like children, they mature at a slightly different ages.
According to most sources, it can still be classed as lamb if it is under 12 months of age, at least in the U.S.. But even then, you are gonna get more of that strong flavor, and tougher meat, on the up side of those numbers than you will on the lower side. In Great Britain, mutton is over 2 years old, and they recommend hanging the meat for at least 2 weeks.
The heavy flavor of mutton varies according to sheep breed also - some breeds hardly develop that flavor at all, some will develop it during the first year of growth. As a general rule of thumb, the more lanolin the sheep breed produces in their wool, the stronger the flavor of the fat in the meat.
Lamb may be slaughtered anywhere between 4 and 12 months. Younger DEFINITELY tastes better. But younger also means less meat on the animal, so a favorite age for sending them off to freezer camp seems to be between 6 and 8 months, to get the best balance between quality and quantity.
A local farmer showed us a method of classing the meat when he was helping us butcher out a yearling sheep. He scored the knee joint, just below the knob of the knuckle, and then snapped the joint. He showed me where the cartilage broke, and explained that if it broke in one place, it was technically lamb, and if it broke in another, it was technically mutton. Neat trick, but having never seen the results from lamb, I am unsure of what the exact difference is, only that the two will break in different places. This is something I definitely intend to learn.
This farmer also was delighted at the amount of fat on the animal we were slaughtering. He said it was excellent meat. For him, the fat was a bonus. For me, more of an inconvenience since I don't much care for the flavor - but I can render it down for other uses.
Trimming the hard fat from mutton does seem to clean up the flavor some, depending on how fatty the animal is, and how much fat is marbled in the tissues (sheep don't seem to marble a lot). Heavier seasoning on mutton also makes it more palatable for people who do not enjoy the heavier flavor of mutton.
Slow roasting is THE way to go with large cuts of either lamb or mutton. With lamb to get the best flavor, and melt in the mouth tenderness. With mutton to get a texture more like roast beef, and to mellow the flavor by melding it with seasonings.
When mutton has a lot of fat on it, you can trim off the hard fat, and render it down into tallow. If you follow the 1-2-3 roasting method, it won't be less tender without the extra fat, but the flavor will be cleaner.
1 - Pop it into the crock pot (seasoned however you like), and turn it on high. Do this sometime during the afternoon if it is frozen, right after dinner if it is thawed.
2 - Just before bed, turn it on low. Go to bed.
3 - Sometime during the night, you are going to smell that the roast is smelling done - the whole house will be filled with the odor of cooked meat. At this point, go and add enough water to just cover the roast. Leave it on low, and go back to bed.
Sometime the next day, you'll have a roast that is falling off the bones, is tender, and ready to serve up. If you want veggies in with it, add them first thing in the morning, and leave the temp on low.
Mutton is often used in curries and spicy Eastern ethnic dishes.
Rendered fat from lamb can be used for cooking, but may also be used for homemade cosmetics (must be refrigerated). Tail fat from a mature sheep can also be rendered for cooking, as it is different from tallow fat.
The tallow from mutton has that heavier flavor to it, and is not the best for cooking. It does work really well for ointments, balms, for mixing in animal feed (for omnivores), and for soap making (though it should be blended with a softer fat and handled like beef fat). Ointments and balms made from sheep tallow should be kept refrigerated.
Lamb has good liver, but the flavor is different than most domesticated meats. It is very mild, but seems to have a kind of floral after-note that hits you when you are still chewing it, but which does not linger after you swallow. The liver is equally good no matter the age. The one problem we had is that the gallbladder is difficult to remove, more so than on other animals we have slaughtered, due to the location and the way it is attached to the liver.
Other organs are also worth salvaging from sheep, and if you practice nose to tail harvesting, you'll want to familiarize yourself with sheep anatomy, because some parts are not located where you think they would be.
If you are going to practice nose to tail harvesting with sheep, then you might learn how to make haggis. Sheep stomachs, lungs, and various other odd and repulsive looking bits are traditionally used for making haggis, which is cooked inside the sheep stomach.
Me, I cannot abide tripe, and if I'm going to eat lungs or spleens or brains or sweetbreads, I wanna know what they are, and I want to learn for myself whether I like the taste of them, without having to mix it with oatmeal and spices to disguise it. Like mutton though, haggis seems to be a love it or hate it kind of food. I have to wonder if the peculiar flavor of mutton is somehow in part responsible for the strong reactions to haggis.
The hides from lambs are also much finer than the hides from sheep, and may be used for different purposes. Lambskins tan to a soft leather, with or without the wool. Sheep hides tan to a tougher leather, and work well for durable handcrafts and rugs.
I really recommend that you slaughter sheep young enough that they produce good lamb meat. But if you cannot, then mutton may be prepared in ways that are enjoyable and tasty, and the larger amount of meat that you get from the animal will last you several months.
Because of the versatility of sheep for meat, they are at the top of our list, right after poultry, for raising meat in small spaces. They are also excellent meat, which is healthy and traditionally enjoyed throughout the world.
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