Thursday, February 18, 2010

Lamb Comparison: American vs New Zealand, grain fed vs grass

I know this gorgeous weather is not helping our friends up the road for the Vancouver Olympics, but the sunshine, cherry blossoms, and crocuses poking their heads up in the garden makes me feel like shaking the winter off the Weber to do some grilling.

I went on a quest to do a side-by-side comparison of American grain fed lamb, New Zealand lamb, and American grass fed lamb. American lamb used to be far more expensive than New Zealand lamb but recently I've noticed American prices being the same or less. The animals are larger, fattier, and have a much milder flavor that their down under counterparts. Last week we ate some American grain fed lamb that was so mild it tasted like beef. It got me thinking about this blog post. The problem for me is that American grain fed lamb doesn't taste the same as the full flavored lamb I ate as a kid.

Today I wanted to see how the small local farms' pastured lamb, a growing market, compares to the other guys. I'd much rather buy fresh lamb, grown near my home, than frozen packets that travel across oceans, but I also want a product that tastes good.

I'm a bit of a lamb cheerleader. In part it's because we rarely serve it in the restaurant, so it's a change from my usual barbecue bounty. But the real reason is because I think the lamb industry has the opportunity to be responsible. It has never been a huge industry here in the US - we only consume about 1.2 pounds per capita each year as compared to about 61 pounds of beef and chicken each. Rather than join the "big bad raise 'em big and pump 'em full of drugs to keep 'em alive" beef, pork and chicken industries, lamb could take a stand.

I first went to our local PCC, because I read that they had local pastured (100% grass fed) lamb from Umpqua Valley. (I often buy lamb at farmer's markets, but none were open near me this time of year on a Thursday.) I picked a lower cost shoulder blade chop ($6.49/lb) because I wanted a cut that would have some marbling and muscle to give it more flavor. I also didn't need to buy three costly racks of lamb for this experiment.
On to Fred Meyer/Krogers where they sell American grain fed lamb at rock bottom prices. It begs the question, how did lamb get so inexpensive? Demand hasn't risen much since the 1990's, and some grids I checked have it going down a bit. Grain prices haven't decreased, and fuel is sky high. So how is it that I can buy American lamb at $4.99/lb? There is always a cost, you just might not be the one paying for it. Someone paid for that cheap t-shirt from China. Maybe it was a child working in desolate conditions, or it was paid for in damages to the environment, but there is always a cost. In the case of this particular lamb, it may be the farms themselves taking the hit in their effort to stay competitive.

Finding New Zealand lamb was a problem. Two stores I went to no longer carried it. Luckily I asked the fabulous folks at the Ballard Market meat department. If you live in the area, they are a great resource and give the same kind of service as the old butcher shops that have waned away. They love talking meat and smile wide when you ask them to slice off a two-inch T-bone. They told me to go to a competitor - Trader Joes.

Trader Joes in Ballard did have New Zealand lamb, though not the same shoulder chop. I had to purchase a better cut, a loin chop, at $9.49/lb.

On to seasoning. I kept it simple to keep the meat unfettered. I hit the cuts with a little lemon, garlic, rosemary, salt and pepper, then let those marinate for a few hours. (Little El needed some playtime. She looks angelic here, but by a few minutes later she'd torn up a coloring book, covered her hands with ink pen, chucked her water off the table, and had begun to draw on the table.)

I grilled the steaks on the Weber for about 5 minutes each side with a hot fire, then raked the coals to one side and finished them indirectly, with the lid closed. I had more than enough meat for my experiment, so I rubbed half with some of my Cocoa Bliss rub (it's in the book!).

Now for the test. Clearing my pallet with bread and water between each, I dove in. It was absolutely clear. The American grain fed lamb was mild leaning toward bland. The texture and taste was almost that of beef. The New Zealand - perfect. It had the full flavor of my childhood. It was also so tender it melted in my mouth, but that was in part because it was a better cut.

The American grass fed from Umpqua Valley? Excellent! Though not as full flavored as the New Zealand, it tasted like lamb. Imagine that! The meat was tender, moist and delish.

Now it's your turn. When was the last time you ate lamb? Was it American or New Zealand, grain fed or grass? What is your favorite cut to prepare, and how? I welcome your comments!


  1. Hi Julie
    I'm a lamb-lovin' Kiwi and I was glad to hear you liked our NZ product. Problem is American lamb producers are so dumb. Our meat industry offered to work in partnership with them to promote lamb as a great food experience. Our guys know something about meat marketing and we figured that there was plenty of room to expand the US lamb market, as you rightly observe. They wouldn't buy it.

    What's worse they lobby your government to keep our lamb out of the market. Despite the distance it has to travel it has a lower carbon footprint than grain-fed meat. That grain don't grow naturally. So it's good to know that there are grass-fed producers near you as an alternative.

    Unfortunately you probably don't have much in the way of choice but if you can source it, hogget is my preferred product. This is a slightly older animal than lamb and thus it has more flavour without losing much in the way of tenderness. I don't know if we ship chilled lamb to the US these days - we used to - but chilled is a cut above the frozen product if you can get it.

    I'm certain there are specialty meat suppliers who can get the right product for you. Give it a push in the restaurant and give your customers a new taste experience.

    If I ever get back to Seattle - been there twice - I'll have to have a look in on Smokin' Petes.

  2. I am writing about something similar tomorrow! I do not have the lamb comparisons as you do, so I am sending them over here!

    great post!

  3. David - thank you for adding to the discussion. Though I'm sure the rationale of keeping NZ lamb out of the marketplace is to keep the market share within the US, it actually goes against our "capitalistic" values, right? A free market creates greater competition which is supposed to result in better products and stabilized prices.

    Considering that y'all down under consume about 67 pounds of lamb per capita each year, while we nibble at a mere 1.2 pounds per capita, I'd think a partnership could only help the American lamb industry.

  4. Chef E. Oh oh oh! I can't wait to read your post. See? We all have lamb on the brain. Send 'em here and I'll be sure to tag back as well.

  5. Oh my word, you are the QUEEN... this looks like perfection and passion all layed out in front of God and every body. Fabulous! Keri (a.k.a. Sam)

  6. oh love lamb love the snap of the lamb and your lil one, I will take the new zealand one please!

  7. Hi - I stumbled across your blog while searching for information on lamb... I live in New Zealand and love lamb and have only recently realised how lucky we are that both our lamb and beef are still grass fed! I love lamb and probably have it in equal quantities to beef and chicken. I am glad that you are all loving our lamb over there too!!

  8. Hi Julie,

    I also stumbled across your blog while trying to find info on smoking lamb. My husband wants a New Braunfels offset smoker for his birthday, which is right after Easter, so I naturally thought I might combine them.

    My father's family is from Russia and always marinated lamb shashlik for Easter. More recently, as my kids have gotten older and slightly less picky, I've begun doing it also. However, I have always bought Australian lamb at Costco. I see that you are in Seattle but that's not a place you checked -- wonder what your thoughts are on that.

    I realize now that kabobs are too small to do more than just grill, so I will just have to consider smoking a whole leg. I will certainly be back to your blog! I think it's great.

  9. Hi Trish,
    Thank you for your post. I absolutely love smoked leg of lamb. I like to simply rub it in olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper and throw it in until it's medium rare. We're smoking lamb at Smokin' Pete's for Easter.

    As for Seattle lamb, Ellensburg is the closest, and they kind of faded away for awhile. For one, the actual Ellensburg lamb co moved to (I think) CA. Here is a local company that sources local natural meats called Foods in Season:

  10. Oh, i love to cook lamb specially when my boyfriend visit me, i like when i see him very happy. In fact i am trying to get some recipes because i want to cook varieties. i think this blog is perfect because show many new ideas and is sure i will prove it. this blog is wonderful.

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  11. I recently had the chance to try some of the grass fed NZ rack of lamb, The piece was just over a pound, and at $22/LB, it was a little price.

    But I want to tell you, outside of some young venison tenderloin, I have never had a more tender flavorful piece of meat.

    The 8 bone roast server as the meat for a family of 5. It was sufficient and was well worth the price paid.

  12. Thank you for your comments, Elijah. I'm amazed that an 8 bone rack weighed just over a pound and could serve a family of 5. I'm guessing there aren't three teens in the family :). Nice to hear it was delish!

  13. I'm so lucky to be living in the UK in this instance. We have lamb all over and it is relatively easy to find a small local butcher to get grass-fed organic lamb, English or Welsh is generally the best.
    Lamb is my favourite meat ever and all it needs is garlic and rosemary. mmmmmmmmmm

  14. Carrie in CaliforniaApril 11, 2012 at 12:16 PM

    I grew up eating American lamb and it's always been my favorite meat. Since I can remember, Costco has been carrying Australian lamb...T-bone chops, racks and boneless legs and we buy all frequently. They are ALWAYS delicious (not gamey, but taste like lamb) and tender.
    The other day I wanted lamb, but didn't want to make a special trip to Costco, so bought some American T-bone chops from Ralphs (Kroger). Wish I had noted the brand. They were horrible. Very tough, even though they were grilled perfectly medium rare.
    Just wanted to chime in as I've been Googling for other people's experiences with American vs. Australian or New Zealand lamb.

  15. Thank you, Wilbur! I missed your comment until now, so here is delayed response. It was a fun post to do, and one that has garnered a lot of response. Cheers!

  16. I think that it ought to be the LAW that the package MUST tell whether the animal was grain fed, grass fed, or grain/grass finished. It's terrible that I can't walk into an American supermarket and KNOW what type of meat that I am buying. I am TRYING to get grass fed meat as much as I can and it is a big CHORE with expensive mail order being the only sure route, but it's so costly, and you have to buy in bulk which means having to have the space to freeze it.

    It's a CRIME what agribusiness and the government is perpetrating on modern people. Grain fed contributes to inflammation and disease.

    As far as I know NZ and AUS meat is grass fed (please tell me the Ozzies haven't gone the grain fed route yet) and if I can get it I'll buy it.

    1. It's true that it can be frustrating at the grocery stores, Motely. We are pretty spoiled with options to find grass fed meats here in Seattle. Not only do we have big, year round farmer's markets, we have grocery stores like PCC that are committed to vetting their vendors. I really wish there were more American sources of pastured lamb. I think to do that, we have to get everyone hooked on lamb. Lamb gets less than 2% of the American protein market.