Each American eats an average of just 1 pound of lamb per year (compared with about 50 pounds of pork). But it wasn't always this way, as lamb (and mutton) was once an essential component of the American diet; it was readily available, and its robust, sometimes gamy, flavor was considered a positive, not a negative.
I've been wanting to develop a recipe for rack of lamb for some time. This cut is not only handsome enough to shine as a festive centerpiece but is also easy to cook and, because of its size, doesn't take long. More important, though, is lamb's intriguing and wholly satisfying flavor, which adds a celebratory note to the holiday table.
To begin my testing, I gathered five recipes for rack of lamb, knowing from the start that I'd want to cook two racks (about 2 pounds total) to feed eight people. The first thing I noticed about the recipes was the disparity in target temperature: An older one called for cooking the lamb to 175 degrees, which turned it as dry as cardboard, while another called for cooking it to 125, which left the meat too rare and chewy for our taste. A few tests showed that we prefer lamb cooked to 135 degrees, a nice medium, where it is pink throughout but still perfectly tender. (The best way to determine lamb's doneness? An instant-read thermometer. Our favorite is the Thermapen Mk4.)
Another thing I learned is that a great deal of lamb's gamy flavor resides in its fat. Even lamb lovers—which were many among my tasters—appreciated it when I trimmed the roasts of excess exterior fat before cooking (see “The Details Matter” step-by-step at the bottom of the recipe). This dialed back the funkiness, with the added benefit of making the lamb less chewy and easier to eat.
Some recipes called for roasting the lamb racks in a hot 450- or 500-degree oven. This did give them nice dark crusts, but it also left grey bands of overcooked meat around the exteriors. If I'm paying for a beautiful roast, I want the meat to be perfect throughout. So instead of the high temps, I opted for a relatively low 300-degree oven. (Not sure of your oven’s temp? Check out our oven thermometer equipment review.) The meat still cooked perfectly in less than an hour; the only downside was the pale exteriors.
Searing the racks on the stovetop before roasting was an easy fix, as the seared-then-roasted racks now had nice browning and even more flavor. But I wanted to dress them up for the holiday table. Lamb can stand up to a wide range of assertive complementary flavors, and I had a mustardy bread-crumb crust in mind. After a few tests I landed on a potent coating starring crunchy panko crumbs seasoned with thyme, garlic, and lemon zest. Stirring some minced anchovies into the crumb mixture added a savory, salty punch. And sharp, tangy Dijon mustard did double duty as a flavorful glue to adhere the panko mixture to the lamb.
All that was missing was a serving sauce. To keep things easy, I whipped up a quick, stir-together lemony mint sauce that delivered bright springtime flavor. With perfectly cooked meat, crunchy crumbs, and a vibrant sauce to tie it all together, this recipe will make quick converts of any lamb skeptics.