The Secrets to Cooking a Perfect Leg of Lamb
If you *want* to make lamb for your holiday dinner but what you *know* about lamb lies somewhere between what Mary had and mint jelly, we've got the secrets on how to do it right.
Few things say “Easter dinner” like lamb on the serving platter — particularly leg of lamb. But while you might be well versed in cooking chicken, beef, and pork, you probably don’t make a lamb roast regularly. Maybe it’s even your first time.
You’re not alone. Not even close to alone. Per capita annual consumption of lamb in the U.S. hovers at around 1 pound. (Compare that to about 96 pounds per year for chicken.) So if you’re lacking confidence in your lamb-cooking skills, you’re in good company, says Megan Wortman, the executive director of the American Lamb Board.
Wortman notes that a lot of people reserve lamb for special occasions, and she identifies a reason for any lack of confidence. “If you’ve never tried cooking lamb or you only have that one recipe that you’re comfortable with, you don’t have the confidence to try other cuts.”
With a little know-how, one handy tool, and the right recipes, we’re here to change that.
Jump ahead to:
Your secret weapon: a meat thermometer
Whether you’re cooking for Easter dinner or another family gathering, you want to nail this. Wortman offers a confidence-building tip. “It’s really not different from . . . a nice steak or a pork chop. We teach people to get a meat thermometer, and you can’t go wrong.”
May we suggest the Yummly Smart Thermometer?
With convenient app-based cooking assistance, timers, and alerts, the Yummly Smart Thermometer tells you exactly where you stand with the internal temperature of the meat. This is particularly important because oven and grill temperatures can vary and if not monitored, your beautiful roast leg of lamb could go from medium-rare to overdone surprisingly quickly.
Following the insertion guide on the Yummly app on your phone, you’ll insert the Thermometer into the thickest part of the meat, not touching the bone, all the way to the black ceramic cap, so no metal is exposed. Then you’ll roast or grill the meat and wait for the alert on your phone to tell you it’s done.
Once you take the lamb off the heat, the Thermometer takes into account the resting time needed for the juices to settle back into the meat. This is an important part of the total time for a recipe and shouldn’t be skipped. Just wait for the alert to tell you when it’s time to carve!
Leg of lamb cooking time and temperature
Recipes, cooking techniques, and oven temperature for leg of lamb can vary, but a 5- to 6-pound bone-in leg of lamb typically cooks at 350°F and takes 1 ½ to 1 ¾ hours to reach medium-rare (135°F).
Bone-in vs. boneless leg of lamb
One consideration for leg of lamb is bone-in versus boneless. “The positive of bone-in is that you can actually find it now,” Wortman says. “You don’t always see it, apart from holidays. And it’s a showstopper. It actually cooks faster than boneless because the bone works to heat the roast up more quickly.”
If you go with a boneless roast, you are likely to find it sold rolled and tied. From here, you could unroll it and make a few slices to even out the thickness before you roast or grill it. (That’s called butterflying, and you could also ask the butcher to do it.)
Leg of lamb recipes
No matter which cut you choose, there are so many recipes! Let’s begin with some of the classics.
One of the easiest recipes for roast leg of lamb, this one has no marinade, just a garlic, herb, and mustard paste that you rub into shallow cuts you’ve made on the top side of the meat. Pop it into the oven at 350°, and in about 1 ½ hours, it’s done.
For garlicky goodness, this simple 6-ingredient roast takes advantage of elemental ingredients such as black pepper, kosher salt, fresh rosemary, and 8 garlic cloves to gently complement and highlight the flavor of a boneless leg of lamb. The basic outline of this straightforward recipe: Place the lamb in a roasting pan, cook for about 2 hours 30 minutes (but check your meat thermometer!), remove from the oven, let rest, and serve.
The Mom 100 uses Dijon mustard and panko bread crumbs for a delicious crust in a leg of lamb recipe that she calls a “showstopper.” An overnight marinade boosts the flavor without contributing to prep time on the day of the cooking. Step 1: Preheat oven. Step 2: Let roast sit at room temperature while you prepare the crust and pat it onto the lamb. From there, it’s a matter of about 1 ½ hours in the oven and a resting period.
For a new spin on the tradition of mint sauce with lamb, make a fresh mint pesto with almonds, lemon zest, extra-virgin olive oil, and chili flakes. Spread that inside a boned leg of lamb, roll and tie the meat, and roast it in a hot oven.
If you’re wondering how to cook a butterflied leg of lamb, start here with this grilled leg of lamb. The North African-inspired recipe combines olive oil, fresh lemon juice, and a host of spices for a richly flavored paste that gets rubbed on the lamb, which is refrigerated overnight. The next day, you’ll grill the meat to juicy perfection.
Similar in concept to the Rosemary and Garlic Leg of Lamb Roast, with plenty of fresh herbs and garlic, this recipe shows you how a couple of small changes in technique can create a different result. Instead of coating the lamb in chopped garlic and herbs, you’ll roast it with garlic heads and rosemary sprigs next to the meat. At serving time you’ll deglaze the pan with Madeira wine, squeeze in the soft garlic cloves, and voila, you’ll have a beautiful pan sauce.
Red wine and lamb are a match made in heaven. If you’re ready to take on a more ambitious cooking project, try brining your leg of lamb for 24 hours with red wine, salt, and plenty of fresh herbs and garlic. You’ll get a roast that’s deeply seasoned all the way to the bone, with additional slivered garlic on the outside.
Recipes for lamb racks, chops, and steaks
If a large lamb roast sounds like too much of a good thing, think about cuts beyond the leg. Lamb racks, chops, and steaks are solid options that come in manageable serving sizes.
You’re familiar with lamb chops. A rack of lamb is just the loin chops before they’ve been cut apart. For this recipe you’ll marinate a rack with garlic, rosemary, thyme, and olive oil. Start it in a hot oven to brown, then reduce the heat so the meat cooks evenly to the center.
Treat yourself to tender rack of lamb seasoned with Dijon mustard and rosemary, and glazed at the last minute with cherry preserves and balsamic vinegar. A two-zone grill set-up gives you perfect browning, and the Yummly Thermometer guarantees the right doneness.
Plan on about half a rack per person when you’re cooking Australian lamb, as the cuts are generally much smaller than their American counterparts. The bones of two racks hold each other up in the oven for even browning.
These Mediterranean-style chops make another good option for those of us living where outdoor grilling season has begun. Here red wine and a marinade of 2 to 24 hours contribute to the lamb’s flavor. Once the meat is prepped, cook time is short — only 10 minutes on the grill.
An overnight marinade in a mix of garlic, shallots, fresh thyme, and rosemary gives these chops loads of flavor, but they take just a few minutes to broil.
Slice boned leg of lamb into thick steaks and you have a tender, tasty cut you can sear quickly on the stovetop. You’ll start by browning and crisping garlic and fresh herbs in oil, which gives you a dreamy topping for the juicy cooked meat.
Part of the charm of a lamb leg is that it feeds a crowd of people — a bone-in American leg can run 5 to 6 or even 8 to 10 pounds; a boneless leg typically runs 6 to 8 pounds. (New Zealand and Australian lamb usually runs smaller.) Figuring about 8 ounces per person for bone-in lamb and 5 ounces for boneless, that size means a leg often provides leftovers.
First stop for leftovers: sandwiches that pair roast lamb with Italian cheese, a black olive spread, hearty bread, and more for powerhouse flavors.
A traditional Moroccan tagine can take hours to cook, but when you start with leftover lamb and add spices, chickpeas, canned tomatoes, and dried apricots, dinner is ready in about half an hour.
In just a bit longer than it takes to cook a pot of pasta, you can simmer lamb in a savory sauce of vegetables, tomatoes, and herbs for an Italian-style, weeknight-friendly meal.
No matter which way you go, here’s the bottom line: You got this. Keep in mind a meat thermometer, resting time (for the lamb — but take care of yourself too), and a good recipe. Next time Easter rolls around, you might already have a favorite lamb recipe.
Explore more Easter favorites
You've got lots of ideas now about your main dish for Easter dinner. What are you going to serve for brunch and dessert? Explore this delicious dilemma in the next articles.