Fabrication of lamb carcass adds value but also increases labor, cost
“The most valued product from the lamb industry is the meat product produced,” comments Warrie Means of the University of Wyoming.
With margins across the agriculture industry continually tight, Means says fabrication of the carcass has become increasingly important, but he looks at the history of meat fabrication, as well as recent trends in the industry, to point out opportunities for increasing value.
A look back
Means notes there are three secrets to cutting meat.
“The first secret is to always use a sharp knife,” he says. “The second secret is to cut the little pieces away from the big pieces first.”
Means asks, “Why do we call chops, chops, instead of steaks? Because they are chopped.”
“Once upon a time, before electricity, we didn’t have electric band saws,” he says. “If it could be chopped, like pork or lamb, they were called chops. If it had to be sawed with a hand saw, it was called a steak.”
In general, Means also explains that the middle meats – those found in the center of the animal – are most valuable because they are most tender.
“In general, moving from the center of the animal to the extremities, there is more connective tissue, resulting in a more tender cut, which increases value,” Means says, noting that there is less bone and less waste, as well.
“There are two things we need to learn when we fabricate cuts – the muscles and the bones,” Means explains. “Whether it’s beef, lamb, poultry or pork, the muscles and bones are conserved. We have all the same bones and all the same muscles.”
The primal cuts are the first cuts made from the carcass, including the shoulder, rib, loin and leg.
“It wasn’t that long ago that we would sell lamb as primal cuts to the grocery stores,” Means explains. “They are hard to sell.”
However, from the shoulder, a variety of cuts can be developed that are more useable for the consumer and market better depending on the time of year.
“Roasts might not sell well in mid-summer,” Means comments.
Means explains the the arm chop comes from the shoulder primal. It can be cut into chops, but he says, “Some consumers don’t want the bone.”
Blade chops include the scapula, and the foreshanks of the lamb can also be very good, according to Means, who recommended cooking them slow in a cast-iron pot with Mediterranean spices.
“The foreshanks is a very old cut that is coming back into fashion,” he explains.
Lambs have 13 and sometimes 14 ribs. However, the rack of ribs only includes eight ribs, because one rib is on the loin and four are on the shoulder.
“We have rib chops and loin chops,” Means says. “The tenderloin lays on the inside of the carcass. It is a very tender muscle that doesn’t have a lot of connected tissue.”
The tenderloin is often fabricated into lamb chops.
Innovation in meat fabrication includes cuts like the lamb neck and volcano shank, which introduce unique, flavorful options for restaurants to utilize and entice customers to try lamb.
Starting at the neck, Means says lamb neck is becoming more common in the culinary industry, particularly when slow roasted whole in the oven.
“They become very flavorful and tender,” he explains, noting restaurants are also able to charge between $30 and $50. “This is an example of a product that has been upgraded, which is good for the lamb industry.”
The volcano shank includes is cut such that the marrow is visible.
“If we take six of these, put them on half of a baking sheet and roast them, when the marrow heats up, it bubbles out like a volcano,” Means explains. “It’s very flavorful and, like the neck, is a more modern cut that we can sell in the restaurant for $30.”
He adds, “We used to grind this part of the lamb.”
When looking to increase value in the lamb, Means says there is a balancing act.
He explains, “We can make some pretty cute cuts, but it takes a lot of labor.”
Today, consumers don’t want large cuts or huge cooking times, so the industry must strive for smaller pieces of meat.
As an example, leg of lamb can be butterflied, or rib chops can be French-cut, both creating nice cuts.
When compared to other proteins, such as beef, Means notes individual muscle cuts, such as the flat iron steak, are isolated, but in lamb, he says they are far too small to make it worth the labor.
“All the muscles are there, but they’re just too small,” he says. “In the plant, we often see that a cut is fabricated one week, but six months later, it isn’t anymore. It’s because of labor.”
“As we get rid of fat and create new cuts, we can make nicer portions of meat, but it takes more labor,” Means adds. “We have to assess what the cost and benefit is to make these cuts.”
Means spoke during the 2018 Wyoming Wool Growers Association Mid-Year Meeting, held in Laramie at the University of Wyoming in early August 2018.
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.