Americans’ growing appetite for the tender meat could be a boon to restaurants.
While not as common in the U.S. as beef, poultry, and pork, lamb is experiencing something of a renaissance. At the start of the pandemic, demand—and prices—plummeted, but just a year later, lamb was on the upswing as more consumers tried their hand at cooking the dish at home. This interest coupled with the rise in global cuisines that feature lamb could boost its popularity at restaurants, too.
“There is strong correlation between eating lamb at home and ordering it at a restaurant, with heavy retail purchasers also reporting above-average lamb restaurant orders,” says Megan Wortman, executive director of the American Lamb Board (ALB).
She adds that lamb menu penetration is highest at fine-dining establishments—nearly half of which offer lamb. Lamb demand is also strong, despite pandemic disruptions and shifts in sales channels. Retail sales were up 20 percent in 2020 and remained strong in 2021, according to the ALB.
Australia native and chef Janine Booth regularly incorporates lamb into the menus at her two Miami concepts, Root & Bone and Mi’talia. Having grown up eating lamb on a regular basis, she would love to see it featured more often on menus stateside.
“I feel like lamb is something that’s really growing in popularity in the U.S.,” she says. “We see it a lot down in Miami now, and that wasn’t always the case. There weren’t always a lot of Indian restaurants down here and now that there are, a lot of people are seeing lamb. I always try to incorporate some kind of lamb on my menus. It has a lot of flavor, a lot of really amazing fat, which makes it pretty versatile.”
While diners may be familiar with the more standard cuts of lamb (chops, legs, shanks), Booth says her favorites are some of the lesser known varieties this side of the equator.
“I find people are really enjoying the lamb ribs here in Miami,” she says. “It’s something I’ve seen on maybe two or three menus recently. We use the cut a lot in Australia because they’re really fatty and have a lot of muscle between the bones that has so much great flavor. I think we’re going to see a lot more cuts like that popping up on menus.”
Something that makes lamb such a good protein to work with is the fact that it pairs well with so many different types of spices and flavors. Mediterranean, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Caribbean flavors all work well with lamb, Booth says.
“Anything you can do with beef you can do with lamb,” she says.
Recently Root & Bone featured a barbecued lamb rack with a carrot barbecue sauce that Booth describes as having a nice balance of sweet and savory. Her other restaurant, Mi’talia, recently offered a pizza topped with ground lamb and a sauce made of hazelnut romesco and pomegranate molasses.
In addition to cooking lamb at her restaurants, Booth regularly serves it at home for her daughters. Her Australian version of pigs in a blanket—ground lamb sausage mixed with spices du jour and then rolled in puff pastry—is a huge hit in the Booth household. It’s a recipe she brought from Down Under.
And while she doesn’t expect to see her kids’ favorite foods popping up on menus anytime soon, she would like to see more Australian staples that feature lamb on American menus.
“I can find dishes like [lamb] meat pies and lamb tartare all over when I go home,” she says. “I think everybody just loves them, and you don’t really see them up here that often.”
Although American consumption of lamb is on the rise, it is especially popular among certain consumer groups. According to a recent lamb consumer survey conducted by Midan Marketing LLC for the ALB, those who purchase the most lamb skew toward being college-educated millennials with families, living in urban areas and making more than $100,000 a year.
“Today’s restaurant diners are sophisticated, traveled, and adventurous. They are seeking authentic global dishes, and lamb is one of the most consumed meats around the globe—from gyros to koftas to curries,” ALB’s Wortman says. “At the same time, they care about where their protein comes from, and the majority want to support local ranchers.”
That philosophy is celebrated at chef Jennifer Jasinski’s five Denver restaurants where she regularly features Colorado lamb on several of her menus.
Jasinski, who won the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef: Southwest in 2013, loves to use lamb for similar reasons as chef Booth. She says she loves that lamb fat has a unique flavor—one she describes as grassy—compared to beef. That’s one of the reasons she features a lamb burger on the lunch menu at Rioja, a seasonal Mediterranean concept that specializes in fresh fish, pastas, and local meats.
The burger, which is served with house-made mozzarella, spicy aioli, and oven-roasted tomatoes, is just one of the ways she likes to serve lamb.
“We have lamb kofta on one of the menus, which is like a Middle Eastern type of lamb meatball,” she says. “We have a braised lamb shank, and we regularly have a lamb shoulder as well.”
Jasinski says looking to cultures outside the U.S. is a good way to find new techniques when it comes to utilizing lamb in less-than-common ways. Japanese and Chinese cuisines feature some of her favorite ways to prepare lamb. She recommends lamb shoulder hot pot or ramen “with all that good umami broth in there.”
As for consumers, Jasinski says they definitely have an appetite for lamb. This year marked the first time in Rioja’s 17 years of operation that the menu didn’t feature lamb (the chef had wanted to switch things up with other animal proteins). But, never fear, she says, it will be coming right back. After all, those dishes are perennial guest favorites.
“Whatever lamb entrée we featured, it was always the No. 1 or No. 2 seller for those 17 years.”