Those who have little patience in the kitchen should approach lamb shank with caution. The long cooking times required make it a candidate for lazy Sunday cooking when you want to prepare a special family meal or if guests are stopping by. As food reviewer T. Susan Chang points out, with other cuts of lamb,there are multiple culinary strategies that produce delectable results. With lamb shanks, there is really only one basic strategy: "You can either cook them for hours, or you can not eat them."
The shank comes from the leg of the lamb, but unlike the meaty thigh meat, the shank comprises the lower leg area from the lamb's knee down to its hoof. Because lambs use their shank muscles extensively for moving around, the meat from a lamb shank is among the toughest cuts of meat on a lamb. The flavor of lamb shank varies depending on whether the shanks come from a lamb's front legs or from a lamb's rear legs. While front leg shanks have a gentler flavor, rear leg shanks have a stronger flavor.
Praise for Braise
Chances are you've seen "braised lamb shank" on a restaurant menu, as braising is one of the most common ways to cook lamb shank, and arguably the best. Braising is a two-step process. First, it requires that you brown or sear the lamb shank in a pot or pan, which causes the outside of the shank to develop a crispy surface. While chefs traditionally brown lamb shank in fat, a healthier alternative is to brown it using extra virgin olive oil. The second and final step in the braising process is to stew the lamb shank in a cooking liquid, such as stock, water, wine or a combination thereof, until the meat on the shank turns soft and the gelatinous fat inside becomes visible.
An alternative strategy to braising, which is also often used for cooking lamb shank, is slow cooking. Slow cooking is similar to braising, but excludes the first step. To slow-cook a lamb shank, you can use a pot to stew the shank in cooking liquid for several hours on low heat, or you can use an electric slow cooker instead of the traditional pot-on-the-stove technique. The main drawback to slow cooking is that, unlike with braising, the surfaces of the shank do not become seared. This allows the natural fluids inside of the shank to dissipate during stewing, which decreases juiciness.
Lamb Shank Accessories
Enhancing the flavor of either a braised or slow-cooked lamb shank requires that you throw some additional ingredients into the pot. For a traditional lamb shank flavor, options include black pepper, dried chili pepper, rosemary, onions, carrots, garlic, bay leaves and tomatoes. To give the lamb shank a sweeter, nuttier flavor, try including some wheat berries and parsnips. Dust the meat with dried buttermilk salad dressing mix, or strain the cooking juices and thicken them with creamy dressing for a flavorful sauce.