There’s something about a lamb shank that feels so primitive to me. Maybe it’s the protruding, handle-like bone that looks like a big club, but whenever I see a hefty, cooked shank, I always (hilariously) picture a caveman wrapped in mammoth fur with delicious meat juices running down his chin. No matter how hard you try to gussy it up, a lamb shank will never present itself as delicate, dainty, or refined. It’s a truly primal piece of meat, almost begging you to eat it off the bone with reckless abandon. Hence, I picture the caveman. A very satisfied, and certainly no longer hungry, caveman.
Shanks are one of the most sorely underappreciated cuts of meat, in my opinion. The dense connective tissue (the filament that holds muscles in place) makes them extremely rich in collagen. After a low and slow cook, the collagen becomes succulent and gelatinous in a way that not many other cuts can achieve. The result is meltingly tender and deeply flavorful, with a tremendous kick of nutritional benefits to boot!
Along with the obvious advantages associated with the healing properties of collagen, lamb shanks are also particularly high in nutritive fat. A huge part of that fat comes in the form of oleic acid (the monounsaturated fat best known for its prevalence in the Mediterranean diet); conjugated linoleic acid (CLA); and omega-3 fatty acids. Additionally, lamb is particularly high in vitamin B12, selenium, niacin, and zinc, not to mention an excellent source of phosphorus and iron. Though the vitamin and mineral content is comparable between grass-fed and grain-finished animals, be sure to source grass-fed lamb to harness the benefits of increased nutritious fatty acids.
Lamb isn’t nearly as popular on this side of the pond as other meats, especially in comparison to Mediterranean regions, where it’s frequently enjoyed. I don’t think this medicinal meat gets the airtime it deserves, partly because many of us didn’t grow up eating it, and partly because it contains a much bolder flavor than other red meats. Another thing I’ve noticed is that the flavor tends to change based on the region where it’s raised and the diet it consumes. I find that grain-finished lamb has a more pronounced gamey taste than grass-fed, which is a big bonus for those of us who eat it for the nutrition content. Lamb from lush regions with a good amount of moisture (hence lush, green grass), has the most delicate flavor. And then there’s Icelandic lamb, which is available now. It only comes around for a limited time (about a month), and it’s my favorite in terms of flavor and tenderness.
Lamb isn’t for everyone. If you can’t bring yourself to appreciate it, you’ll have equally delicious results with beef, pork, or veal shanks (which are mostly cut across the bone into “steaks”). However, if you can, please give lamb a try. I believe its bold taste is the perfect complement to the other assertive flavors in this dish. Plus, you get to imagine a caveman when you eat it.
Slow-Braised Lamb Shanks with Rosemary, Tomato, Capers, and Olives
—You may cook these in the oven or in a large slow cooker (which works excellently). When I use the oven, I cook them low and slow overnight, let them cool, then reheat for dinner.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 8–12 hours
Beef tallow or other fat
4 lamb shanks
2 cups white wine
1 large onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 (28 oz.) can diced tomatoes
2 large sprigs rosemary, chopped
1 anchovy filet, minced, or ¾ teaspoon anchovy paste
4 parsley stems
3 tablespoons capers
½ cup halved kalamata olives
- If using oven, preheat to 275°F.
- In the base of a large Dutch oven or other heavy pan, heat a little tallow or other fat. Season shanks liberally with salt and pepper and brown on all sides in the hot fat. Transfer shanks to a plate (if using oven) or to the slow cooker. Repeat with remaining shanks.
- Add wine to pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, scraping up browned bits with a wooden spoon until liquid is reduced by about one third.
- Add shanks and all remaining ingredients to a large, oven-safe pot or slow cooker.
- Cover tightly (I use parchment paper, foil, then a lid). Place pot in oven, or set slow cooker to low.
- Cook until shanks are meltingly tender, about 8–12 hours, depending on size and meatiness of the shanks.
- Serve with mashed potatoes or something equally yummy to soak up the delicious sauce.
Image from Briana Goodall.