BY NICK MACMAHON | 9 DECEMBER 2019
Throughout history, the tough and fatty cuts of meat like pork shoulder and beef brisket were overlooked by consumers, who favoured lean, tender cuts like steaks and pork loin. With the trend of "low ’n’ slow" cooking over the last decade or so, demand for the tough and fatty has skyrocketed, and with that, so have the prices.
One cut that seems to have been overlooked in this trend, is the lamb neck. Possibly because it is very clearly the neck of an animal as opposed to an amorphous chunk of meat. Possibly also because it is a smaller cut of meat with bones, as opposed to the larger, boneless cuts, ideal for feeding a large number of people and easy to carve. Whatever the reason, I think we can all be glad that a single 800g lamb neck can be bought for less than a fiver.
The lamb neck is different from a lamb neck fillet. The lamb neck is the whole neck from shoulders to head, whereas the lamb neck fillet comes from the top of the back and connects to the shoulder. The lamb neck fillet is usually treated like a steak, cooked at a high temperature, left pink in the middle. The whole lamb neck, on the other hand, requires a long braise, just like you would cook lamb shoulder.
Cooking a lamb neck is so simple and can easily be started on a lazy Sunday afternoon and be ready for dinner. I’ve cooked many a lamb neck and can safely say, braising in the oven for 5 hours at 150c (conventional heating, not fan-forced) always works. No need for thermometers to gauge internal temperatures. This is a very forgiving cut of meat.
Fat and collagen, the elements in the meat that melt during cooking, are what make the tough cuts so soft and succulent. And lamb necks have a lot of it. You would be hard-pressed to cook this and for it to turn out dry. It is important to have your oven set to conventional heating, as opposed to fan-forced. Conventional heating allows all the steam to stay in the oven while cooking, making sure everything stays moist. The fan-forced or fan-assisted setting blows the air around and out of the oven, removing the steam and drying out the surface of what is cooking. This is best for crispy roasted potatoes or to achieve a good crackling on a pork roast but not for braising.
To cook the lamb neck; season the lamb with salt and pepper and place on a roasting tin with a couple chopped carrots, a couple of onions and a few garlic cloves. Add a cup of water to help the braising process in the beginning, preventing any burning before the liquid from the vegetables and lamb is released. This is a bare-bones recipe, feel free to add any additional flavours, like spices, herbs, tomato paste, anchovies, or swap out the water for red wine, etc.
5 hours, uncovered, at 150c. Set it a timer for 5 hours and then forget about it. You can occasionally baste it with the juices which will help keep everything as moist as possible. After 5 hours, remove it from the oven. Move the lamb to a bowl and using a fork, pull away the meat, discarding bones and… the *cough* spinal cord.
Strain the cooking liquid and let that cool. Lamb fat solidifies quicker than pork or beef fat, so it’s best to remove it from the cooking liquid. Once the liquid has cooled enough, the fat will have risen to the top and can be poured out or skimmed off.
The lamb is ready to be served as is, but if you want to make it even tastier, throw it in a baking pan and put it under the oven grill for 5-10 minutes to get crispy.
Now, serve it with whatever lamb dish you want. Lamb ragu with fresh pasta, lamb tacos, lamb biryani, lamb doner kebab. Or why not try lamb neck with squash porridge and quick-pickled kohlrabi?