If you live in North America, chances are pretty good that you probably don’t eat much lamb. It’s just not a food that most people eat regularly compared to chicken and beef.
Still, lamb is an important dish, and it is consumed in great quantities elsewhere in the world as a mainstay.
But have you ever wondered why it is that lamb is so preferred over older, mature sheep? There’s got to be a reason. So, why do we eat lamb as a rule, but not sheep?
Lamb meat is preferred over sheep meat, or mutton, mostly due to supply and market factors, traditional association with various holidays and religions, and overall superior quality for culinary purposes.
As it turns out, there are quite a few reasons why you’ll see lamb on the menu instead of mutton in most places. It’s actually pretty interesting when you get into it…
If you’ve ever wondered why it is lamb that always winds up on the chopping block instead of older sheep you’ve come to the right place. I’ll tell you all about it down below.
Lamb is Indeed Sheep Meat, or a Type of Mutton
Lamb and sheep are often used interchangeably, but the truth is that lamb is a type of mutton, which comes from young sheep.
Mutton refers to meat from older sheep, older than 1 year, while lamb is specifically from sheep that are less than a year old.
Although both types of meat come from the same animal, there are significant differences in taste and texture due to age.
Lamb meat is generally lighter in color, and has a milder flavor when compared to mutton. The texture of lamb is tenderer, too, which makes it ideal for dishes that require quick cooking times, such as grilling or pan-frying.
Lamb Specifically Only Comes from Sheep Less than a Year Old
Although you will sometimes encounter meat from older sheep, mutton, generically called “lamb” this is not technically correct for the reasons described above.
Lamb meat specifically comes from young sheep that are less than one year old, no exceptions.
Lamb is Usually Superior in Taste or Tenderness to Mutton
Lamb is generally considered to be superior compared to mutton, and is the overwhelming choice of meat around the world from sheep.
Older sheep tend to have notably tougher muscle fibers and a stronger, gamey flavor that is offputting to some palates- particularly your average diner in America!
Lamb, on the other hand, is better-suited for a wide range of dishes since it’s tender, succulent and has a flavor comparable to beef, though it remains unique.
In short, it’s a much smaller hurdle for some consumers to accept the taste compared to mutton, proper.
Another reason, or rather reasons, why lamb is so prized in culinary circles is its suitability to various flavors from herbs and spices.
Lamb can be delicious using minimal additions, and made into something truly special with the right seasonings.
This makes it an excellent choice for stews, curries, and slow-cooked dishes that require complex flavors as well as being served as chops or steaks.
Lamb also pairs well with several kitchen mainstays like garlic, rosemary, mint, and lemon. Compare this with mutton which must often be cooked low and slow to be rendered palatable.
Lamb is a Mainstay in Many Cultures Around the World
Lamb meat is not just preferable from flavor perspective: it is a genuine staple in many cultures around the world.
It is particularly popular in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Indian cuisine, among others.
In Greece, roasted lamb is a traditional dish served with potatoes and tzatziki sauce. In Morocco, lamb tagine is a signature dish, featuring lamb chunks made with aromatic spices alongside vegetables.
Lamb is also a common meat used for gyro, shish kebab, and curry dishes, and many others besides.
One of the reasons why lamb is so popular in these regions is its ability to absorb flavors from herbs and spices as described above, but also because these cultures have been raising sheep for ages.
This makes it a known but also excellent choice for dishes that call for animal protein but also require complex and bold flavor.
Several Religious Holidays Traditionally Serve Lamb
Another cultural point in lamb’s favor as a dish: Lamb is the traditional and popular choice of meat for several religious holidays around the world.
In Islam, lamb is commonly eaten during the festival of Eid al-Adha, commemorating the willingness of Ibrahim to sacrifice his son.
In Christian traditions, lamb is often served during Easter as a symbol of sacrifice and redemption.
In many countries, lamb is the centerpiece dish of any Easter feast, often served as a whole roast with seasonal vegetables and other sides.
This tradition dates back ages, and like most religious traditions, it is showing no signs of slowing down.
Lots of Recipes Specify Lamb
Beyond the cultural and religious uses, there are countless secular, national and regional recipes that call for lamb meat specifically, and not just any old mutton.
From classic dishes like shepherd’s pie to Indian lamb vindaloo, there’s no shortage of ways to prepare lamb and the specification highlights the quality, versatility, and unique flavor profile of lamb.
One of the most popular and iconic lamb dishes is rack of lamb, which is typically seasoned with garlic and fresh herbs before being seared and roasted to perfection.
Rack of mutton is nowhere near as appealing, believe me! Lamb chops are another sublime dish when prepared properly, often served alongside a light salad or crisp green veggies.
Mutton chops can be tough if not prepared expertly, on the other hand.
Cooks and chefs that know their business know that lamb meat is the go-to when cooking with meat from a sheep, and that is why you usually only see lamb on the menu.
It’s the perfect choice for people who don’t want a gamey mutton meal, while still getting to enjoy the delicate, rich flavor of sheep meat.
Lamb is Preferable to Mutton from a Logistical Standpoint
All culinary concerns aside for a moment, there are entirely practical considerations that make lamb the default choice of sheep meat.
From a logistical standpoint, lamb is preferable to mutton in many ways: First, lambs are usually smaller than adult sheep, making them easier to transport and process.
Additionally, the younger an animal is when it is time to slaughter the faster the turnaround from lambing to market.
This means that lamb can be sold and distributed more quickly and efficiently than aged mutton. And sheep grow very quickly, meaning lamb is simply ready for market much quicker than other animals, and there is no real reason to wait, at least in terms of quality.
Another factor that makes lamb preferable to mutton is its shelf life. Lamb is typically leaner than mutton, meaning it has less fat that can go rancid over time.
This means that lamb has a longer shelf life than mutton, making it a more practical choice for retailers.
These Factors Together Keep Lamb More Readily Found in Most Markets
The combination of logistical factors and cultural significance along with culinary quality, all discussed above helps keep lamb much more common and more readily found in most markets.
This is particularly true in countries where lamb is a popular meat choice, such as Greece, Turkey, and Morocco.
In addition to these factors, lamb is also a popular meat choice among retailers because of its unique flavor and versatility in the kitchen, lending it to use in many dishes.
This means that retailers are more likely to carry lamb meat for sale to consumers. Overall, the logistical advantages of lamb make it the default choice for many retailers and restaurants alike.
Among consumers, the fact is that most people will prefer the taste of and eat lamb, but those same consumers might not care as much for the taste of proper mutton.
Put all this together and it is easy to see why lamb is the dominant and in some places only choice of sheep meat on the market.
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.