Like many Australians, I grew up on a steady diet of lamb. Chops on Wednesdays, backstrap for parties, cutlets if we’d been good. As a side note, I was well into my teenage years before I came to realise that lamb cutlets don’t come off the sheep with the crumbs already on! But that’s another story for another time.
And there was the obligatory barbecued lamb leg roast on the weekends – charred on the outside, bloody in the middle. Just the way I like it!
In the 1980’s lamb was so cheap that we didn’t bother with the cheaper secondary cuts like neck, shoulder, breast, shanks that required a little more effort in cooking. Even the shank on the lamb roast would usually end up with the neighbours’ dog.
As the years wore on, our national mood for meat changed. Today the hype and fervour is all about those once-maligned cast-offs – icky, sticky slow-cooked meats dripping with passion have become the flavour of the month.
But in any economy, a rise in demand is met with a commensurate rise in price. Twenty years ago, chefs used shanks at $1 a kilo to make lamb stock, today they’re the prize ingredient, costing $4 a piece in peak season. A decent dinner serving means two shanks, so the cost is equal to or greater than cutlets. Add in the cost of the ingredients needed for braising and the pauper’s meal is now fit for princes.
That said, you still can’t go past the unctuous appeal of a good shank. Delicately yielding meat with a rich thick sauce. It’s just perfect.However, if you’re going to take the time and spend the money to braise lamb shanks, you wan to get them right. And that means knowing a few things about meat.
The tougher cuts of meat have several things in common. They contain fibrous membranes called silverskin, as well as connective tissues like tendons and cartilage. The muscle mass is generally lean, which means it can have a tendency to be dry if cooked improperly. Lastly, they contain dense quantities of collagen, a rubbery compound that gives them an un-chewable quality.
Doesn’t sound like good news, does it? But here’s the rub. Provided the meat is fully immersed in liquid, and never heated above 90°C (in other words never boiled), it will undergo a transformation. The silverskin and tendons partially dissolve, then meat absorbs moisture from the braising liquid, and the collagen breaks down into gelatine which gives slow-cooked meats their impossibly soft texture.
The key factor is always the temperature – you can’t rush it. That’s why they call it slow-cooked!! There should be the barest of bubbles around the edges of your pot, or invest in a slow-cooker for best results.
The waste meat of your mother’s kitchen is now the centrepiece of your winter table. It seems that’s some old dogs have learned new tricks!
Slow-cooked lamb shanks with onion and tomato