06 April 2012

Easter lamb

My conventional religious feeling is limited to a genuine and fervid worship of stone churches, organ music and requiems. The rest of the time I'm more likely to deify food, drink and reasonably artistic representations on the female form. Oh, and flowers, especially flowers.

A trip to faraway grand stone churches being currently inconvenient, I present my Easter compromise: a lamb dish, which is apparently a great Easter tradition, to be served to Jeremy Summerly's truly moving rendition of the Fauré requiem.

Jesus, La Cathedral, Palma de Mallorca, Spain.

Tradition however, should always bow to scientific advance, and to this end, I suggest a home version of the sous vide approach, to arrive at a wood-grilled lamb chop that is gently-pink-medium-rare and perfectly tender and moist, but grilled to brown perfection outside. I could list the many fire cooking sins, the infinite variations on raw-centre-but-burnt-outside through to dry-and-rubbery-grey-throughout, but suffice it to say that adding a sous vide stage allows independent and easy control of two critical meat cooking components - the inside, and the outside, while also providing a tenderising action that cannot be achieved any other way. By bringing meat to an exact temperature in the range of 49°C to 65°C, well below boiling, you can control precisely the level of doneness you prefer, from very rare to thoroughly well done. By adjusting the length of time at that low temperature, you can also arrange exactly the degree of tenderising action required through slow breakdown of collagen, without any drying or substantial shrinkage. I would not suggest emulating the current restaurant fad of cooking nearly all meat for 24 or even 48 hours sous vide, sometimes, god-forbid, without any post hoc grilling. Some bite is wanted, and a flabby, pinky grey steak is frankly off-putting no matter how wonderful the interior. But arguably, used with restraint, low temperature pre-cooking is the saviour of less than perfect cuts of meat, and can even improve the highest grade steak and roast, avoiding the usual muscle-fibre shrinkage, toughening and moisture loss caused by more aggressive conventional techniques3.

Although an all day affair for four lamb chops may seem obsessive, the actual work is a half hour or less:

Salt your lamb chops first thing in the morning, so the salt has time to re-absorb right into the meat after initially drawing some fluids out as salt will do.

At midday, pop the lamb chops into a zip-lock bag, with a little neutral oil and a tiny bit of fresh rosemary1. Then squeeze as much air as possible out of the zip-lock bag, fill an insulated cooler box to half from the hot tap and add as much boiling water from the kettle as needed to get it to 60° C, and pop your lamb bag into the hot water. I use a meat thermometer to check the temperature.

Four to six hours later get started making your fire. You really only need kindling or twigs, since coals are not actually required.

Yes, very, very hot.

When the fire reaches the small flames about to turn into embers stage you see in the pic above, retrieve your lamb from its bag, shake off any excess liquid, baste with a splash of good olive oil and a little freshly crushed garlic, and grill over the fire for just long enough to brown the outside. Yes, there will be flames dancing about your meat. Yes, I know that generations of braai/barbecue masters would consider this an offence punishable by a sword in the side. But trust me on this2, the meat is already cooked to perfection on the inside by the water bath, and all you're doing is getting those happy browning Maillard reactions going on the outside. If your fire is not almost hot enough to melt the grill, you're going to overcook the lamb before you brown it. Two to three minutes later you're done.

Serve sizzling, with plain boiled potatoes, and a simple green salad. Ours wasn't harmed by the addition of leftover roast onion and white beans.

The Chinese bowl is a red herring.
Good scenery and weather helps, but isn't essential, this would also work on the stovetop.

Madonna, La Cathedral, Palma de Mallorca, Spain.

1Elizabeth David found rosemary so overpowering that she swore it shouldn't be used at all, but in the matter of lamb I have to disagree with the Goddess, and suggest that in moderation it is truly wonderful, especially when wood-grilled.

2OK, if you don't trust me, trust Kenji of SeriousEats.com, who explains the beer cooler cooking technique in more detail here, and a similar approach describing the general principles here. He didn't invent the method, but does explore and explain it with a rare blend of scientific rigour and infectiously enthusiastic clarity.

3See here for a technical explanation of what happens when meat is heated at various temperatures, and references to other resources including the peerless Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking.


  1. Wonderful lamb picture. The only thing that Elizabeth and I disagree on is the rosemary thing. It actually makes me a look at her a bit funny.

  2. She was also vehement about how dreadful a garlic press is. I've yet to detect any metallic or other taint from using a properly cleaned one. But that only makes two minor quibbles so far, so she still rates as a Goddess.