The magic number, my friends, is 118.
My first roast lamb, the main course for an Easter meal I cooked for thirty people in college, was woefully overcooked. It was the first meal I had ever cooked for more than four people, and I was more anxious about the lamb than any other part of the meal. Without a meat thermometer, I cooked the lamb to a perfect rosy-red by slicing into it at regular intervals. I then happened upon the brilliant idea of keeping the lamb warm in the warming compartment of the church kitchen’s oven. Unfortunately, over the course of two hours, the lamb changed from rosy-red to an unappetizing grey, and although the meat was perfectly tender (due to the low temperature of the warming compartment), it wasn’t exactly what I had had in mind.
My second roast lamb became my responsibility when my mother fell sick over Christmas several years ago, leaving most of the cooking for our dinner guests up to me. Between the stress of cooking dinner for ten people and convincing my mom to leave the kitchen and go back to bed, I just forgot how long the lamb had been in the oven. That particular lamb was not so tender. I tried to hold back tears as my parents’ dinner guests lied enthusiastically that they loved their lamb well done.
Eventually, I got better at lamb. Having a digital kitchen thermometer works wonders; no more blood letting to determine doneness. But the best thing I did both for my roast lambs and for my dinner guests was to read Judy Rogers’ recipe for roast lamb in The Zuni Café Cookbook. Like everything else in this cookbook, Judy’s instructions are detailed, meticulous, verbose, and a headache to follow the first time through. Like everything else in the cookbook, Judy’s instructions produce the perfect result:, tender, just-pink meat every time.
The biggest revelation was not in the technique, but in the cooking temperature. Unlike every other recipe which suggests 125 degrees for rare meat, Judy insists that a winter leg of lamb (between 6-8 pounds) should only cook to a temperature of 118 degrees Fahrenheit. “Barely warmer than body temperature!” my dad protested when I floated this idea by him. After baking in the oven, the lamb rests under a tent of foil while its proteins relax and reabsorb the moisture and its internal temperature continues to rise to 140 degrees.
I followed Judy’s techniques for the first time over Christmas, and the result was the best lamb I’ve ever had. The meat was perfect medium-rare, tender and juicy, fragrant with garlic and rosemary. I repeated the procedure for Easter with the same results. And so I pass this recipe onto you: a hybrid of the family marinade and Judy’s guidelines for roast meat. Get yourself a digital thermometer and never stress about your roast again.
Roast Leg of Lamb
Winter legs of lamb are larger. If you have a smaller, spring leg of lamb, this method will not work. Unfortunately, in Minnesota, Easter is for all intents and purposes still winter, and the available legs of lamb from family farms are still enormous.
1 6-8 lb. leg of lamb
4-5 cloves garlic
2 branches rosemary
1 tsp. peppercorns
2 tsp. salt
1/2 tbsp capers
olive oil to moisten
The day before you plan to serve the lamb, make the marinade by crushing garlic, rosemary, pepper, salt and capers in a mortar and pestle. Drizzle enough olive oil to moisten (usually about a tablespoon). Untie leg of lamb, remove bone, and trim of fat. Rub marinade all over lamb and refridgerate overnight.
The day of the big feast, remove lamb from fridge four hours before you plan to put it in the oven. Without bone, tie tightly into a cylinder.
Preheat oven to 325. In a large frying pan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil over high heat. Pat the lamb dry with a paper towel without wiping off the marinade. Lower heat to medium-high, and sear lamb on all sides until a medium brown. This should take 4-5 minutes per side.
Place lamb in a roasting pan and place in the preheated oven. Let roast undisturbed for one hour. At the end of the hour, take the temperature of the lamb, it should be about 100 degrees. Roast 10-15 minutes more until the lamb is 118 degrees (for medium-rare meat), 113 degrees for rare meat.
Let lamb rest in a warm place (your stove top is ideal) under a tent of foil for 20-30 minutes. Carve thinly against the grain.
Sources: My mom, Judy Rogers’ Zuni Café Cookbook, Paula Wolfert’s The Slow Meditterraen Kitchen