Lamb Shanks Show Off Their Inner Beauty

Posted December 19, 2017 4:37 p.m. EST

Braised lamb shanks with fresh herbs, in New York, Dec. 6, 2017. Sinewy, muscled and stippled with cartilage, the shanks need hours of slow and gentle cooking for the meat to soften enough to slip off the bone. (Andrew Scrivani/The New York Times)

Braising isn’t pretty, or at least it usually doesn’t start out that way. The tougher, bonier and generally less appealing the cut, the better it will braise. When braising, go ugly.

Lamb shanks are a prime example. Sinewy, muscled and stippled with cartilage, the shanks need hours of slow and gentle cooking for the meat to soften enough to slip off the bone. But once the cooking is done, the payoff is big: The rich and brawny succulence is matched by few other meats.

Part of what makes lamb shanks so flavorful is the marrow deep in the bones. As the shanks cook, the marrow liquefies, adding the concentrated essence of the lamb to the sauce. This means that when you’re cooking meat on the bones, you don’t necessarily have to add stock when liquid is needed. The bones have enough flavor on their own.

When shopping for lamb shanks, ask your butcher for the biggest ones in the meat case. The bigger the shank, the higher the meat-to-bone ratio. Besides, large bone-in shanks make for a dramatic Flintstones-style presentation at the table. Or, if you’re not feeling like flaunting your inner cave dweller, you can pull the meat off the bones before your guests arrive so they won’t have to. Just make sure to moisten the meat with plenty of sauce, which is the best part.

You can braise lamb shanks in any liquid, though something with acidity will help cut their richness. Wine is classic. Here, I use white wine combined with a profusion of fresh herbs, which melt into the pot, adding fragrance and body.

This recipe is very loosely based on a Georgian dish called chakapuli, usually a combination of some type of meat simmered with sour plums and tarragon. It’s traditionally served in spring, when green herbs are among the first plants to make a comeback after the long freeze. But it’s just as good in winter, when cravings for fresh and green things grow powerful.

Like most braised meats, the lamb can be cooked a few days ahead; it gets better when the flavors are given a chance to meld. Just reheat it on the stove or in a 350-degree oven, kept covered to keep the meat at its juiciest. You may have to add some liquid as you reheat.

Then serve it with something pliant to soak up the sauce. Rice pilaf, a mound of polenta or even a torn-up loaf of crusty bread will suffice; this braised lamb has enough personality for the whole plate.

Braised Lamb Shanks With Fresh Herbs

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Time: About 4 hours

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 teaspoons sweet paprika

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

5 pounds lamb shanks (5 to 6 shanks)

Extra-virgin olive oil, as needed

1 large sweet onion (white or red), peeled, halved and thinly sliced

8 garlic cloves, roughly chopped

2 teaspoons coriander seeds, coarsely cracked

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1 1/2 cups dry white wine

2 bunches scallions, finely chopped (white and green parts)

2 cups chopped spicy greens such as mustard greens, mizuna, arugula, or radish tops

1 1/2 cups chopped cilantro (tender stems and leaves only)

1 cup chopped parsley (tender stems and leaves only)

1 cup chopped mint or dill or a combination (tender stems and leaves only)

1/2 cup chopped tarragon (tender stems and leaves only)

1/2 cup chopped chives

About 1 cup chicken or lamb stock, or water

2 to 3 tablespoons dried currants (optional)

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

Fresh lemon juice, as needed (optional)

1: In a large bowl (or covered container) large enough to hold the lamb, mix together salt, paprika and pepper. Add shanks and rub all over with spice mix. Cover and marinate for at least 4 hours (or up to 24 hours) in the refrigerator.

2: Heat oven to 325 degrees. In a large skillet over medium heat, heat a very thin film of olive oil. Sear the lamb in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan, adding more oil as needed. Take your time with this, making sure to brown the lamb all over. Transfer browned lamb to a roasting pan.

3: When all the lamb is cooked, add onion to empty skillet and cook it in the lamb drippings, adding a more oil if pan looks dry, until limp and lightly browned at the edges, about 5 minutes.

4: Add garlic, coriander, cayenne and allspice and cook until the garlic is very fragrant and opaque, 1 to 2 minutes longer. Pour in wine and bring to a simmer, scraping up the browned bits on bottom of pan. Let mixture simmer until thickened and reduced by about a third (about 5 minutes). Pour over lamb.

5: In a bowl, toss together scallions, spicy greens, and herbs. Sprinkle lamb with half the herb mixture and set remaining half aside for serving. Cover pan with two layers of foil (or heavy-duty foil) and bake until meat is falling off the bones, 3 to 3 1/2 hours total, turning shanks every hour so they cook evenly. If the bottom of the pan starts to dry out before lamb is done, add a few tablespoons of the stock or water to moisten it.

6: When shanks are tender, transfer to a heated serving platter and cover with foil to keep warm. If you like, at this point you can tear the meat off the bones; or, serve the shanks bone-in.

7: On top of the stove, heat roasting pan over medium-low heat. If pan is dry, add remaining stock or water and bring to a simmer. (If drippings in pan seem very fatty, spoon off some of the fat.) Add currants and bring drippings to a simmer, scraping up the browned bits on bottom of pan.

8: Once the liquid is reduced to a thin glaze, add butter to pan along with all but 2 tablespoons of the remaining herbs (save those 2 tablespoons for garnish). Whisk sauce until smooth, then taste and add lemon juice as needed. Pour sauce over the lamb and garnish with chopped herbs. Serve immediately.


And to Drink …

Rich, tender lamb shanks make great foils for any number of red wines. It’s hard to go wrong. Personally, I would gravitate to the Northern Rhône, where the syrah wines would go well with the gamier lamb flavors. Look for St.-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage or Cornas. You could also try cooler-climate syrahs from California or Washington state. Other wines that would be terrific matches include Rioja reservas; Gigondas, so long as the fruit is not too jammy; red Burgundies like Rully, Marsannay and Santenay; Oregon pinot noirs; and Etna rossos from Sicily. You could also try Chianti Classico, Bordeaux or more restrained California cabernets. If you insist on a white wine, I’m afraid you’re on your own, unless you happen to have a well-aged German auslese riesling on hand.