Braised Lamb Shanks


If you take the bible, especially its older testament, as literal truth — if you believe that there are credible historical figures contained within its pages — then you already know that woman and man, but mainly man, as they were the priests, have been eating meat, especially lamb, at least since Abrahamic times. That’s going back to the second millennium BCE, maybe more.

rub salt and pepper into the shanks…
brown the seasoned shanks…

Abraham, you may recall, almost cut the throat of his second son Isaac, just to please his lord and prove his faith, and he would have if it were not for the flukish appearance of a free range ram who happened to be caught by the horns in a thicket of tamarisk — caught at the right time and at the right place as far as Isaac was concerned. We don’t know for sure if Abraham gave a toss either way, but God said to him: Get the ram instead! He did and they ate it, he and his son together.

Abraham later built a stone altar, basically an outdoor kitchen in the desert, to sacrifice animals — rams, lambs, calves and birds. The animals were roasted and eaten by the priests who were all men. They lived well. Abraham lived to the ripe age of 175 and he ate a lot of meat.

However, it was not your modern-day supermarket meat, which is raised — some would say manufactured — in supersized indoor, artificially lit-facilities, kind of like modern-day fulfillment centers.

put them in the pot…
add stock and aromatics…

Even though Abraham had at least eight kids — he sired Issac at a hundred or so, and Sara bore him some months later at a nimble ninety, quite a feat by today’s standards — the population pressures and market demand for meat were different in those days.

They didn’t speed-raise cattle in controlled animal feedlot operations (no mention of CAFO’s in the bible). They weren’t fed an unnatural diet of grain, supplemented with growth hormones for increased muscle mass, or given a daily drip of antibiotics in the water supply for weight gain and to ward off pestilence and plague. And if they ate pork at all they didn’t raise their pigs indoors in multitudes, confining the pregnant females to gestation crates, as present day Iowanese are wont to do.

my shanks topped with chanterelle mushrooms and white beans with fennel and leeks…

Really, it was more like the farmers market meat of today or hunters’ meat culled from the wild. Abraham’s ram was raised to roam in pastured spaces without fences, with room to graze on roots and shoots of wild rosemary and  onions, and was slaughtered humanely with his crude but lethal blade, and his 100 and something year old, but still agile hands, and it tasted better, if a touch more gamey, than today’s supermarket meat — if you can believe the bible stories.

I don’t know if we can eat as Abraham did. I don’t know if we’d want to, but when I sit down to eat a lamb shank, a hunk of meat slowly cooked on the bone and displayed primitively on the plate with massive bone intact, I think of two things: Abraham in his outdoor kitchen and Fred Flintstone in his. Now there was a credible historical figure.

4 Lamb Shanks rubbed well with salt and pepper

2 Cups chicken or beef stock

Half bottle of red wine

A few bay leaves

A sprig or two of rosemary

1/2 teaspoon of black peppercorns

Water or more stock or wine to cover.

Season the shanks with salt and pepper and brown them on all sides in fat in a heavy pot with a lid. Drain off and discard excess fat. Add stock/wine/water mixture to cover. If you don’t have wine around, you can leave it out. Add bay leaves, rosemary and peppercorns and bring to a boil. Cover and put in the oven at 300F (150C) for about 4 hours, or until the meat is soft and barely clinging to the bone. Check occasionally that the pot is simmering gently, if it is boiling, turn down the heat a little, if it is not, increase a little.

as it simmers, place the pot to one side of the burner, the fat gathers at the edge, skim it off with a soup ladle or something…

When the shanks are done, turn off the oven, remove carefully from the pot and store them in the oven to keep warm. Strain the stock/braising liquid (discard the rosemary, bay and peppercorns). Wash out the pot, pour the stock back in and bring it to a boil. Cook at a medium simmer and skim off any fat that arises.

Once the fat has been removed you can bring it to a steady boil.  Reduce it until it’ll coat the shanks nicely. Taste it and add salt if needed. Spoon this reduction over the warm shanks and give a couple of twists of black pepper if you like.  I made these with chanterelle mushrooms and cannellini beans with fennel and leeks.


5 thoughts on “Braised Lamb Shanks

  1. I just love lamb shanks. Dad is very interested in making them after reading this. maybe we’ll make them together following your recipe. Thanks Hugh.

    1. Hi, Hugh. Dad here. Your luscious recipe for lamb shanks reminds me of a long forgotten childhood incident.
      It was in the early thirties and the Economic War with Britain was in full flight. The British government had embargoed imports of Irish agricultural products – a disaster for Irish farmers, agriculture being our main export. Cattle and sheep fairs were thronged with unsold animals. Farm workers were laid off. Knock-on poverty in the towns followed. There was widespread unemployment. Emigration drained the soul of the country. Though my father was a large farmer by Irish standards, he never let us children forget that the Poorhouse was waiting for us with open arms. To beat the system he announced an unheard of economy.
      Now, when a flock of sheep has lambed there is sometimes an orphan lamb. Perhaps its mother forsook it or maybe died in lambirth and the lamb would be raised as a pet. Around that time it was my job to feed one of these pet lambs every morning before I trudged across our fields to school. I’d heat a saucepan of milk and pour it into a bottle with a teat. My pet lamb would come galloping through the orchard beside the house to suckle the teat with gusto. We became bosom pals. This went on until it was strong enough to rejoin the rest of the flock.
      Now, back to my father and his economy. His flock of sheep, sheared, fully grown and ready for sale were unsaleable. So, henceforth, he declared, we would kill our own sheep!
      As my pet lamb, now a sheep, having been reared artificially on cow’s milk, was the smallest, it was the one chosen for the knife.
      In those days there was a local man who killed pigs for farmers and he agreed to slaughter my sheep. And so the deed was done with the carcase of my pet skinned and hanging by its hind legs from the rafters in an outhouse.
      For the first few days we lived well beyond our means – roast mutton, boiled mutton, cold mutton every day. Sometimes twice and, for variety, Irish Stew. With mutton. For our school lunches guess what was in our sandwiches. After all, those were the days before fridges and there was a whole sheep out there to be got through.
      However, it was only a matter of time until this daily diet took its toll. At first it was acceptable low level comment, but followed in a day or two by definite complaints and, later still, by downright refusals. Even one of your succulent shanks, Hugh, would have failed to tempt us. Finally, out of a family of six, only my father stuck it out to the bitter end.
      And the end came quickly. Impaling a choice morsel on his fork at dinner, he declared that as it had been hanging for two weeks you wouldn’t get mutton like it in the best restaurants in Paris. How right he was! In ran my brother full of excitement. The blowflies had done their job. The half eaten sheep was crawling with maggots.
      Ah well – it’s an ill wind and all that. We farmers always had several dogs wandering around the farmyard ever ready to gobble up anything they could get their fangs into. For a whole twenty four hours those dogs never had it so good!

I'll care for your comment, drop it in the box!