In like a lion, bring out the lamb: Lamb stew delivers comfort on a blustery night

by Terry B on March 4, 2009

Lamb, dark beer and root vegetables team up for a hearty, satisfying Lamb Stew. Recipe below.

There’s an old saying about the month of March, “In like a lion, out like a lamb.” It is a transitional month, changing from winter to spring about halfway through. And if the first day of March wasn’t exactly a lion this year, it was no kitten, either. Here in Chicago, we woke to 17ºF and snow blowing sideways. Suddenly, lamb stew sounded like a great idea.

Lamb stew is practically a national dish in Ireland and for good reason. Even the summers there aren’t what you’d call toasty, so a warm, stick-to-your-ribs dish like this is all the more welcome. And two key ingredients, lamb and potatoes, have been long associated with Ireland, both as crops and as staples. Surprisingly, though, ideas of what constitutes a traditional Irish lamb stew vary wildly. Some recipes call for browning the lamb, some not; different cooks add beer or wine or no booze at all; some add peas, some not; one recipe [which admitted to not being traditional] even added bacon. So after reading numerous recipes, both “Irish” and otherwise, I did what I usually do—I cobbled together my own take.

The distinctive taste of lamb. Throughout the UK and Ireland—indeed, throughout much of the Western world that isn’t the United States—lamb is much loved. Many Americans apparently have a hard time warming to what is often described as the gaminess of lamb. That gamy flavor—as the dictionary defines it, “having the tangy flavor or odor of game”—is what makes lamb special. It’s the same quality that separates venison from beef and duck from chicken. And while I love a good steak or roast chicken, there’s just something exciting about the “wildness” of game.

Lamb comes by its gamy character honestly. Their diet is more varied than most domestic animals, including not only grasses, but any other plants they come upon in their grazing. And they get more exercise, so their meat is more muscular and darker in color [thanks to improved circulation]. Together, these factors add up to lamb tasting closer to, say, deer or elk than to other domestic meats.

Much has been written about ways to tone down the gaminess of lamb. But I say embrace it. I mean, why bother to cook lamb if you just want it to taste like beef? In this delicious, simple stew, it adds a welcome distinctive touch that becomes more subtle as the stew cooks.

Lamb Stew with Root Vegetables
Serves 4

2 tablespoons canola oil [plus more, if needed]
1 tablespoon butter
1-1/4 pounds lamb, cut into bite-sized chunks [see Kitchen Notes]
salt, freshly ground black pepper
1-1/2 teaspoons dried thyme, divided
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons flour
1 bay leaf
12 ounces dark beer, such as a stout
12 ounces chicken broth or stock
1 cup water [plus more, if needed]
1 turnip, peeled and cut into chunks
3 carrots, peeled and sliced on diagonal into bite-sized chunks
5 red potatoes, scrubbed and cut into bite-sized chunks, but not peeled [1-1/2 to 2 pounds]

For roux [optional]:
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour

Season lamb with salt, pepper and 1/2 teaspoon of dried thyme. In a dutch oven, heat canola oil and butter over medium-high flame, swirling to combine. Brown lamb in batches, 3 or 4 minutes per batch, transferring to a bowl as it is done. Reduce heat to medium and sauté onion until translucent, about 3 or 4 minutes, adding more oil if necessary. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Add flour and remaining thyme, stirring constantly until flour is slightly browned, about 2 minutes. Add beer and stir, scraping up any browned bits in pot. Stir in broth, water, turnip and carrots. Return meat to pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to very low, cover pot and simmer stew for 1/2 hour.

Add potatoes to pot and cook covered until potatoes are almost tender, about 1/2 hour, adding water by 1/4 cups, if necessary [it probably won’t be]. Uncover pot and continue cooking until lamb is tender, another 15 minutes or so. Meanwhile, check the sauce. It will probably be fairly soupy; some people prefer it this way. If you’d like your sauce a little thicker, make a quick roux. Heat a small skillet over a medium-low flame. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter and sprinkle in 1 tablespoon of flour, stirring with a whisk. Cook for 3 or 4 minutes, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to brown. Add a scant 1/4 cup of water, stirring to blend. Stir resulting roux into stew pot and let it cook a few minutes longer. Adjust seasonings and serve immediately.

Kitchen Notes

Selecting lamb for stew. You can sometimes find lamb stew meat, pre-cut. If not, look for boneless lamb shoulder or bone-in lamb shoulder chops. If you opt for the chops, cut into chunks before cooking and trim away some of the excess fat [but don’t go crazy here—a little fat adds flavor]. Reserve the bones and brown with the meat, adding them back to the pot along with the browned lamb for added flavor. Remove bones before serving.


{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura March 4, 2009 at 2:46 pm

Oh we are so in sync! I’ve been a bit obsessed with lamb stew lately as well…although I omit the booze (unusual for me, I’ll admit). I just make a quick lamb stock with the shoulder chop bones, and I find if I cook the potatoes for just a tad “too long”, they thicken up the sauce enough that there is no need for the roux!

Randi March 4, 2009 at 2:58 pm

I don’t know very much about lamb. No one at my house really likes it. Are some cuts “gamier” in flavour than others? I have made leg of lamb and did not care for it, yet my friend at work here often brings me what he calls mutton Biryani and the meat is so delicious. I guess I should really ask him what he uses.

Terry B March 4, 2009 at 3:53 pm

Laura—I knew I had seen a lamb stew on your blog. In fact, that’s probably what planted the seed for me, now that I think about it. I know what you mean about cooking the potatoes “too long” to naturally thicken the sauce. But visually, I wanted them to hold up, especially since I was leaving the skins on.

Randi—I can see the Biryani making the most of lamb’s gaminess. You might also try pan searing some lamb chops in a really hot pan—the charring might help reduce the gamy quality.

Ronnie Ann March 4, 2009 at 3:55 pm

Potatoes and carrots AND turnips…oh my! I love lamb and I love stew. This sounds utterly fabulous, Terry B. Perfect for the lion of winter.

Ronnie Ann

katrina March 4, 2009 at 10:23 pm

Oh, this is one I’ll have to try! I wish I’d thought to stock up on Harpoon Winter Warmer ale – it would be a gorgeous stew. I’m very fond of lamb, strong taste and all. I figure it’s one of the few fussed over, antibiotic-free meats available at the supermarket. Thanks for a delicious recipe!

Terry March 5, 2009 at 2:32 am

We get our lamb at the local Farmers’ Market and it is absolutely not “gamey;” it’s incredibly good. It’s a very different meat from my childhood memories, when even the smell of it sent me running.
Lamb stew is good with biscuits on top — make a biscuit dough (or use Bisquick); brush with butter and pre-bake the biscuits slightly (I find this helps make sure they are not underdone on the bottom); then add to stew and cook at 500 degrees for about ten minutes.

Toni March 5, 2009 at 4:12 am

Terry, you are reminding me of a favorite of mine. I love lamb – in pretty much any of it’s forms. And I’m so with you on the flavor – why cook it if you want to taste beef?

As for the use of ale, you reminded me of the very first stew I ever made when I got my first apartment. Someone had left a beer at my house, and I used it in a stew. I didn’t like beer in those days (I was young), but I loved the taste it gave to the stew! Ale? Beer squared! Yummmmm……..

Carol March 5, 2009 at 5:53 pm

I can’t wait to try this recipe because of the stout! I have a recipe I use for lamb stew that I make on autopilot but since preparing your braised beef stew — with wine — I’m sold on the wonders such additions bring to the pot. I’m a teetotaler of the sipping from glasses variety of liquors but as far as cooking goes pour it on. Also I’m of the pro-pea school in lamb school.

About the gaminess: living in northern Virginia just west of here there’s a lot of woolies. And it was from one of these haute farms that I found THE mildest lamb I’ve ever tasted. I got the roast at a late in the season farmer’s market so didn’t get a chance to ask the growers if it was sheep variety or diet or a combo of both. Or, just an accident.

diva March 5, 2009 at 6:04 pm

what a great food shot ! i think stew is the perfect place for lamb and i gotta say your lamb stew looks great. the lamb looks to have the perfect texture and cooked to perfection. bet it just totally melts in the mouth. i’m very envious now. x

Terry B March 5, 2009 at 6:56 pm

Thanks, Ronnie Ann! And by the way, I’m glad you’re blogging again.

katrina—I hadn’t even thought about that, but you may be right. And lamb certainly seems less feed lot raised.

Terry [other Terry]—the biscuit top sounds wonderful!

Toni—I’m still not a beer drinker; much more of a wino, er, wine drinker. But in stews, beer can really enhance the flavor—without tasting beery, in case anyone wonders.

Carol—Thanks! Not sure I know the answer to your question about why the lamb was so mild, but buying from local farmers is a good thing for lots of reasons.

diva—And I have to tell you, the leftovers were even better!

Susan from Food Blogga March 6, 2009 at 10:57 pm

The stout beer must lend a richness to the stew, Terry. March never tasted so good.

David N Cook March 1, 2011 at 5:51 pm

This was fantastic! The selection of lamb in our supermarkets is inconsistent so we used ground lamb which worked fine. The roux we found unnecessary since the beer poured into the onion/flour mix made a really nice gravy. A great dish for a cold day (or what passes for cold in southern Calif).

Terry B March 1, 2011 at 6:25 pm

A belated thanks, Susan!

David—”What passes for cold in southern Calif.” Ha! Thanks for helping me rediscover this recipe. I’m terrible about not revisiting my own archives when looking for something to cook.

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