Braised Lamb Shanks: Honest meaty goodness

by Terry B on March 17, 2010

Slow-cooked Braised Lamb Shanks, flavored with generous amounts of onions, shallots, garlic and rosemary—a seriously satisfying main course. Recipe below.


I remember the first time I ordered lamb shank in a restaurant. It came out looking like a giant Flintstones club on the plate, impressively [frighteningly?] large and unmistakably honest about its animal origins. I was immediately hooked.

Seafood has in the past given me pause by looking too much like the original creature—I used to be troubled by my dinner staring back at me, for instance. Now, though, I think that if you’re going to eat animal flesh—and I am—you need to respect the animal and own up to what you’re doing. With its protruding shank bone and knobby joint, lamb shank leaves no doubt.


This same honest quality also appeals to my love of all things rustic in the kitchen. Lamb shanks are not polite, dainty food to be eaten with pinkies extended. This is serious knife-and-fork fare that will leave you wondering just how big an etiquette faux pas it would be if you picked up the bone with your hands at the end of the meal to gnaw on the last little bits.

Lamb shank—or foreshank, as it is sometimes called—comes from the shoulder and front leg. This is the leanest cut of lamb, full of hardworking muscle. So it needs long, slow cooking with moist heat to break down connective tissue and tenderize it. In other words, it’s perfect for braising. Lamb plays notoriously well with garlic and rosemary. Both are plentiful in this recipe, as are onions and shallots. In the long cooking process, their big flavors all mellow and blend, creating a complex, deep-flavored sauce to spoon over the Potato Root Vegetable Mash-up served on the side. Lemon juice and zest brighten the sauce, cutting its richness.

Braised Lamb Shanks
Adapted from Bon Appétit
Serves 2
[may be doubled—see Kitchen Notes]

5 cups thickly sliced yellow onions [about 4 medium]
4 shallots, thickly sliced
2 carrots, peeled and cut on the diagonal into thick slices
5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
4 large cloves garlic, chopped
2 generous tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary [or 2 teaspoons dried]
2 lamb shanks, about 3/4 to 1 pound each
salt, freshly ground black pepper
all-purpose flour
1-1/2 cups dry red wine
2 cups reduced sodium chicken broth
zest and juice of 1 lemon [see Kitchen Notes]
2 bay leaves

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Heat a dutch oven large enough to accommodate lamb shanks over a medium-low flame. Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil, onions, shallots and carrots. Sauté vegetable mixture until onions and shallots are very tender and starting to caramelize, stirring frequently to avoid burning, 20 minutes or more. If onions start to brown too quickly, reduce heat.

Meanwhile, pat shanks dry with paper towel and season with salt and pepper. Dredge in flour. Heat a large skillet over a high flame. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and brown shanks thoroughly on both sides, about 4 minutes per side. If cooking more than 2 shanks, brown them in batches, adding more oil, if needed. Transfer browned shanks to a plate and add wine to the skillet. Cook until just heated through, scraping up browned bits in the bottom of the pan.

Add rosemary and garlic to the dutch oven with the onion/shallot mixture and cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Add chicken broth, lemon zest and juice and bay leaves. Add the red wine from the skillet and stir to combine. Arrange lamb shanks on top of the onion/shallot mixture; the liquid in the dutch oven should come about halfway up the sides of the shanks. If not, add a little water.

Cover with lid and place in oven. Braise shanks for about 2-1/2 hours or more, until meat is very tender. Turn the shanks once or twice during the braising, adding a little water to the dutch oven if the liquid is evaporating too much.

Transfer shanks to platter and tent with foil to keep warm. If the liquids in the dutch oven seem watery, bring to a boil over a medium-high flame to reduce—honestly, I didn’t need this step.

Plate shanks with Potato Root Vegetable Mash-up on the side. Spoon onion/shallot sauce over Mash-up and serve.

Kitchen Notes

Doubling the recipe. A number of lamb shank recipes call for making as many as six at once. I don’t even want to think what size of dutch oven you’d need to accommodate them all. But our beautiful, blue, oval Staub La Cocotte would handle four nicely. And if Archimedes was right, I don’t think you’ll need additional liquid for making four at once—the only thing you’ll need to double in the recipe is the number of lamb shanks.

Brightening things up with lemon. Lamb is a fairly rich-tasting meat, even this lean section. The lemon adds needed acidity to balance the richness. You can also substitute a generous tablespoon of tomato paste for the lemon. In this small amount, it will add some brightness without being obviously tomatoey.

And finally, yes, we love lamb. You’ve probably noticed that lamb is fairly well represented at Blue Kitchen. Partly it’s because it’s just so darned delicious. And partly, it’s because we’ve lucked out and discovered a wonderful local source for humanely raised lamb—Mint Creek Farm in downstate Illinois,where their lamb is 100% grass-fed.


{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Meister -- The Nervous Cook March 17, 2010 at 11:33 am

That Flintsones picture cracked me up! This post is great, and that lamb looks fantastic — maybe it’s time for me to finally attempt a braise…

Laura [What I Like] March 17, 2010 at 1:58 pm

I love your point about coming to terms with the fact that you’re eating something that has bones and joints…totally agree! I love lamb shanks, they actually make an excellent dinner for one I think since they are handily already portioned out.

Terry B March 17, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Thanks, Meister! Do try braising. It’s really, really easy—it just requires patience, since the cooking takes so long. On the plus side, it’s a great way to make delicious meals from cheap cuts of meat, and your house smells wonderful the whole time it’s cooking. For a really simple introduction to braising try this pot roast recipe.

Laura—And when it’s dinner for one, you can definitely gnaw on the bones without fear of embarrassing yourself!

Jason March 17, 2010 at 4:10 pm

I have to agree with Laura, I loved what you had to say about coming to terms with what you are eating. It’s really interesting the mindset that average human beings have about eating something that was alive once.

I’m curious, besides texture and color, what other purpose does dredging the shanks serve?

Terry B March 17, 2010 at 5:22 pm

Jason—The mother of a friend of ours won’t eat any animal that was ever cute. No duck, no rabbit, no lamb… And speaking of eating things that were once alive, according to a New York Times article, plants don’t want to die either, so vegans aren’t off the hook.

What dredging the lamb shanks in flour does is help them brown better. It also slightly thickens the sauce.

Carolyn March 18, 2010 at 11:24 am

I’ve really learned to love lamb shanks this year since we’ve joined our meat CSA, and I actually did get a bigger Dutch oven for Christmas with shanks and short ribs in mind. Sure, I can barely lift the thing, but it was totally worth it.

I’ve been meaning to thank you for the tip-off about Eden Organics using BPA-free cans for their tomatoes. We’ve been using them routinely for the past couple of months. The texture of the whole tomatoes is a little softer than some other brands, so I was briefly leery, but in the end I’ve been very happy with the way they cook down. So, thank you!

Terry B March 18, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Thanks, Carolyn! Good to know that the Eden Organics tomatoes are working out so well. And in the department of “great minds think alike,” the Food & Wine website currently features 10 braising recipes. Now that you’ve got your new dutch oven, be sure to check them out.

Ari March 18, 2010 at 5:28 pm

Oh my god! This all looks so good. I plan on trying this out for a dinner party of 18 this weekend. THANKS!

Alta March 18, 2010 at 5:39 pm

I braise my lamb shanks very much the same way. I LOVE them. One of my favorite lamb cuts. It’s sinful how delicious they are. And I tend to throw etiquette out the door and even try for the marrow in the middle of the shank, if there is any. Yum.

Terry B March 18, 2010 at 5:45 pm

Ari—Dinner for 18? Wow. Hope you’ve got multiple dutch ovens—or else large, deep roasting pans you can cover tightly with foil. But if you can pull this off, your guests are sure to love you!

Alta—Going for the marrow? You’re a woman after my own heart.

altadenahiker March 19, 2010 at 12:13 am

Profound. How many degrees of separation before we feel comfortable eating that steak? I had a friend whose parents raised cattle in Pennsylvania. Cattle for slaughter. Ewww, I’d think, putting the plastic wrapped T-bone from Ralph’s in my shopping cart.

Mimi March 19, 2010 at 12:25 am

As usual, the dish, the post and the photo are perfection. My husband does not eat lamb, so I probably will never make this – but I can enjoy it vicariously.

Dani H March 19, 2010 at 8:42 am

As much as I love lamb {and braising} I’ve never fixed or eaten lamb shanks! And I don’t recall using lemon with lamb either, though that may just be my poor memory. I can almost smell this cooking! Thanks for another way to prepare lamb, Terry. Hope you’re well.

Terry B March 19, 2010 at 2:47 pm

I know what you mean, Altadenahiker. My mom and her husband used to raise a few cows. The cows would live good lives and then become food. Which is how farms used to work. Once we were having a dinner that included meat from one of the cows, Blackie. One of our young daughters asked how you got meat from cows. We explained as carefully as possible that the meat was the cow, fully expecting horror and tears—our kids had met Blackie, after all. Instead, our daughter just said, “Blackie’s good!”

Thanks, Mimi! So sorry your husband isn’t a fan of lamb. But as Laura pointed out above, shanks make a great meal for one, if he’s ever out of town.

Never eaten lamb shanks? You are in for a treat, Dani!

TheKitchenWitch March 19, 2010 at 9:41 pm

I love the Flintstones pic! My dad (in his younger years) was a dead-ringer for Fred!

I love lamb shanks. It’s the only way I really like lamb. Comfort food, don’t you think?

Kim March 20, 2010 at 8:43 am

Terry–I’ve been looking for a few good food blogs to keep up with and I keep coming back to yours. I admit, I’ve never tried lamb shanks, but your description and pic has convinced me to give them a try. Thanks for expanding the boundaries.

altadenahiker March 20, 2010 at 3:39 pm

The story about your daughter is hysterical. Use it in your book.

katie March 21, 2010 at 11:11 am

We love lamb, too. When we lived in Ireland we always got nice ‘rack of lamb’ from the local butcher. Can’t get that here easily so we’re exploring the other parts of the animal… shoulders, and other wierd cuts the French love – always tied tightly. I’ll look for this next time (Just did a leg last night – wanted leftovers)

Terry B March 21, 2010 at 12:49 pm

TheKitchenWitch—Comfort food is exactly right! But the great thing about it is that it’s comfort food that will totally impress company too. And that’s a rare mix to find.

Thanks, Kim! And speaking of expanding horizons, I’m so glad to have discovered your blog—you and your family living on a boat full time? I know this is going to make for some great vicarious adventures.

Altadenahiker—We’ve got plenty of daughter stories that would make for great book fodder, but if either of them retaliates with a book of her own…

Katie—Leg of lamb was what first introduced me to the wonders of lamb. Don’t suppose you could ship some leftovers this way, could you?

WizzyTheStick March 21, 2010 at 6:35 pm

I have never had lamb shanks. In fact I purposely shy away from cuts that require I go to the butcher who is rather surly. Sigh. This looks too good though I suppose I’ll have to gather up my courage….

Gali March 24, 2010 at 3:11 pm

Gosh that looks good.

Half Assed Kitchen April 3, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Oddly, I do not enjoy lamb. But I do love braised meat. And your photo is stunning.

Terry B April 3, 2010 at 3:50 pm

WizzyTheStick—Or perhaps find a new butcher!

Thanks, Gali!

Half Assed Kitchen—Thanks! You know, some people just don’t like lamb. I’m always sorry when I hear that. But snoop around on Blue Kitchen—you’ll find a number of non-lamb braises.

Patty September 30, 2012 at 8:50 pm

Lamb is not what it used to be. It’s considerably better! It used to be a byproduct of wool production in New Zealand/Australia… Now there are breeds and US producers who grow lamb just for lamb! Find a local producer (or 4H kid!) and buy their lamb (under 12 months!) for your freezer. The cost is less and it will give you confidence in cooking different cuts of lamb not having to worry about ruining a $60+ leg of lamb!

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