Moroccan Spice Rub brings big flavor to spring leg of lamb—or chicken, or beef, or pork…

by Terry B on April 7, 2010

A rub of fragrant spices and herbs—including cumin, coriander, turmeric, cinnamon and saffron—creates a crust of exotic Moroccan flavor on a roast leg of American lamb. The versatile Moroccan spice rub can be used with other meats and cooking methods too. Recipe below.


Let’s do a little word association. If I say “leg of lamb,” you say… “What, lamb again?” Okay, fair enough—I have been cooking a lot of lamb here lately. But the answer I was looking for was “garlic and rosemary.” When we came into possession of the handsome, hefty [over seven pounds] leg of lamb above, my first thought was the nearly universal default cooking approach: Jam lots of garlic slivers into it, cover it with rosemary and roast it. There’s a good reason that’s a popular go-to recipe—it’s absolutely delicious.

But then I thought it was time to try something different. And for no reason I can explain, a Moroccan spice rub occurred to me.

Traditional Moroccan cuisine is one of the most diverse in the world. Morocco sits on the northern edge of the African continent, a mere eight miles across the Straits of Gibraltar from Europe at its closest point. So its cooking is flavored by Berber, Spanish, Corsican, Portuguese, Moorish, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and African cuisines.

Just as much an influence is Morocco’s location along ancient spice trade routes. Spices are used extensively in Moroccan food; the turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, paprika, saffron and pepper found in this spice rub are all popular favorites. Coriander, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg and cloves are often used too. The emphasis is more on big flavors than heat. Other big flavors found in Moroccan cuisine include lemon juice and zest; fresh herbs such as mint, parsley, cilantro and basil; garlic and onions.

Chicken is the most widely eaten meat in Morocco. The most common red meat is beef—lamb is preferred but is relatively expensive. Eating pork is forbidden in this Muslim country, but thanks to the growth of tourism and a pragmatic government, pig farming is booming there, to cater to European and other non-Muslim tourists.

This recipe combines their preferred red meat with a wonderfully fragrant mix of popular Moroccan flavorings.

Roast Leg of Lamb with Moroccan Spice Rub
Serves 8 or so, depending on size of roast

For Moroccan Spice Rub:
1 tablespoon cumin seeds [or 1 tablespoon ground cumin—see Kitchen Notes]
1 tablespoon coriander seeds [see Kitchen Notes]
1 teaspoon black peppercorns [or 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper]
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
20 threads saffron, finely broken
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup minced parsley
zest of 1 lemon
1/3 cup olive oil

1 leg of lamb, 5 to 6 pounds

Make the spice rub. Toast cumin seeds and coriander seeds in a dry skillet over medium low heat, stirring frequently, for 5 or so minutes, until fragrant. Transfer to plate and let cool thoroughly. Grind cumin, coriander and peppercorns with a mortar and pestle or in a spice grinder. Combine the cumin mixture in a bowl with the remaining rub ingredients, stirring to thoroughly blend.

Spread the rub evenly over the entire surface of the leg of lamb. I spooned it on, then used my hands. Wrap the leg of lamb in plastic wrap and marinate, chilled, for 4 hours or longer. Remove from fridge for last half-hour of marinating to let it warm up slightly before roasting.

Roast the leg of lamb. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Lightly oil a baking pan [just to make it easier to clean later] and place the leg of lamb in a rack in the pan. Roast in the center of the oven for 15 to 20 minutes per pound, rotating the pan once halfway through. Variations in ovens and the size of the leg of lamb will cause cooking times to vary quite a bit. Use a quick-read thermometer to check the lamb well before you think it should be done [make sure you don’t hit the bone—that will give you an inflated reading]. You’re shooting for an internal temperature of anywhere from 130 to 145ºF. Remove from the oven and let it rest, tented lightly with foil, for 10 minutes before slicing and serving.

Kitchen Notes

Seeds or powder? If you don’t have cumin seeds and coriander seeds, you can substitute the powdered versions of both. We use boatloads of ground cumin in our kitchen. But grinding freshly toasted seeds really makes for a more flavorful blend, and it’s quick and easy to do.

Other uses for Moroccan spice rub. This flavorful rub will bring big flavor to chicken, beef and pork too. Roasting, braising or pan grilling are good ways to cook with it. Indirect grilling would work nicely too.

Craving more Moroccan? Try my Moroccan Braised Beef recipe, with garam masala and golden raisins.


{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate April 7, 2010 at 1:09 pm

That is a beautiful photo of your leg o lamb. I made one on Sunday, and when I shot it, it looked terrrrible. But the light in my kitchen is terrible, so it makes sense. Really gotta work on that, but I guess I’m too busy cooking! :)

Delicious looking lamb recipe though, we did garlic, thyme, rosemary, honey, S&P, olive oil, and garlic. Um, yum!?

Terry B April 7, 2010 at 2:29 pm

Thanks, Kate! Yeah, meat can be a particular challenge to photograph. Regarding your recipe, “um, yum” is exactly right!

Laura [What I Like] April 7, 2010 at 3:42 pm

What a glorious hunk of meat that is! I love the color it has taken on from the spices, I’ll bet that was one very special meal. By the way, I came across a recipe that I think is right up your alley…and was totally delicious and took about five minutes to prepare.

altadenahiker April 7, 2010 at 3:43 pm

Oh, who did you have to kill to get that beautiful roast. When I win the lottery, I’ll try this.

The French April 7, 2010 at 5:07 pm

I just drooled on my keyboard and I’m pretty sure it’s fried. Just got a new mortar and pestle. So excited to put it to use:) Thanks.

Mellen April 8, 2010 at 12:59 am

Ah, Terry, how timely. We’ve been taking lessons with the mother of a Moroccan friend of mine from Fez, and what glorious things have come out of the kitchen!! Most recently, meatball tagine with a sauce that begins with grated tomatoes (yes, grated – Steve and I scratched our heads and said How come we never heard of any Mediterranean cuisine like Italian for example, using grated tomatoes as the basis for a sauce?). Anyway, delectable after delectable has been coming out of the Moroccan kitchen (thanks in part to the Halal butcher down the street). We can’t get enough of it. And it’s perfect for spring weather, when the grills fire up and you want a flavor-packed but light meal.

The lamb sounds incredible.

dick April 8, 2010 at 1:08 am

I found a cookbook by Paula Wolfert a year or so ago about Moroccan cooking. I made a chicken tagine in my big skillet and got hooked. Now I have a tagine and a whole section of Moroccan spices and fix a tagine about every other week. What a fabulous cuisine. You look at the list of spices and it sounds as if all you would taste is the spices but that is not so at all.

Terry B April 8, 2010 at 3:23 am

Thanks, Laura! It was delicious. And that recipe does indeed sound right up my alley. I’ll have to give it a try.

Altadenahiker—No mayhem involved, just charm. Regarding lottery tickets, when you think how many servings you’ll get from a leg of lamb, it’s not so bad costwise.

Thanks, The French!

Mellen—Grating tomatoes makes as much sense as crushing them by hand, I think. I also think Marion and I need to come up with an excuse to show up on your doorstep in DC again!

Dick—We’ve looked longingly at tagines in stores. But with limited kitchen space, looking is as far as we get. I totally get what you mean about the spices. They are so wonderfully fragrant when you’re mixing them and cooking with them, but they infuse food with complex, delicate deliciousness and don’t overpower it.

Nishta April 8, 2010 at 3:35 pm

lamb away, sir! I can never get too much. just had mole-drenched lamb shank for dinner last night at one of my favorite Mexican restaurants & there are leftover lamb koftas (Indian-style meatballs in tomato almond gravy) in my fridge.

I agree that this is a beautiful shot of an item that can be tenaciously difficult to photograph. and what I love, as I always do about your blog, is that you offer a recipe that seems feasible to me but which never would have occurred to me on my own. thank you.

Terry B April 8, 2010 at 4:06 pm

Thanks, Nishta! Apparently we can never get too much lamb either. Last night, Marion and I actually split the generous lamb shank that had come attached to this roast. Braised it with wine, broth, onions, garlic, rosemary, bay leaf and dried apricots—delicious! And you have perfectly summed up what I try to do with Blue Kitchen in a single line: “a recipe that seems feasible to me but which never would have occurred to me on my own.” Couldn’t have said it better myself!

Alta April 8, 2010 at 5:26 pm

Oh wow, this sounds awesome. I still have a leg of lamb in the freezer. While I immediately gravitate towards garlic and rosemary too, this definitely sounds like an intriguing, delicious change!

TheKitchenWitch April 8, 2010 at 7:23 pm

Gorgeous photo! I’ve always been afraid to make leg of lamb. The spice rub sounds like a wonderful touch.

Sooshi April 8, 2010 at 8:28 pm

This is beautiful! Definitely bookmarking for when I come across a worthy lamb leg 😉

[email protected] April 9, 2010 at 1:21 pm

My fancy stove broke the day before Easter… I have a leg of lamb waiting to be cooked..great recipe with lovely spices.

Terry B April 9, 2010 at 4:26 pm

Alta—I have to say, even the leftovers were nicely infused with the flavors of the spice rub.

TheKitchenWitch—I was fearful of making a leg of lamb until the first time I tried it. It’s really insanely easy, though—once you’ve seasoned the roast,the oven and the lamb do all the work. Do give it a try.

Thanks, Sooshi!

Deana—Why is it that things always seem to break down at the worst possible time?

Dani H April 10, 2010 at 5:38 pm

Scrumptious photo, Terry. I still haven’t tried lamb shanks, but lamb is one of my favorite meats so I’m adding this recipe to my “recipes to try soon” list. Take care.

Christina April 11, 2010 at 2:24 pm

Lambilicious lamb. Oh, how I love lamb.

And, how I love Moroccan food. Wolfert’s Couscous and Other Good Food is pulled from my cookbook bookshelf at least a couple times a month. I don’t always follow the directions exactly because I don’t have the equipment (traditional tagine, etc), but the combinations of flavors are inspirational. It is from her that I learned to always, ALWAYS, have preserved lemon on hand, and in my kitchen that shows up in all sorts of dishes, Moroccan and otherwise.

This is a nice way to roast lamb. Thanks for the idea.

I hope spring is finding you well.

Terry B April 11, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Thanks, Dani! I hope you do give it a try.

Christina—And thank you for the book title. I’m ready to explore more Moroccan food. We’re having a lovely spring. Hope you and ECG are too.

papawow April 12, 2010 at 4:38 am

What a great spice mix. I can see a pre-made can of this getting used often around our house. Thanks for sharing, I just ate and now you’ve made me hungry again!

Clea Walford April 14, 2010 at 7:19 am

Great photo and lamb is one of my favorite meats! Will quickly add this recipe to my try-soon-list. Thanks!

Sharlene May 7, 2011 at 5:16 am

Have my leg of lamb with your rub in the oven as we speak…….it smells devine….hubby aka (no spice man) is erring on the side of caution till he can taste it… going to pacify him with roast vege whilst i may stick to cous cous…

CAintheBK December 29, 2012 at 5:02 pm

I made this last night and it was incredible. The only ingredient the recipe needs is salt. I rubbed a generous amount of salt on the meat before applying the rub. I had an 8lb leg, and cooked it for 2hrs 15 mins (15 min per lb plus a bit) for medium rare.
Everyone loved it and I got many requests for the recipe. Thank you for this wonderful addition to my recipe collection!

CAintheBK December 29, 2012 at 5:03 pm

One more thing- I doubled the recipe and it was the perfect amount for a larger leg. :)

Terry B December 30, 2012 at 5:56 pm

Thanks, CAintheBK! I’m glad you liked it. I can’t remember why I didn’t include salt in the recipe, but I do remember thinking we’d have to salt the meat when I served it. Turns out we didn’t choose to. That said, salt is always great at bringing out flavors, in meat especially.

Tracy moreau January 1, 2013 at 11:32 pm

Our new years day dinner is always something special, but this year I wanted to get away from the tired turkey or ham, that seem to be the staples for the season… I wanted Lamb! I have roasted lamb before and have never been disappointed with my efforts but was looking for something a bit more exotic. this hit it out of the park!! It was so tender and very flavorful!, but the best part…. Adding a cup of red wine to the drippings and reducing it for the Au jus….. AWESOME! The family raved!!! Great recipe !Thank you for posting this!!

Happy New Year!!!

Terry B January 2, 2013 at 5:06 am

Thanks, Tracy! The red wine au jus sounds like a delicious addition.

JPI August 15, 2013 at 4:11 pm

Sorry, this is very late to the game, but I was scrolling through and found this fabulous recipe. My new source for GREAT tasting lamb is decidedly off-grid. I go to county fairs and buy whole ones from kids raising them as 4H projects. These are farm kids and they are raising their projects for slaughter, so they are very clear-headed about it. But, the critters are basically raised like pets. Nothing like it in the store, believe me. The kid I buy from even has an arrangement with the butcher, so I get mine cut and wrapped! $2/lb for whole animal.

Patty L in AZ April 19, 2014 at 2:41 pm

I made this last year for Easter and my family has been pestering me to make it ever since. So I bought another roast this year and pulled up the same successful recipe to use. Just wanted to thank you and give you the feedback. Thank you for sharing… now off to the kitchen!

Terry B April 19, 2014 at 10:57 pm

Thanks, JPI. Sorry I’m so late responding to you. What a great source of humanely raised meat!

Patty, thank you so much! Hope you and your family have a lovely Easter.

Janine Sikes April 20, 2014 at 7:58 am

Delighted to try this for today’s Easter dinner. Rubbed the leg down early this morning and I’ll post later after we try it. Alongside the roast, we are having pearl couscous with almonds and dried apricots, orange-scented yellow and red beets, garlic sautéed zucchini and peas and curried corn pudding. That took a lot of thought to come up with those. Do you have ideas for other sides?

Terry B April 20, 2014 at 8:17 am

Janine, the meal you’ve already planned sounds amazing. If you’re looking for one more side, though, and have some spice rub left over (or the ingredients for some version of the one in this recipe), you might try this quick chickpeas dish. You also don’t have to be all Middle Eastern matchy—you could go with these simple spicy roasted potatoes. Have a great dinner!

Janine Sikes April 20, 2014 at 3:24 pm

The lamb was absolutely delicious. This recipe is a keeper. Thanks for the additional ideas.

Terry B April 21, 2014 at 9:43 am

Thanks, Jane! Glad it turned out well.

Patty L in AZ April 5, 2015 at 1:23 pm

Terry – thanking you again as I will be serving for Easter 2015 today. This is now our family tradition on Easter! 3rd year in a row :)

Terry B April 6, 2015 at 1:18 pm

I love hearing this, Patty! Thanks so much for sharing it.

Chris March 26, 2016 at 4:13 pm

Doing lamb for the first time (Found a decent deal on a half-leg, semi-boneless)! I butterflied the roast and I’m going to try this spice mix (just sounded easier than carving bone-in leg of lamb). I’m also going to reverse-sear it (low heat until we get right below target temp, then 500 degrees for 10 minutes to sear at the end once all the moisture is gone.

The (now removed) bone is currently simmering with some aromatics to make a stock. I’m dreaming about a spicy gravy of some sort…

Thanks for the recipe!

Terry B March 26, 2016 at 10:26 pm

What time should we come over, Chris? Sounds you’ve got this nailed. Hope you like the spice rub!

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