Lamb belly might be the most popular grilling meat you’ve never heard of.
I first tasted it a couple of years ago at Hometown Bar-B-Que in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. While checking out the cavernous restaurant about a year after its 2013 opening, I ordered pretty much everything on the menu: brisket, pork ribs, beef rib, the usual stuff. All of it was excellent. But the smoked lamb belly set me to shaking my head and talking to myself. It was a flavor bomb of juicy richness, as powerful in taste as the moist end of a great smoked brisket, but with a slightly (only slightly) gamy quality. After a couple of bites, I paused for a few seconds, just to regard this marvel. Lamb belly, where have you been all my life?
After returning from New York, I set about learning to make it. But first I had to find it. Turns out, the specialty cut was hiding in plain sight: at Harvey’s Market at Union Market in Northeast. Subsequent purchases were just as effortless.
I must have been charmed; more recently, locating a belly has been a challenge. On a recent Saturday, several specialty butcher shops, including Harvey’s, were out of it. “It’s in such high demand in food service,” says Megan Wortman, executive director of the American Lamb Board. “Suppliers are in short supply.”
Harvey’s co-owner George Lesznar says he used to sell only one or two lamb bellies a week. For about the past six months, he has been selling six or seven. “I don’t know what it is,” he told me. “But I expect I’ll be selling even more come summer, when people start experimenting and learning how to cook it.”
During that first outing, when I asked Lesznar for lamb belly, he brought out the cut that is commonly associated with the term, a roughly rectangular section, with ribs. He asked whether I wanted it bone-in or boneless. I said both and bought one of each.
What I didn’t realize at the time is that the belly is not actually the belly. It’s just called that. It’s technically the breast. Indeed, the high-demand specialty aspect of the cut may not be the only factor in determining lamb belly’s availability. It might also have a little something to do with language.
Recently, I called Union Meat Co. at Eastern Market and asked for lamb belly. Co-owner Billy Glasgow told me he didn’t have any. When I asked for lamb breast, he said he had several. I headed over, and, at the counter, Glasgow held up the cut and explained that the bone-in cut is lamb breast. He said the roughly inch-thick layer beneath the bones is called the belly — even though it technically may be considered part of the breast.
“Trust me,” says Wortman. “The industry is confused, too.”
She says the name is the result of marketing stemming from the popularity of pork belly. “When belly was becoming so hot with pork, then chefs were wanting to go to the next cool thing, and our industry didn’t understand it,” says Wortman. “The cut ended up being called lamb belly even though it is actually the breast.”
By any name, it is impossibly rich in flavor. And for Easter, it would make for a different and decidedly more informal take on traditional leg of lamb.
American yearly per capita consumption of lamb amounts to only about 1 pound. Of the small amount of consumed lamb, lamb belly is a tiny percentage, making it both scarce and sought after. Yet it remains a relative bargain. On a recent weekend at Union Meat Company, a leg of lamb cost $9.89 per pound and loin lamb chops went for $13.97 per pound. Lamb breast/belly was only $4.99 per pound.
Lamb belly probably will be on display at Union Market on May 15, when the American Lamb Board will host its sixth annual DC Lamb Jam, a competition of local chefs who create lamb dishes. At the event, Wortman says, “we have to turn chefs away from using lamb belly because so many want to use it.”
In restaurant kitchens, chefs have discovered the cut’s adaptability. Marc Hennessy, executive chef at BLT Steak, cooks it with Swiss chard, adds it to peas and carrots, and uses it in agnolotti. “It has real versatility,” Hennessy says. “Just serving lamb belly is kind of a strong thing. The fat flavor is very strong. When it comes as a side, people are very interested.”
Lamb belly’s big flavor pumps up otherwise staid side dishes, certainly, but its robust taste is what made me fall head over heels in the first place. After returning from my revelatory experience at Hometown Bar-B-Que, I rubbed spices into the two bellies I’d bought at Harvey’s — one bone-in, the other boneless — and smoked them gently for a dinner party. I had plenty of other foods in case they didn’t turn out. They turned out. The flavor was as full and the texture as velvety as I remembered. My guests were amazed.
Since then, I have cooked several lamb bellies. I always smoke them low and slow, crisping their outer layer and concentrating their burly succulence. Then I grill them and eat them on the bone as I would a rack of pork ribs, or if they’re boneless, slice them like steak.
The belly’s deep flavor lends itself as a base to all sorts of treatments, including tacos brightened with lime and cotija cheese and gyros flecked with mint and creamed with yogurt. Because they are fairly thin and have a lot of fat, lamb bellies cook at a relatively leisurely pace on the grill (within two hours) and are incredibly luscious. In other words, they are nearly impossible to mess up.
Me, I like a dish that is practically foolproof and impressive at the same time. And frankly, I don’t care what they call it.
The flavor of lamb belly, a.k.a. breast, is rich and gamy. The treatment here borrows from the Middle East, with the ground sumac adding a slightly lemony flavor.
You’ll need 1 cup of hardwood chips, such as apple, pecan or oak, soaked in water for 30 minutes, and an instant-read thermometer.
Serve with rice or your favorite potato salad.
MAKE AHEAD: Although best if used immediately, the spice mixture can be prepared up to 1 month in advance and kept in a sealed container in the pantry.
Lamb belly is available at Harvey’s in Union Market, at Union Meats in Eastern Market and at halal butcher shops (at the last, ask for lamb breast). Ground sumac is available at Mediterranean markets and at Bazaar Spices in Union Market.
From Smoke Signals columnist Jim Shahin.
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground sumac (see headnote)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil (optional; to turn the spice rub into a paste)
1 bone-in lamb belly, about 11/2 pounds, trimmed of most surface fat; or 1 boneless lamb belly, about 11/3 pounds (see headnote)
Whisk together the salt, black pepper, granulated garlic, cinnamon, allspice, cayenne pepper, sumac and oil, if using, in a small bowl. Coat the lamb belly with the mixture.
Prepare the grill for indirect heat: If using a gas grill, turn the heat to high. Drain the chips and put them in a smoker box or foil packet poked with a few fork holes to release the smoke; set it between the grate and the briquettes, close to the flame. When you see smoke, reduce the heat to medium (375 to 400 degrees). Turn off the burners on one side.
If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them on one side of the grill. For a medium fire, you should be able to hold your hand 6 inches above the coals for 6 or 7 seconds. Scatter the wood chips over the coals. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames.
Place the lamb meat side down directly over the coals and cook uncovered until lightly blackened, 3 to 5 minutes. Turn the meat over and cook for 3 to 5 minutes.
Use long-handled tongs to place the lamb meat side up on the indirect-heat side of the grate. Close the grill lid and cook for about 75 minutes.
To finish, use the tongs to place the lamb meat side down directly over the coals, which should be dying, for 5 to 10 minutes to crisp the exterior. The internal temperature of the meat should register 155 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, with little or no trace of pink inside.
Transfer to a cutting board to rest for 10 minutes before slicing or chopping.
Nutrition | Per serving: 290 calories, 30 g protein, 0 g carbohydrates, 19 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 110 mg cholesterol, 370 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar
Recipe tested by Andrew Sikkenga; e-mail questions to firstname.lastname@example.org