Lamb shanks are a winter dish in the truest sense of the term — warming, comforting, aromatic and sumptuous.
The shanks are cut from the leg or shoulder where the muscled meat is tough, sinewy and stippled with cartilage. They require hours and hours of slow, gentle braising to turn the meat soft and tender enough to slide off the bone. Sure, this takes time, lots of it, but it’s not my time; the shanks practically cook themselves. In this dish, the cook’s patience pays off.
Braised lamb shanks are silky and satisfying with a brawniness that rivals any other red meat. What makes the shanks especially succulent is the marrow deep in the bone that liquefies while braising to enrich the sauce, giving it a velvety texture and tremendous flavor.
Lamb shanks are one of the more economical cuts. I find them far more interesting and tasty than expensive chops or a butterflied leg. When shopping for lamb shanks, look for the biggest ones with the highest meat-to-bone ratio. Most large shanks will serve two people or one very hungry person. A whole, bone-in shank on a single dinner plate can look intimidating, so once the shanks are cooked, I prefer to pull the meat off the bone to serve with the sauce over mashed root vegetables, potatoes or polenta.
The first and most important step in any braise is to sear the meat over high heat. That process caramelizes the meat’s surface to produce those irresistible browning flavors that will dissolve deliciously into the cooking liquid. In this step, you want to be sure that all the sides of the meat are truly dark brown before moving on.
Next add chopped onions, the essential ingredient in any braise. White or yellow onions add astringency and natural sugars that seep gently into the dish. (Don’t use red onions, as they turn a nasty gray when cooked.) Remove the meat from the pot before stirring in wine and stock to deglaze and lift off all the nubs of brown sticking to the bottom.
Then return the meat along with a few chopped carrots for earthy sweetness, fresh savory herbs (rosemary, thyme, oregano) or warm spices (ginger, cardamom, coriander) and put the pot in a low oven for several hours.
Through the magic of braising, these ordinary ingredients make a dependable crowd-pleasing dinner and yet they’re easy enough for a quiet midweek meal.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.