The neck is one of the most amazing cuts of meat on any animal, and it’s been under-used until recently. For home cooks, it’s still a bit of a chef’s secret, but that’s starting to change with the advent of high quality lamb and goat meat being available online. While we’re at it, if you want to order the awesome, grass-fed stuff I cook with you can get it from Sheperd’s Song farm.
What’s so great about a lamb neck? Well, first off, just to be clear, there’s nothing weird about eating neck, it isn’t unknown or under-used because it tastes different, neck is just another muscle, it’s not an organ meat with a different flavor or texture than some people might be used to like brains or a kidney. Have you ever had pot roast? Carnitas? Pulled beef? Well lamb neck (and any neck) is going to remind you of that except on steroids.
Like oxtail, neck is basically designed by nature for slow cooking, think of it as a bunch of tender meat, surrounded and insulated by bone and all sorts of good stuff that keeps it moist while it cooks.
How to cook
This is easy, you only need to know two words: low and slow. As long as you have a crockpot, or a dutch oven, or something nice and roomy to cook the neck in, you’re golden. Here’s the process:
- Brown the neck (optional, but adds good flavor)
- Put the neck in a covered pot with some liquid, vegetables and parchment, then cook until tender
- Pick the meat off the bones, then add to whatever you’re making
The importance of covered cooking
There are only two tricks besides slow cooking these, the first is to keep it covered, extra covered. Because of the awkward shape and large amount of bone proportionate to meat on these they need less moisture to cook than it takes to cover them. If you put your neck in a pot and fill the whole thing up with water it will work, but you’d better be planning on making something brothy.
The way you get around this is doing everything you can to insulate and trap moisture while the neck cooks, just using a covered pan in the oven isn’t going to cut it, although crock-pots are gentle enough that they can work. What happens if it isn’t covered? Well, the top half that’s exposed to the air can dry out, and we don’t want that.
The way I get around this by putting some parchment over the neck in my pot, then putting on a lid, then roasting nice and slow, turning here and there if I can remember. Once the meat is fork-tender, it’s ready to go.
This is the other trick. Once the lamb neck is tender, you cool it and pick off the meat, but you have to be thoughtful about how you use it after that. Since the meat is ready to serve once it’s picked from the bone, if you cook it longer by adding it to a recipe or simmering any longer, the meat can dissolve into muscle strands quickly, and bowls of disintegrated lamb aren’t good if you’re trying to impress your dinner guests.
Overcooking is easy to get around though, just need to be gentle with the meat and fold it into your sauce or stew in the last minutes before serving and just heat it through, if you keep in mind that it’s ready to go, you’ll have nothing to worry about.