If you’ve had lamb before, you’ve probably had lamb chops, a leg roast or maybe ground lamb.
Those are the cuts I’ve been most familiar with, but a few weeks ago, I met up with Craig Jones, the co-owner of Capra Lamb, the Goldthwaite-based collective of more than 100 lamb ranches in Central Texas, who was in Austin to drop off samples of his dorper lamb for food writers like me to try.
I didn’t know much about dorper or the lamb industry in and around Mills County, an area of the country known more for raising goats than sheep. Jones explained that in the past few decades, ranchers, including his family, have transitioned away from raising sheep for their wool to raising them for their meat.
Plenty of ranchers still raise goats, sometimes in addition to sheep, but lamb is proving to be quite a profitable business. Capra has a processing facility, ships all over the country and is a champion of the dorper breed, a South African lamb that has a low level of lanolin because it doesn’t grow wool. Lanolin is what gives most lamb a gamey flavor, which I’ve seen described as tasting like an old candle.
I don’t mind a hint of that flavor in lamb, but I was curious to try the more beeflike meat that comes from these dorpers. Jones dropped off lamb loin chops, a cut I hadn’t cooked before. “They are like little T-bones,” he told me, and he wasn’t joking about that. These loin chops fit into your palm and have a bone in the middle, making them hard to cut with a knife but easy to pick up with your hands to eat.
I rubbed a lamb seasoning mix on the outside of the chops and dusted them with a little Hardcore Carnivore, that activated charcoal seasoning mix that Austinite Jess Pryles launched earlier this year and that is like a magic powder that makes everything taste better on the grill. My parents, who were open to eating lamb but haven’t had much of it, were in town for the night. The loin chops cooked up pretty quickly on the searing-hot grill grate, and after I let them rest for about 10 minutes, we dug in. After a few attempts to use a knife, it became clear that we’d be better off eating them caveman style. A few bites in, I realized that my parents were devouring this cut and type of meat that they were entirely unfamiliar with.
The meat had a nice bit of fat on the edges but wasn’t too sinewy or chewy, and Jones was right — even though I could tell we were eating lamb, it could have easily passed for beef. It was also such a nice portion. After my dad had a heart attack a few years ago, my parents have been trying to cut back on their meat consumption, so the smaller steaks were just the right size.
Capra runs the only certified dorper program in the country. Like certified Angus beef, the certified dorper classification is a way to offer a high-quality, standardized product to restaurants and markets. More than a dozen Austin restaurants carry the Capra lamb, including Café Josie, Easy Tiger, Foreign & Domestic, Justine’s Brasserie, Salt & Time and Kebabalicious, but the only grocery store that currently sells it is Whole Foods Market.
Keep your eyes peeled for that breed to gain in popularity (and availability) in coming years, however, and look out for this particular cut, no matter the breed, especially if you’re tired of serving giant beef steaks that nobody can finish.
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