Introduction: How to Butcher a Lamb
When I first started raising sheep I didn't know how to butcher one, so I took my lambs to the butcher. He charged me $50 each, and I had the nagging feeling that the leg and loin roasts should have been quite a bit larger than they came back to me. What could I do?
A friend of mine recently taught me how to butcher a lamb for myself. So now I can save money and get the cuts just the way I like them.
The pictures that follow are a bit graphic, so be SURE you want to know how this is done before you continue. But if you do, mmmmm... so delicious!
Step 1: Get Your Stuff Together
Get your things together. You're gonna get messy and you won't really want to go back in the house, so get everything you need up front. I backed a car out of the garage so I'd have a space to work that wasn't in the snow.
If you're doing a halal killing (in keeping with islamic law) you won't need the gun or the rope. I have not yet worked up the nerve to try it that way, so I use the gun.
Step 2: Get the Critter
This is the tough part. Once the deed is done, the rest is smooth sailing. It DOES feel a little like killing Bambi, so if you're tender-hearted, get a more cold-blooded friend to help. Maybe a hunter or a farmer, or someone that has some experience with this.
Tie the front and back legs together so the animal can't get up or move. Trust me, it's for the best. Use the rifle at close range to make sure the animal doesn't suffer. Aim for the spot just behind the ear and make certain that you use proper gun safety! If you shoot your own foot, don't come crying to me.
If you are going to do a halal killing, you will need to have someone help you hold the animal, but you can't bind it. You also have to skip this step and go directly to step three.
Step 3: Drain the Blood
This is where it starts to get graphic. If you are doing a halal killing, the animal will still be alive. If not, you are now dealing with a carcass. Either way, it's time for the shears.
You would be amazed how tough it can be to cut through thick wool. Since I usually butcher in cold weather, their wool is pretty long. Clean up a spot on the neck just above the shoulders. Then get your sharp knife and make a deep cut from one shoulder to the other, cutting through the neck. This will allow all the blood to drain out of the animal, even if it is already dead.
If you are doing a halal killing, you have to release the animal after you make the cut so it can move freely as it dies. My apologies if this is upsetting to anyone, but those are the rules. I didn't make them, I'm just reporting them.
Step 4: Field Dressing - Part I
This is a polite term for taking the guts out. You have to do this step with care, or you'll make a real mess for yourself. If you get any of the contents of the stomach, intestines, bladder, etc, on the meat, you will have to get to rinsing it quickly or you can spoil it.
Make an incision just below the point where the ribs come together and then extend it to within a few inches of the anus. Do NOT cut into the anus at this point. You'll be unhappy if you do.
Some knives have a "gut hook" on them that facilitate this process. If yours doesn't, make sure to keep your knife flat against the belly so you just slide the blade under the skin and don't puncture anything inside. If you do it right, it will look like this.
Step 5: Field Dressing - Part II
Now that you have the initial cut, you will need to get to cutting some bone. You will want to remove all the internal organs in one smooth step. This will include, heart and lungs, as well as all digestive organs. You will need to cut through one side of the rib cage so you can get at the heart and lungs, and the middle of the pelvis so you can remove the intestines. My knife cuts ribs just fine but doesn't do as well on the thicker pelvis. You can use the electric saw for that, but I wouldn't. Too much risk of tearing intestines. I used a hack-saw for this animal because it gave me the control I needed to keep the blade well clear of the innards.
There is a thin membrane that attaches all of the organs to the inside of the body cavity. You will need to begin at the bottom by lifting the anus through the gap you created in the pelvis. Lay the five-gallon bucked down next to the carcass and place the intestines into it. Continue separating the organs from the body cavity and feeding them into the bucket as you go. They should just about fill the bucket when they are all in there.
Spread the ribs and cut out the heart and lungs. You don't need to be too concerned about punctures at this end of the carcass because getting blood on the meat won't affect its quality at all.
If you like haggis or want to make your own sausage, you may want to keep heart, liver, lungs, stomach, or intestines. That's your call. If you don't know what a haggis is, check this out. Personally, when it comes to organ meat, I'm out.
Step 6: Hang It Up to Drain
This will let the blood finish draining from the carcass. Use the game hanger and the accompanying block and tackle. The pulleys make lifting it MUCH easier. You can hang it from a tree or a deck. I used the monkey bars of my kid's playset. If that seems harsh to you, ask yourself this: who do you think took these pictures?
Yeah, that's right. I'm raising farmers.
Use your knife to make a hole all the way through the skin between the knee and its tendon. This is where the hanger hook will go. Do this on both sides and then hoist it up until it is hanging vertically. Leave it there for at least 30 minutes to drain whatever blood is left.
Step 7: Begin the Prep
After it's hung for a while, it's time to begin preparing the carcass. I used a yard cart to haul it to the garage. You could probably just lift and carry it now, if you had to. It's amazing how much the organs weigh!
Once you're in the garage, lay the carcass on the prep table. I laid down some butcher paper so the dirty wool didn't get on the table.
Step 8: Take Off Some Odds and Ends
Cut through the skin all they way around the legs just below the meaty part you want to keep. Then break out the electric saw.
Cut the rest of the way through the neck and remove the head. Cut through each of the four legs and place these parts into the second bucket.
You might want to cut the tail stump off right now to make skinning easier. I didn't, but you might.
Step 9: Skinning
Now place the knife flat against the skin near the neck and gently slice it away from the meat beneath. The skin will come away with a decently thick layer of fat, so don't be alarmed if it seems to thick. The good meat is underneath.
If you're planning to use the skins for anything, be sure not to cut through them right now. This can be tough to do, so don't get frustrated if you botch it. Keep practicing. You'll get it.
Cut along the chest and ribs toward the back legs. When you reach the legs, cut through the skin to free it from the leg bones.
Cut the skin all the way off one side and then turn the carcass over and do the other side. When you are finished, lift the skinned carcass and have your helper (you brought one, right?) place the skin wool-side down on the floor and pitch the butcher paper. Now place the carcass on the clean table and you're ready to divide it up.
Step 10: Cuts of Meat
Now it's time to decide what cuts you want to keep from this lamb. If you don't know where the cuts come from on the animal, check out this diagram from the American Lamb Board. I prefer roasts to steaks, so I keep most of my cuts whole. If you like chops or steaks, you can cut it that way, but you need to decide now.
To separate the roasts, use your sharp knife and separate the front legs from the body at the shoulder joint. Then do the back legs as the hip joint. Take the time to carefully work the blade between the bones of the joint and it will separate pretty easily. There should be no need to cut through bone here.
Step 11: Cuts of Meat Part II
Some people cut the breast meat as a "rolled roast". It's a bit like beef flank steak, and I prefer to use it as ground lamb. I like ground lamb a lot, so all the leftover cuts will be ground.
Take your electric saw and cut the ribs off of the backbone. Now all that remains is to remove the tenderloins. These are the nice thick strips that run from the head to the hips along either side of the backbone. Take them out in one piece and they will make delicious loin roasts. If you prefer, you can slice them to get the lamb equivalent of fillet mignon. You can slice the leg roasts into sirloin steaks as well, if you like. I like them better as roasts.
Finally, I cut the spine into three pieces to use as soup bones, and I carve as much meat as possible off of them. All those extra bits will go into the ground lamb.
Step 12: Grinding the Odd Cuts
All the little leftover bits of meat can go in the grinder. My wife has a Kitchen Aid mixer, and we got the meat grinder attachment for it. Depending on how liberal or conservative you are with the bits you grind, you should end up with somewhere between five and ten pounds of ground lamb. Cut the pieces so that they will fit in the hopper. Try to keep a balanced mix of lean and fatty cuts, as this will produce a more flavorful product that will form and cook better than one that is too lean or too fatty. I like my mix to be about 80-20.
That's it. You're done. Enjoy the lamb.