Lamb Shoulder Vs. Lamb Leg (Roasting, Smoking, Or Pulled Lamb)

A lamb roast, smoked lamb, or pulled lamb are all considered luxuries in my book. Simply incredible, fit for any size feast.

For this style of cooking, you’re going to want to go with a larger cut of lamb, like the lamb shoulder or lamb leg, both known to be rich in fat and get ridiculously tender when slow-cooked.

But, when you’re standing at the butcher eyeing up the lamb shoulder and lamb leg, you’ll need to make the executive decision: which one is better?

Although both cuts are similar in how you prepare them, they do have their differences too. Here we go through lamb shoulder vs. lamb leg, which is best for smoking, roasting, and making pulled lamb.

Although both lamb shoulder and lamb leg can sometimes be used in place of each other, they do have their important differences which make them better for smoking, roasting, or making pulled lamb with. 

To determine which cut of lamb is better for each cooking style, simply compare the main differences, being:

  1. The fat content
  2. The amount of connective tissue
  3. The amount of meat on each cut

Lamb shoulder is known to be a fattier cut of lamb, having much more connective tissue, and often being much meatier too. A lamb leg is much leaner and has less connective tissue, which ends up making it more versatile.

Because of this, lamb shoulders are naturally suited to low and slow cooking styles, as it takes a long time for the connective tissue to break down during the cooking process. Although a lamb leg does also benefit from long and slow cooking, it can be cooked at a higher temperature too, without compromising the lamb meat.

So, for roasting & smoking, it’s really your pick as to whether you want a lamb leg or lamb shoulder, and it could be dependent on how long you want to cook it for. But, if you’re making pulled lamb, then lamb shoulder is a much better choice!

A Bit About Lamb Shoulder

The shoulder is one of the parts that is continuously worked by the lambs, so its meat is quite firm and takes a little longer while cooking to be tender. 

For that reason, the lamb shoulder is considered an excellent cut if you’re into traditional slow roasting or smoking your lamb.

While consistent use of the legs make the shoulders lose their tenderness, they give them a remarkably rich flavor, and when you’ve given it enough time for the connective tissue to break down you’re really left with a treat. 

Lamb shoulders have a high-fat content, which over a low and slow cook, really melts and provides heaps of moisture for the meat. This is another reason why it goes so well slow-cooked or smoked, as it’s able to retain its moisture. This is essential as the last thing you want is your lamb tough and chewy.

Lamb shoulder is commonly used for lamb chops, as a lamb shoulder chop is much cheaper than a loin chop for example. 

A Bit About Lamb Leg

The cut of lamb referred to as the lamb leg is actually the two back legs of the lamb. The front legs are called the shanks, and can be cooked equally as beautifully, in a dish known as lamb shank.

Since the legs are also quite large and are continuously worked by the lamb, they’re also on the strong and firm side when it comes to raw texture. Having quite a bit of connective tissue to help it function.

But, lamb leg is quite forgiving to cook as you’re able to cook it at both high and lower temperatures depending on what you’re looking for and your patience!

It’s quite lean in comparison to the fatty shoulder. But, because of its lower fat content there is a higher chance of overcooking the lamb leg.

Lamb Shoulder Or Lamb Leg For Smoking?

When you hear of classic American barbecue, you hardly ever hear of smoked lamb. But, despite its lack of popularity, a whole smoked lamb roast can be an absolute masterpiece, up there with brisket and pork butt.

But, what’s better to cook on the smoker, the lamb shoulder or the lamb leg? Well, although both can be done to amazing standards, smoked lamb shoulder and smoked lamb leg can come out quite different.

Usually if you are smoking a lamb leg, it will be done at slightly higher temperatures, say between 275-300°F. The aim here is to finish the lamb within a few hours, till it’s cooked to an internal temperature of at least 150°F depending on your desired doneness.

But, when you’re smoking a shoulder of lamb you tend to let it smoke for a lot longer, which helps it develop much more of a bark and become much more tender due to the high fat and connective tissue content in lamb shoulder.

For this reason, smoked lamb shoulder normally comes out on top as the best cut of lamb to smoke. You can get it much more tender, flavorful, and melt in your mouth delicious. For more, check out the best wood for smoking lamb.

Lamb Shoulder Or Lamb Leg For Roasting?

So, you fancy a bit of lamb roast do ya? Well, am I invited, because roast lamb is impossible to keep all to yourself, right?

Absolutely, but when you’re preparing a roast for your family, friends, or any other crowd, you want to be sure it comes out of the oven with a beautiful rich brown color, is perfectly tender, and still incredibly juicy.

Having both roasted lamb shoulder and roasted lamb leg I can tell you that the lamb leg almost always comes out more magnificent when roasted. This is because you can roast your leg of lamb to your desired doneness, and cook it for however long it takes to get there.

When it comes to roasting lamb shoulder, it can come up to temperature but still be very tough and chewy, as it hasn’t had long enough for the connective tissue to break down. 

Lamb Shoulder Or Lamb Leg For Pulled Lamb?

Pulled lamb works off the same principle as pulled pork or a pulled brisket. That is, to slow cook the meat at a low temperature, for as long as it takes for all the fat to effectively melt, and for all the connective tissue to break down.

The result: ridiculously tender, fall-apart pulled lamb.

Although you can get to this point with a lamb leg, making pulled lamb from lamb shoulder is almost always better, being more tender, juicy, and flavorsome. It also pulls a lot more consistently than the leg of lamb too, so you end up with evenly pieced morsels of joy. 

Final Thoughts

So, next time you’re at the butcher, tossing up between a stunning leg of lamb, and a big, solid lamb shoulder you’ll be more equipped to make the right choice for you.

Remember, lamb leg’s usually come out better and more glorious when roasted compared to a lamb shoulder. But, a smoked lamb shoulder more naturally becomes more tender and flavorsome than smoked lamb leg – although both can work.

If you are looking to make pulled lamb it’s always better to go with the lamb shoulder, as you can cook it for much longer and lower without it drying out. Over this time all the fat and connective tissue will melt and you’’ll be left with pulled lamb that’s  just falling apart.

In the end, you can substitute one for the other, but it’s the small differences that can make the biggest impact at the end of the day. In terms of what’s better, well, that’s up to you.

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