Why Is My Lamb Tough & Chewy (+ What You Can Do)

Despite being one hell of a tasty and somewhat luxurious cut of meat, a lot of people are reluctant about cooking lamb at home. Or at least are cooking it less frequently than pork, beef, or chicken.

Lamb is notorious for being a rather hard cut of meat to get perfect, whether it’s a lamb shank or lamb chop, — and I guess that’s why you’re here! 

If you’ve been rather surprised at how tough and chewy your lamb has come out, you’re not alone.

Here’s why your lamb has come out tough and chewy for both smoked lamb and grilled lamb, and what you can do to keep it tender next time.

Why Is My Lamb Tough And Chewy

Why Is My Lamb Tough And Chewy

Lamb, fundamentally, is much fattier and richer meat compared to beef. Because it’s structurally different, and the fat is distributed differently, it is a bit more temperamental to cook.

Although it’s a rather broad statement, it’s true for most of the different cuts of lamb, and most of the different ways you can cook them. Although each different cooking process has its different methods, the main reasons lamb comes out tough and chewy is because it’s overcooked, it hasn’t rested, you’ve cooked the wrong cut of lamb, or it’s been sliced the wrong way.

Here’s a detailed look at the most common reasons your lamb is tough and chewy, regardless of how it’s cooked:

Overcooked Meat

Lamb meat is prized for being extremely tender when cooked the right way, and while the level of doneness is a matter of personal taste, overcooking lamb meat is the main reason why it comes out tough, chewy, and dry.

The problem here is that, unlike beef steak, the brown sizzling crust or other ways to test steak doneness are simply not the same.

With lamb, you’ll need to use a probe thermometer to really make sure the meat reaches your desired doneness, without becoming overcooked, generally between 130-140°F depending on your tastes.

Not Letting The Meat Rest After Cooking

Another common mistake we all make at times is not letting the meat rest long enough after cooking. After taking the lamb off the heat, it’s important to let the meat rest for at least a few minutes, and even up to 30 minutes to an hour if you’ve done a smoked leg or shoulder of lamb or roast.

This allows the liquids to redistribute properly throughout the cut, keeping it much more moist and tender.

By cutting through the meat too early, you’ll allow the juices to seep out of the lamb, leaving it much drier and tougher.

Cooking The Cut Of Lamb Incorrectly

Just like with the various cuts of pork and cuts of beef, each cut of lamb differs in muscle fiber thickness and fat content. 

So, depending on what cut of lamb you’re dealing with, you’ll want to ensure you cook it the right way.

For example, lamb steaks are generally much too lean to benefit from any form of slow cooking. If you try to cook lamb steak low and slow they will very quickly dry out and become tough.

On the other side of things, if you try to cook a cut of lamb that’s full of fat and connective tissue, like a lamb shoulder or leg of lamb, or even lamb shanks, over high heat then it will turn out tough. This is because these cuts of lamb require low temperatures over longer periods of time to break down the connective tissue and fats, and will come out very tender and juicy at the end.

You’re Slicing The Meat The Wrong Way

Even if you marinate the lamb and cook it the right way, it might still come out a bit chewy because of the way you’re slicing it.

Yup, that’s right, the way you slice your meat can make the difference between it being soft and tender, and it being tough and stringy.

This is because, like all meat, lamb has muscle fibers that run parallel with each other. This is referred to as the ‘grain’. If you cut the meat along the same direction as these parallel fibers run, it will result in a relatively tough and chewy mouthful.

Whereas, if you cut against the grain, you are more easily able to chew the shortened muscle fibers.

Let’s be honest, this won’t turn a dry and overcooked piece of meat tender, but it will help towards keeping things much softer and more palatable 

Smoked Lamb Tough?

When it comes to smoked lamb, whether it’s smoked lamb shoulder or smoked lamb leg, you’ll need to find a balance between cooking it low and slow, but also not overcooking it. 

For example, when you smoke brisket you take it all the way up to 205°F before taking it off the heat for a very tender and juicy result. But, when you’re smoking lamb, you want it to still be a little pink in the middle, so you’ll generally only bring it up to an internal temperature of 145 or 150°F at the most. 

So, the main reason you’ll find your smoked lamb has come out tough is that you’ve either cooked it at too high temperatures or you’ve cooked it too long at too low temperatures.

High temperatures will cook the lamb too fast, and not allow the fat and connective tissue to break down. But, temperatures too low and for too long will dry out the meat, and often lead to overcooked tough lamb.

The best approach is to only smoke your lamb at temperatures between 225-250°F, and keep a probe in to monitor the temperature, ensuring to remove it from the heat between 140-145°F depending on your desired doneness. Remember, the temperature may rise an extra 5°F as it rests.

Grilled Lamb Tough?

If you’re grilling a nice lean piece of lamb, like lamb backstrap, lamb steaks, or lamb chops, then things can very quickly become tough. So, whether you’ve fired up your gas grill or got your hot coals ready for a great sear you should take caution.

The most common reason your grilled lamb has come out tough and chewy is that you’ve simply overcooked it! It may seem a bit overkill, but using a temperature probe when you’re grilling lamb is a sure-fire way to ensure it’s being cooked to the correct doneness. 

Go for an internal temperature of 120°F for rare, 125°F for medium-rare, 135°F for medium, 140°F for medium-well, and 145°F for well-done.

If you’ve pulled your lamb off the heat at the right internal temperature and it’s still come out tough, you may want to explore getting other cuts of meat. The cut you have used may simply require low and slow cooking to become tender, such as cuts from the leg, shoulder, or lamb ribs. These cuts are much better in a lamb stew or lamb curry for example.

Generally, a nice loin chop will remain tender and juicy on the grill so long as it doesn’t get overcooked!

Other Tips To Prevent Tough And Chewy Lamb

  1. Thawing Lamb: Before you begin to cook your lamb, whether it’s lamb shanks or steaks, you should always bring it up to room temperature before you start cooking. This will help it cook evenly and not dry out.
  2. Reheating Lamb: When reheating lamb chops or any other cut, always try to retain the moisture and not overcook it. Try adding some stock to the dish if you are microwaving or reheating it in the oven to keep it moist.
  3. Marinate The Meat: Marinating the meat is a great way to add additional flavor, but also to lock in and provide additional moisture for the lamb.
  4. Slice It Correctly: Every cut of lamb will have a slightly different grain. Examine the meat and find out which way the muscle fibers are running and always slice against it for tenderness.
  5. Always Use A Thermometer: Lamb is a much harder piece of meat to guess the doneness of, and you can’t result in the normal finger touch method. By always using a thermometer you will completely remove any guesswork.

Wrap Up

So, on your next endeavours cooking lamb, whether it’s cooked in the instant pot, slow cooker, pressure cooker, grilled, or even smoked, always remember the four most important steps to preventing tough lamb.

Recall that lamb becomes tough if it’s overcooked, it hasn’t rested, the cut of lamb has been cooked the wrong way, or it’s been sliced incorrectly.

Identifying what made it tough in the first place will help you cook it much more tender and succulent next time.

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