Throwback Thursday: Rack of lamb, the unkindest cut

Throwback Thursday: Rack of lamb, the unkindest cut
Tony Jackman’s rack of lamb with rosemary, garlic and lemon zest, served on a plate by Mervyn Gers Ceramics. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

If one lamb dish is going to test your cooking skills more than any other, any cook who has attempted it and failed knows what that is: rack of lamb.

Rack of lamb. Chined bones worthy of a seasoned French chef. Meat that’s pinkly delightful and impossibly moreish. Scrumptious fat or scrummy crust (or both). But, merde, if you get it wrong… and you most likely will, in the first first few attempts at it at least.

A rack of lamb takes no prisoners. Actually, scrap that: it makes you a prisoner of its egotistical demands. It’s the prima donna of the posh kitchen, there to beguile you and entice you with its sheer presence, then laugh scornfully at your pathetic attempts to cook it perfectly. Good luck there; this is the unkindest cut of all.

The use of the word “rack” in this sense (rather than in the sense of something going to “rack and ruin”) is believed to date from the 14th century and refers to a framework, such as a rack of billiards balls or in this case that collection of bones/cutlets. But a rack, while considered a fairly elite cut of lamb today, was not always so. Lydia Maria Child’s The American Frugal Housewife, first published in 1828, is a cooking and home management book in which the author describes “that part of mutton called the rack” as being “cheap food”, adding, “It is not more than five cents a pound, and four pounds will make a dinner for six people.”

But before you forge ahead into these choppy waters, consider how you want to serve your rack of lamb. For a very long time, the tradition was to serve racks of lamb as either a crown roast or a guard of honour. The former requires stacking two or three (or more) single racks (i.e. the single bones separated from one another) in a circle, Frenched bones facing upwards.

It can only look grand on the plate, and the poncier chef would prefer to top the sharp bones with little chefs’ hats.

A guard of honour is similar, but with two small racks of three or four bones facing each other, the bones interleaved. That’s more or less how I have presented it in the main photograph here.

More recently, these methods of presentation have fallen out of favour as “old-fashioned”. That’s not much of a reason for something, like saying “let’s not do it that way because that’s always how it’s been done”. So often today, the cutlets once separated are arranged on a plate on their sides. Because it’s never been done that way. So the plain and uninspiring is chosen over the arresting and stylish, just because it used to be done that way. Mad. But what do I know.

The target when cooking a rack of lamb is clear and simple: meat that’s pink at the centre and melt-in-the-mouth tender, but fat that is crisp and golden.

More often than not the fat has a crust of herbs, breadcrumbs and the like; but it can be unadorned too except for seasoning or a baste, and that is perfectly worthy of a rack too.

I have sometimes got it very wrong, and at other times very right. I generally find that it’s when I pay more attention, and use a timer, that I succeed with a rack of lamb.

I am not really one for timing food; I prefer to use my instincts and senses. I can smell from the other side of the house when I need to dash to the kitchen and check on what’s in the oven, or if a sauce is reducing or enriching too much and risks being burnt.

But for this one, if nothing else, you need to use that timer on your cellphone or whatever gadget you may have.

There are three things you need to time. First, the time in the hot pan searing the meat, and pretty quickly. Whereas for a thick steak or slab or pork, for instance, you may want a really thorough searing of say three minutes per side, a rack is far less meaty at its thickest point, for a rack you need barely a minute and a half all told. Then, the first cook in the oven, at a high temperature. Finally, the second few minutes more at a lower heat, to cook it just to the centre without losing the pertly pink pretiness at the centre. All of this while having it turn out perfectly tender.

Many cooks will tell you their methods and timing, but I can only share mine, which I do because, this time, the racks turned out exactly as I was hoping they would.

Note: a rack of lamb can contain between 7 and 10 cutlets, or bone sections, and they may be thicker or thinner depending on the age of the lamb when slaughtered. The rack I had comprised 10 rather slim cutlets. So you need to decide whether to serve an entire rack per portion or a half rack of 3, 4 or 5 cutlets.

You also may want to chine your racks before even beginning to sear them. (Chining is another term for “Frenching” or French-trimming a rack of lamb.) I could jabber on at length explaining how to do this or I could share a sensible BBC video such as this one:

This chef also trims off the outer skin above the fat, but really I wouldn’t do that. The skin crisps and browns beautifully.

As for those offcuts, pop them in a freezer bag to go into a lamb stock or to bring out in the looming winter when making a hearty Karoo-style meaty soup. Or it can go into a future tomato bredie or similar.

If you aren’t in the habit of doing this already, do what I do: I keep a couple of packets of those little blue-trimmed white labels in a kitchen cupboard with a pen and freezer bags, and quickly label them before they go into the freezer.

Trust me, you won’t remember what is in all those little packets if you don’t do that.


(For 2 portions)

1 or 2 racks of lamb

⅓ cup olive oil

2 Tbsp rosemary needles, finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

Zest of 1 lemon, grated finely

Salt and black pepper


Searing. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Chine (French) the racks according to the video above.

Put the chopped garlic and rosemary in a food processor (or in a bowl if using a handheld blender) with the olive oil and lemon zest and blitz.

Pour this onto the chined racks in a suitable container, dunk them on all sides, and refrigerate for a few hours.

Heat oil in a heavy pan. I used my Le Creuset plancha, which is ideal as the same pan can go straight from the hob into the preheated oven.

Sear the racks for not more than a minute and a half on the fatty side, then for barely seconds on the other sides, pushing them down in the pan, but don’t sear them on the left and right sides, i.e. the exposed meat or “eye” (but sear those ends if you prefer, many chefs do, though my preference is to leave them unseared to help keep the “eyes” of the racks pink). Put it straight into the preheated 220℃ for 10 minutes.

Then, turn the heat down to 170℃, open the door and close it (to help the heat reduce quickly) and give it another 5 minutes at that temperature.

Finally, rest the meat for 10 minutes.


At a glance:

Ready for the oven. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Quick sear

10 minutes at 220℃

5 minutes at 170℃

Rest 10 minutes

I served mine with mangetout peas which I first blanched, then refreshed in cold water, drained, and finally tossed in olive oil in a hot pan very quickly and simply with salt and black pepper. DM


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