TAKING THE TIME TO CARAMELISE (OR, IF YOU WANT TO BE A STICKLER ABOUT IT, ACTIVATE THE MAILLARD REACTION) YOUR LAMB SHANKS WILL MEAN A RICHER AND MORE REWARDING FINAL PRODUCT.
Here are some of my best tips for shanking success.
1. Seartainly, Sir.
Taking the time to caramelise (or, if you want to be a stickler about it, activate the Maillard reaction) your lamb shanks will mean a richer and more rewarding final product. Lamb is naturally fatty, so you don’t need to add much fat to the pan – just enough to keep the shanks from sticking. You can also dust the shanks in flour before searing – this will help with sticking, and with thickening up the sauce.
Heat the pan for about 3-4 minutes before adding the shanks and sear them on each side until golden brown. Keep each shank at a slight distance from the next so as not to overcrowd the pan when you’re doing this (you’ll be able to tell because the meat will start to look a bit foamy and sweaty… Entirely undesirable).
2. Sweat, baby, sweat.
A desirable sweat, on the other hand, is that of the onion base. Sweating these off on a low heat until golden and translucent adds tremendous value to the flavour of any savoury dish – particularly one that’s cooked over a longer period of time.
Take the lamb shanks out of the pan and reserve, then add the onions in. This will help to salvage any meaty flavour that would’ve otherwise been washed away. If your onions look like they’re starting to burn, add a little cooking liquid to the bottom of the pan and keep them sweating until you’re good and ready.
All vegetables add flavour – not to mention nutritiousness – to a stew. Think about adding root veggies at this point – carrots, swede, turnip, potato… Anything that’ll keep its shape over the extended cooking time. I like to add my greens (such as kale, cavolo nero or even Brussel sprouts) towards the end of cooking so that they retain some texture.
4. On the Pulse
You can also add grains and/or legumes to the stew in order to bulk it up. Barley, faro, beans – the world is your oyster, really. These tend to get added with the veggies and bubble along until the end of cooking. You don’t have to add a grain or pulse, but it does help to carry the sauce. If you’re gluten-free, you can choose to serve this with rice, polenta, even buckwheat or quinoa.
5. The Stockmarket
At this point, you’re ready to add the meat back in, and then cover everything with liquid. Your choice of cooking liquid does make a difference – it’s really just another opportunity to build more depth.
If you’re out of stock in the freezer, add a tin of tomatoes and just use water – after all, the shanks are so full of flavour on their own that you don’t have to go to too much effort to get them to taste delish. If you’re popping out to pick up some stock, chicken, veggie or veal is best. My favourite commercially available stock is The Stock Merchant, or I grab a tub of John Cester’s chicken stock, made in house.
6. Bubble Bubble
Bringing everything to the boil, then dropping right down to a simmer is a skill in itself. When they say “a watched pot never boils”, they’re talking about a big pot like this one. If you notice any gunk coming up to the top, you’re welcome to skim it off, but if you’ve started with good quality meat, you can rest assured that it’s good gunk, and will most likely end up getting swallowed up by the rest of the brew.
Once it comes to the boil, drop the temp and simmer for at least two hours, uncovered (I don’t like to cover it because the steam condenses into the top of the lid and drops back down, watering down the stock. If you’re concerned about losing too much liquid, creating a cartouche will give you peace of mind, and make you feel like a French pastry chef.
7. Seasons may change, and so may Seasonings
Once you’ve got the basics down pat, you can start to experiment with international flavours. Use the Power Pantry Pyramids or The Internet for ideas – or simply ask your favourite butcher for their favourite flavour combo.
Most importantly, don’t forget to season – adding enough quality salt to the dish will bring out the lamb shanks’ natural sweetness and make everything taste better. If you’re not sure if there’s enough salt, there probably isn’t – my best advice is that it’s better to under-season and let people finish off the job for you themselves at the table… Just don’t be offended when they reach for the salt grinder.