Easter is just around the corner and for the first time ever, I am going to show you how I smoke lamb shanks in the smoker.
Unlike most lamb cuts, the lamb shank must be cooked very slowly on low heat to break down the tough fibers and make it fork tender. For this reason many folks use braising as a way to do this but since we want that smoke flavor, we are going to simply maintain low and slow in the smoker and get that same tender result without cooking it in liquid in a dutch oven.
You could essentially use a method of smoking the lamb shanks in the smoker for a few hours then wrap them in foil for the remainder of the time if you wanted to but in my opinion this does not give as good of a result and the outside of the shanks are soggy and not what you would expect from this type of meat.
Purchasing the Meat
I must warn you that you probably will not find these in the main aisles of your supermarket or grocery store.. you will most likely have to go to your butcher or a specialty meat market. Some traditional stores may carry these right around Easter but it's iffy.
I ended up finding some nice looking ones at Whole Foods in Tulsa where I like to shop and for this instructional I purchased 6 of the best looking ones. They were $6.99/lb but I think you could probably find them a little cheaper if you do some shopping around. The lamb chops normally weigh in at just under a pound each or about 12-14 ounces.
Preparing the Meat
There are a number of different ways that these could be done but I am very partial to keeping it simple. Some of the different things that come to mind are marinating them in a wine butter sauce or perhaps just a chicken stock with onions, garlic and rosemary. As an added bit of flavor you could also opt to inject some of this same marinade into the meat just before cooking it to juice up the meat a little.
I really like to just taste the smoke on the inside with some good seasoning on the outside so for these, I did not marinate nor inject them. I simply used my rub on the outside which provides the savory and the sweet.
You may also opt to remove the “silver skin” if you so desire or you may also be able to get your butcher to do this for you however, the skin tends to crisp up with my rub on it and my kids love to eat the skin that forms on the outside of the shanks.
As with most meats, I wanted a way to help the rub to stick to the meat so it just made perfect sense to use olive oil which I brushed all over the meat.
I then sprinkled a light layer of my rub all over the outside of the meat.
I then laid the lamb shanks aside to let the rub do some magic on the meat while I went outside to get the smoker ready.
Preparing the Smoker
Any kind of outdoor smoker will work for these as long as you are familiar with the unit and have used it enough to know what it takes to get it to perform the way that it should. I do not recommend using a brand new smoker that you have never used before on something as wonderful as lamb shanks. Practice on something like chicken then once you have the operation down you can bring on the lamb.
Regardless of the type of smoker you are using, do what is required to get the smoker going at about 225-230 degrees for best results. If your smoker has a water pan then USE IT. It helps to regulate the temperature inside of the smoker and it makes the air more humid resulting in less of a drying effect on the meat.
Once the smoker of your choice is prepared and maintaining your goal temperature, get the lamb shanks and place them directly on the grate of your smoker with a little space between them to let the air/smoke circulate properly.
For smoke I recommend something a bit robust in flavor such as mesquite, pecan, hickory or even some oak. I took a slightly different route for this occasion. I have been saving some olive wood for a few months for a special occasion and I figured that I couldn't get a more special occasion than lamb at Easter. The olive wood has a really nice flavor and is much stronger than most other fruit woods. I only had enough for about 1.5 hours of smoke so I followed the olive smoke with some orange wood chunks.
How much wood should you use?
Well that depends on your smoker, for most small to medium sized smokers I recommend about 2 large handfuls of DRY chips or 4-6 fist sized chunks at one time. When the chips/chunks burn up, be ready to replace them with more. To get the most out of your chips, wrap them in foil then poke about 3-4 small holes in the top and lay the foil package right on top of the coals or even above the fire on your grill for some good smoking action.
How long to Cook?
The lamb shanks will take in the neighborhood of 4-5 hours to get fork tender but I recommend that you use a thermometer to monitor the temperature of the meat rather than using time to tell you when the meat is done cooking. I cooked the lamb shanks to an internal temperature of 185-190 degrees F and the meat was pulling cleanly from the bone and were as tender as they could be.
I maintained about 225 degrees for the entire time they were cooking and the rub never even started to burn.
If your smoker tends to have hot spots, it might not be a bad idea to rotate the shanks a couple of times during the cooking process to make sure they all cook evenly and get done at about the same time.
Serving the Smoked Lamb Shanks
About an hour before the lamb shanks get done, you probably should be working on your sides and you don't have to get real fancy with it just make sure you have lots of color and it will turn out beautifully. My wife put together some colorful steamed veggies and a beautiful arugula salad with dates and crumbled blue cheese. The recipes are below and I recommend you try them in celebration of Easter and the coming of spring.
Simple Petite Vegetables
1 lb. baby potatoes (the purple ones are great for color if you can find them)
½ lb. petite carrots, peeled, stems on but trimmed
4 small zucchini (Italian) squash, rinsed and quartered lengthwise
Rinse baby potatoes, and peel a strip around each potato. Place in a small saucepan and cover with water. Add ½ tsp of salt to the water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce to low and simmer for 20 minutes or until tender. Remove from heat and drain thoroughly. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper to taste.
Steam in a steamer basket for 20-25 minutes, or until just tender. Don't overcook–you don't want the carrots to be mushy. Remove from basket and pat dry with paper towels. Drizzle with olive oil and salt and pepper to taste.
Preheat oven to broil. Coat the bottom of an iron skillet (or oven safe casserole dish) with olive oil. Place squash in a single layer in the skillet. Drizzle with a little more olive oil and broil until tender and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Toss once during cooking. Remove from skillet and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Arugula Salad with Dates and Blue Cheese
1 bunch of arugula, rinsed and chopped
1 pint grape tomatoes, rinsed and quartered
Whole dates, pitted & quartered
1 – 8 oz. carton crumbled bleu cheese
extra-virgin olive oil
kosher or sea salt
Rinse the arugula under cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Trim off stems and discard. Finely chop the arugula leaves and divide among 6 plates. Top with grape tomatoes. Drizzle arugula with olive oil, a few drops of balsamic and a pinch each of coarse pepper and kosher salt. Add quartered dates and top with 2 Tbs. of bleu cheese. Serve immediately.
Here is the plated lamb shanks with steamed baby veggies and my favorite salad.
And the money shot of the smoked lamb shank cut open so you can see the obvious tenderness and the beautiful smoke ring that I was able to achieve.
Smoke, Wood, Fire: The Advanced Guide to Smoking Meat – Unlike the first book, this book does not focus on recipes but rather uses every square inch of every page teaching you how to smoke meat. What my first book touched on, this second book takes it into much greater detail with lots of pictures.
It also includes a complete, step-by-step tutorial for making your own smoked “streaky” bacon using a 100 year old brine recipe.