How to braise lamb shanks in the oven and get perfect results every time. Plus – how to make a rich, flavorful gravy from the braising liquid.
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- Read on for useful, relevant information, step by step pictures and a short video about how to braise lamb shanks (4 mins read).
Understand the Cut of Meat
Lamb shanks are bone-in portions of meat cut from either a forequarter or a hindquarter of the animal, just below the leg and above the joint that connects it to either the shoulder or the leg bone. Naturally, there are two types.
Lamb foreshanks are cut from the front quarters of the animal. They tend to be smaller than their hind counterparts and on average weigh under a pound. They have a sweet, dense flavor. Also known as forequarter shanks.
Frequently they include part shoulder and part leg meat. They contain parts of the radial bones, the adjacent ulna, carpus and a distal portion of the humerus bones. When cooked the portion of the humerus bone becomes exposed as the meat pulls away.
Lamb hindshanks are cut from the back legs of the animal. They tend to be larger and have a better bone to meat ratio (more meat). Typically a single one weighs over a pound and when cooked can serve two. Also known as hindquarter shanks or drumstick shanks.
The meat is strictly from the lamb leg and typically only a leg bone is included (tibia). Its bone marrow is delicious and contributes tons of flavor to braising liquids.
For both types of lamb shanks frenching is common. To create a pleasing visual effect the meat and connective tissue are trimmed (frenched) to expose a part of the bone.
Where to Buy Lamb Shanks
Your best bet is to visit a local butcher and place an order with them. The meat will be fresh and you can request the type of lamb shanks you prefer (some prefer the meatier hindshanks while others would rather get the smaller foreshanks in order to serve them individually).
The meat we purchased for this post included all four shanks of a single animal – our butcher had just received it and cut them and trimmed them for us. We asked for more or less uniform weight cuts regardless of type.
Well stocked meat departments within grocery stores typically carry frozen lamb shanks, especially during the busiest lamb cooking seasons – the winter holidays and spring time, definitely around Easter.
In bigger cities Asian grocery stores are also a great option if you live nearby one, they seem to stock lamb shanks year-round.
And of course there are many online butcher and farm CSA options.
How to Cook Lamb Shanks
Lamb shanks are created for slow cooking at a low temperature. Their tough meat is rendered tender and juicy, the attached connective tissue melts away and yields its collagen, the bone marrow and the fat impart deep flavors.
For best results either slow roast or braise lamb shanks. We are very partial to braising and the subject recipe delivers succulent meat with a richly flavored sauce. Conceptually it is a very straight forward, classic braising recipe Chris has used again and again at work and taught me to use at home.
At the same time it is a recipe that gives you plenty of leeway to tweak the overall flavors by choosing different spices, herbs and a liquid base to create a flavorful braising liquid that tastes the way you’d like.
Braised Lamb Shanks Ingredients
- Lamb shanks. Already discussed in detail above, but it is worth noting that you don’t always need to budget a lamb shank per person (some hindshanks can weigh close to 2 lbs). Rather, go by the actual meat on the bones.
- Oil, salt and pepper. We prefer olive oil to brown the shanks and season them liberally with salt and pepper. Use good quality coarse salt, not the iodized table version.
- Vegetable base. To create a flavorful braising liquid you need to start by softening some vegetables. In this recipe we use carrots, celery ribs, onions (aka mirapoix) and several garlic cloves. You can also use leeks, shallots, green peppers, fennel.
- Acidic ingredient. Tomato paste (used here) or a vinegar, such as apple cider or balsamic are typical. Balsamic in combination with porter ale (see Flavorful liquid below) creates a show-stopping dark gravy.
- Flour. It is used as a thickener.
- Flavorful liquid. Wine (both red and white), beer (lagers or ales), and hard apple cider are among the most popular ones used. Sometimes fortified wines such as port, sherry and spirits like brandy are added in small(er) quantities:). Note that wine is much more acidic than beer so use vinegars sparingly or not at all in combination with it.
- Stock. Typically beef stock, but if you don’t have any around use vegetable or chicken stock.
- Sweetener. To create balance use a bit of sugar (we prefer brown sugar) or maple syrup or honey. Fruit is often added to the braising liquid- raisins, plums, dates.
- Herbs, spices and seasonings. In this recipe we use thyme, bay leaf and cumin. Oregano, rosemary and sage are great choices. You can also use the rich spices of the Middle East (cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, star anise, even dried rose petals). A great strategy is to select spices that complement the aromas of the wine, ale, cider or spirit of your choice.
- Mustard and slurry. Optional – if you want to make a gravy from the braising liquid. You will need a bit of mustard to act as an emulsifier (we recommend Dijon, it goes with soo many flavors) and a slurry (mixture of cornstarch and cold water) to act as a thickener.
Step by Step Process
To braise lamb shanks you first need to sear them and then slow cook them in flavorful liquid, tightly covered so no moisture can escape.
- Roughly chop your vegetables, pat dry the lamb shanks and season them nicely with salt and pepper.
- Heat olive oil in a large pan or straight into the braiser/Dutch oven you will be using and brown them on all sides. Work in batches then remove temporarily.
- Add the chopped vegetables to the same pan, cook until soft and then add flour and tomato paste, mix.
- Deglaze the pan with beer/wine/cider, scrape off the brown bits, add the stock, sugar, herbs and spices.
- Next return the browned shanks, bring to boil, cover tightly and place in a 275 F – 300 F oven. Our oven is a bit strong so we go with 275 F for two and a half hours.
- Check the shanks around an hour and a half in and probe with a fork to judge the tenderness. Smaller shanks might be already very tender and the meat almost falling off the bones.
- When satisfied with the tenderness of the meat, take them out and very carefully remove the shanks from the liquid so as the meat does not fall off. You can cover them with foil to keep them warm.
NOTE: Measuring internal temperature is largely irrelevant in the case of braising. Even though lamb meat is cooked medium-well at 145 F the shanks will not be even close to the succulent, tender state they can reach after prolonged slow cooking. Simply don’t worry about the temperature and braise the shanks until they reach your desired tenderness.
How to Make a Gravy from the Braising Liquid
The image sequence below shows how easy it is to convert the braising liquid into a silky, gravy-like sauce.
- Begin by skimming the fat floating on top of the braising liquid with a spoon. Discard it.
- Next strain the pan juices and return them to the pan. Discard the vegetables and herbs.
- Add Dijon mustard to the juices, bring to boil, add slurry and mix to thicken.
- Finally add the shanks back and smother them with sauce (if you want to serve family style, otherwise transfer the gravy to a serving gravy boat).
If you do not have a braiser or Dutch oven you can prepare perfectly braised lamb shanks
- in a roasting pan by tightly covering it with a double layer of aluminum foil (to prevent moisture from escaping) or
- large crock pot, using the high setting
In both instances you will begin by browning the shanks and creating the braising liquid in a large pan on the stove top. See recipe for details.
Customize the Braising Liquid Flavors
As I touched upon while discussing the key ingredients above, the braising liquid you create can be infinitely customizable. Besides the several ideas I mentioned you can also prepare lighter, Mediterranean inspired spring time versions of the dish.
To do so employ bright flavors from both the herbs and the liquid in which you will braise. For example a sweet white wine with citrus notes and preserved lemons, rosemary and garlic, some honey or sultanas for balancing sweetness.
The possibilities are truly endless.
How to Serve Lamb Shanks
You can (1) serve the shanks individually, bone-in for an impactful presentation or (2) you could simply strip the meat from the bones with a fork, arrange it on a serving platter, smother it with gravy and present it that way.
We love the first approach but truth be told we rarely eat all the meat, especially in the case of larger hindhsanks. Leftover meat makes for tasty gyros if reheated or can be added to bean stews or cooked lentils.
Garnishing with fresh herbs brings color to the dish and creates visual appeal (I have to admit that even though crazy delicious, gravy is not exactly delightful to look upon).
There are so many options for sides that I’ve named only the most popular ones.
As a rule of thumb – plan for a side that is compatible with the overall flavors of the braising liquid.
- potatoes – from mashed to crispy roasted potatoes (as shown above)
- roasted root vegetables – turnip, sweet potatoes, beets
- rice pilaf with raisins and/or plums
- roasted chickpeas and diced butternut squash
Other Recipes You Might Like
- 3 lamb shanks*
- 1 1/2 tbsp coarse salt
- 2 tsp ground black pepper
- 2 tbsp olive oil or vegetable cooking oil
- 1 yellow onion
- 2 carrots
- 2 celery ribs
- 1-2 tbsp tomato paste
- 4 garlic cloves
- 1 tbsp flour
- 18 oz flavorful lager or ale (Marzen, dunkel or porter) or red wine such as Shiraz or Chianti
- 2 cups stock (beef or vegetable)
- 2 tbsp dark brown sugar
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tbsp cumin
- 2 tbsp dried thyme or 8-10 sprigs fresh
- 1 tbsp Dijon mustard (for gravy)
- 1 tbsp corn starch + 2 tbsp cold water to make a slurry (for gravy)
For Braiser or Dutch Oven
1. Preheat oven to 275 F.
2. Clean and rough chop all the veggies and garlic and set aside. Pat dry the lamb shanks and season them well with salt and pepper.
3. Heat oil over medium-high heat in the braiser/Dutch oven (or a large heavy skillet) and sear the lamb shanks for about 2-3 mins on each side. Work in batches. Remove when nicely browned and set aside.
4. Lower the heat to medium and add the veggies and garlic, stir them and let them soften for 4-5 minutes. Add the flour and the tomato paste, stir and cook for one minute.
5. Deglaze with beer or wine, scrape all the brown bits from the bottom of the braiser (pan). Add the beef stock, the bay leaves, the thyme, the cumin and the brown sugar. Stir well, then place the lamb shanks into the liquid and increase the heat to bring to boil.
6. Cover with lid and place in the oven for about 2 hours. Check them to see how tender they have become about an hour and a half in and braise for as long as needed after that, until they reach your desired tenderness.
7. When the lamb shanks are done, remove them from the braising liquid (carefully, the meat will be very tender) and let them rest for a few minutes. Cover with aluminum foil to keep warm if needed.
For Slow Cooker
1. Use a large, heavy skillet and complete steps #2 thru #5 from the Braiser/Dutch oven method above.
2. Very carefully transfer the braising mixture and the shanks to your slow cooker and cook on high until they reach your desired tenderness.
To Make a Gravy
1. After removing the shanks skim the fat on top of the braising liquid with a spoon and discard. Strain the vegetables and herbs using a sieve and discard them, reserve the liquid.
2. Heat the same pan where you cooked the shanks over medium heat, add the strained juices and the Dijon mustard and bring to simmer. Whisk to incorporate. Mix 1 tbsp corn starch with 2 tbsp cold water and add to the boiling liquid. Stir to thicken. Remove from heat.
Transfer to gravy boat or place shanks back in to serve family style.
*Note that the meat of 3 lamb shanks, especially if they are the larger hindshanks is sufficient to serve 3 to 6 people, depending on their size.
Nutrition Information:Yield: 3 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 715 Total Fat: 28g Saturated Fat: 7g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 19g Cholesterol: 95mg Sodium: 3997mg Carbohydrates: 45g Net Carbohydrates: 0g Fiber: 6g Sugar: 16g Sugar Alcohols: 0g Protein: 33g