The Flavor of Sheep Meat

(from a discussion on “The Sheep Group”)

In TheSheepGroup@yahoogroups.com, "Laurie's Lambs" <laurie@l...> wrote:

"I was further wondering for those of  you out there that do eat your sheep and this is particular to the purebred breeder...for  those of you with multiple breeds...do you taste a difference  from breed to breed? I understand there is a HUGE difference,  but thought I'd ask here and for those of you with crosses or just one breed...do you eat your sheep too?"

What a loaded question! [Our family of eight more or less lives on culls -- we do eat our sheep, and a lot of it :-) -- and of a fairly wide variety of breeds and ages over the years. ]

The conventional wisdom is that the coarser-fibered sheep and hair sheep are milder in flavor, including the Northern short-tailed sheep (Finns, Romanovs, Icelandics). Another conventional wisdom is that the younger the animal, the milder in flavor. (Many still blame Australia in part for the low lamb consumption in the US, since they supplied Merino mutton to the US Navy during WWII, souring the sailors forever on sheep meat . . .)

Actually a fair amount of university research has been done on this topic. Interestingly, the factor which is repeatedly found to *most* influence flavor is not age, not breed, but *diet.* To be specific, legumes during finishing are a bad idea; straight grasses and grain (esp. corn) are good. My own informal experience here finishing locker lambs (and the culls for us <grin>) tends to support this. I will also throw in at this point that in my younger days I lived mostly on venison, and my comparative eating experiences with SD corn-fed deer and northern MN browse-fed deer strongly support the importance of diet!

Another interesting twist on the flavor research was that fat melting point had something to do with mouthfeel (no surprise there), and that sheep slaughtered in cool weather tended to score higher on consumer panels than warm weather-processed sheep. The melting point of the marbling changes a small, but perceptible, amount with prevailing temperatures (aren't sheep amazing?).

Age was a bit of a factor, but not in keeping with the conventional  wisdom. Hoggets (the Irish definition -- 9-12 mos.) and yearling mutton were rated best by the consumer panels. (This is a tough sell with some of my locker lamb customers -- I have to give them a free package of yearling meat before they're convinced.)

The conventional wisdom on breed type was supported, but at a relatively low level of significance.

My personal opinion is that the biggest problem people have with lamb is habituation; most Americans eat lamb so seldom that it always tastes "funny" to them. This is why corn-fed lamb -- and deer -- "taste better" to them, for it tastes more like corn-fed beef.

(I know that a number of you are going to want to read this research, but please, don't ask me to look it up; I'm too busy with lambing, and besides, most of the foregoing has appeared in one or another of the major sheep magazines during the last couple of years.)

Signing off with an appropriate greeting out of an old sci-fi novel (the title of which I cannot recall at the moment),

"Good eating!"

Jim Baglien
Baglien Suffolks
Corvallis, Oregon

(BTW, the “old sci-fi novel” is Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky – ed.)

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