If you are up for a whole pig roast then a whole lamb roast is not too much different. However, the flavors are absolutely different! Lamb is a richer, darker meat with a hint of gaminess. It can be quite tender and definitely distinctly flavorful, particularly when accented by fresh herbs like rosemary, thyme, oregano and savory and kissed by a wood smoke. While a whole hog roast is more common in most areas of the US, a whole lamb roast is very common in certain cultures (like Greek) and throughout many parts of Europe.
The general principle of roasting a whole lamb is not that different from a pig roast, however the flavoring ingredients and the preparation are quite a bit different. Here I will go over a basic means of preparing a roast lamb. This is a quite traditional Southern French (Provençal) styled roast lamb recipe, featuring abundant fresh herbs and wood smoke to flavor the meat. The cooking process is quite labor intensive but definitely worth it. After a few hours of work you have a beautiful roast lamb ready to be shown off and savored.
What you will need:
- A fire pit – While almost any fire pit you can fit your rotisserie over should work fine, ideally I prefer a pit in the ground, about a foot and a half deep, with earth mounded up all around.
- Abundant firewood – Preferably a fruit wood, such as apple, almond, cherry or such. Any hardwood will do however.
- A large rotisserie – While most lambs are not as large as a whole pig, they tend to be quite long, especially with the legs spread out and trussed. Make sure your rotisserie will hold the length and weight of your lamb. Most rotisseries used for pig or other large roasts, such as those available at SpitJack, should be perfect. It is also helpful if your rotisserie can be raised and lowered over your fire pit. If the rotisserie is not adjustable, with a few people helping, you can raise the supports onto bricks to adjust the height while cooking if need be.
- Large trussing needles and kitchen twine or metal wire
- A whole lamb – Ideally, around a thirty-pound, three-month-old grass fed lamb. Unlike a whole roast pig, a roast lamb should be without skin and excess fat should be removed before roasting. Likewise, all internal organs are removed, except the kidneys which can be left in place and are a tasty treat.
- Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Abundant fresh herbs – Mostly thyme with smaller amounts of winter savory and rosemary.
- For Basting Liquid:
- Cayenne pepper
- Juice of six to eight pounds of lemons
- One cup of oil (olive or peanut will do)
- A long stick or broom handle and additional bunches of fresh thyme and rosemary
How to prepare a Whole Lamb Roast:
- Ahead of time, prepare the fire pit. Build a large fire of hardwood and continue feeding for about 3 hours or so before cooking so that you develop a deep bed of hot, glowing embers.
- Season the lamb generously inside and out with coarse salt and pepper.
- Truss the lamb to the rotisserie spit securely, as described on my How to Cook a Whole Lamb page.
- Fill the body cavity of the roast lamb with the bundles of fresh herbs (thyme mostly with savory and rosemary). No need to chop the herbs, they should be left in large bundles.
- Finish trussing the lamb, closing the body cavity securely with metal skewers and twine or wire.
- Prepare your basting liquid by mixing the lemon juice with salt and pepper to taste and just enough cayenne pepper to give a barely perceptible spiciness to the mixture.
- Make your basting brush out of the broom handle or long stick with bundles of fresh whole herbs tied or wired securely at the end. You want your brush to be long enough so that you don’t burn your arms while basting!
- Once your bed of firewood coals is ready, meaning there are no more large flames and it is almost all just burning embers, place the lamb on the spit above your fire pit on the rotisserie and set it in motion. If you can adjust the height of your rotisserie, start it high, away from the heat and lowering as the heat diminishes over the cooking period.
- Occasionally stir the coals with a metal poker or skewer to allow them to get oxygen and to release more heat.
- Shortly after starting, begin basting the lamb with your herb-broom basting brush dipped in the basting liquid. The roast lamb should be basted almost continuously, or at least very frequently, throughout the cooking process.
- Continue this process for about one and a half to two hours. Roast lamb is best kept pink in the middle, warm but not well done. Keep an eye on the surface of your roast lamb, it should not be allowed to burn but rather should develop a nice dark, rich glaze. If it appears to be blackening too quickly, be sure to baste frequently and, if you can, raise the rotisserie some. If your rotisserie cannot be elevated easily then hold off on stirring the coals so that the temperature will decrease some. By this process and assuming you had a large, deep core of burning embers to begin with, you should be able to keep the appropriate cooking heat constantly through the cooking period.
- When the meat is ready, raise the rotisserie up as high as possible. If this cannot be done, the spit can be removed the the roast lamb laid on a large platter or other clean surface adjacent to the fire pit. This allows the lamb to stay warm during service and the meal.
Your roast lamb is now done! Serving portions can be carved right off the whole lamb as needed, leaving the rest of the roast intact to stay warm. Each guest should receive a few cuts from different parts of the lamb, such as the shoulder, loin and leg. Serve with a hearty red wine like Bandol, Chateauneuf-du-Pape or Bordeaux (or whatever your favorite full-bodied red wine is) and Enjoy!