Lamb always makes me think of Indian or Middle Eastern cuisine. The earthiness of lamb holds up against a complicated spice palette better than a milder meat like chicken, which can be subsumed. I had tried overcooked lamb chops with mint sauce as a child, but the first time I tried a lamb korma in an Indian restaurant in Montreal* I learned that meat could be heavily spiced and still retain its essential character.
Which brings us back to our beloved dehydrator again. After a couple of successful beef jerky attempts, I decided to get a little adventurous and try some lamb. This time, I went with a dry rub instead of a wet brine. The wet brines have been effective, but I suspect that I’m adding a lot of moisture in the process, that I then have to account for in terms of dehydration time.
Not long ago, I picked up a great bottle of Ras el hanout at a local gourmet shop. The wiki says that “Ras el hanout” means “head of the shop,” which is maybe litterally true, but “top shelf” is probably a better translation. It’s a blend of a wide variety of spices—the one I have is around 16 I think—including cumin, turmeric, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and on and on. It’s a very idiosyncratic spice blend, often unique to a particular blender. Many have some chili content, so the best approach is to taste your Ras el hanout first and make sure it suits you.
I immediately thought of my little jar of the stuff when approaching the seasoning for my dried lamb, but only because the version I have is fairly constrained in its heat profile. Drying tends to magnify effects like heat, so I wanted to go easy for this first attempt.
1 kg lamb leg meat
Ras el hanout
Step one: The only fresh local lamb I could lay my hands on was already cut into leg chops. Given more choices, I would have picked a whole leg or a boneless leg roast. I trimmed as much visible fat and silver-skin as possible and ended up with some decent little pieces of meat.
Step two: I laid the trimmed meat on wax paper, covered it with a second sheet and beat it into submission with a rolling pin. Ideally you want to get jerky meat into quarter-inch thicknesses—most of mine got there with some outliers.
Step three: I dusted both sides of the meat liberally with kosher salt, coconut sugar and Ras el hanout—in that order. The only essential ingredient in any brine—wet or dry—is salt. Salt inhibits bacterial growth, seasons and tenderizes. So, salt is the first and most even coating applied to both sides. The other ingredients are just for flavour.
I then bagged the meat using a home vacuum-sealing machine and let it sit in the fridge for 8 to 10 hours. Removing the air from the bag helps to inhibit bacterial growth and speeds up the process of osmosis—drawing the salt (and other flavours) from the surface into the meat.
Step three: Coming out of the vacu-seal bag, the meat wasn’t very wet, but I patted it down anyway, and then laid it on racks in the dehydrator. I set the machine for 145 degrees Fahrenheit (the minimum for meat according to the instructions that came with the dehydrator) and the timer for 7 hours, after which I first checked it for texture). It took about 11 hours in total. Drying times can vary considerably depending on the thickness of the food and ambient humidity among other things. When you cut a piece of jerky in half, there should be no visible moisture left in the middle.
The finished dried lamb is chewy, but yields reasonably well. It has a complex, spicy character but the flavour of lamb still comes through. The coconut sugar gives it a little bit of sweetness—but much less than typical jerky. I’m thrilled with this one and find it very addictive.
*Just to be clear: there’s lots of great eating in my hometown of Ottawa, I just had a number of formative food experiences in Montreal when I left home for school.