I call it the true piece de resistance to any asado; if this celebrity meat is available to make an appearance. I am talking about cordero, or lamb, one of the most juicy, flavorful, tender, and succulent items to be placed over hot coals. Yes, there are many who prefer beef or offal above the rest, but for others, acquiring lamb is like winning the gold medal.
For those who live in the southern region of Argentina, called Patagonia, one does not have to stray too far or wait too long in order to find cordero. For those in most other parts of the country, the task can be much more challenging.
Although not as active today, sheep raising, or farming, in Argentina has its roots in Patagonia, particularly the island of Tierra Del Fuego. Large estancias were built by English and Welsh immigrants across the region for wool production. These days, sheep are raised for both wool and lamb exportation. The Patagonian lamb is one of the most prized meat of its kind due to them being free range and grass fed. The meat is quite lean, yet does not have the strong flavor notes that can be found in other lambs around the world.
The best and most traditional way to cook lamb is outdoors in the asado criollo style. A whole lamb is cut lengthwise from the rib side, spread open, and tied to a metal cross or spit that is driven into the ground and angled toward a hot coal fire. At some large asados, you may find four or more lambs encircled around the fire. The process is quite lengthy but any other preparation does not compare to the end result of taste and texture. For those who do not have the luxury of cooking with the aforementioned style, a large slab of lamb on a parrilla will do just fine. Cuts can come in all different sizes but usually most will cook at least a quarter-sized section.
A whole intact lamb can be quite difficult to find for most. Many distributors and butchers sell them by halves and only then are they are cut to order from there. Calculating how much to buy can be a bit tricky due to the amount of bones to meat mass. Follow the typical calculation of one pound (half kilo) per person of meat in total but try to factor in the weight of the bones just a bit. If you are still unsure then the best thing to do is visualize how much meat is on the lamb and what else you are preparing.
Often, many people will ask the butcher, or the butcher may ask, to make shallow cuts across the back-bone section. This will make carving a lot easier when the time comes to serve the meat. However, you will need to take greater care when flipping the meat on the grill so that you don’t split apart any ribs.
When to salt the meat is up to you. I prefer to rub in a small amount of coarse salt immediately before placing the lamb on the grill.
With lamb, you will want to cook the meat slowly over a medium-low to low fire. A cordero should never be cooked too quickly. When you are ready to place it on the grill, remember, as with any meat that contains ribs, the cavity should face the fire first. Since the ribs are thin, you will have to manage the coals properly or else they will be done way before the thicker sections like the thighs and rump. Therefore, place an abundant amount of coals under the thicker sections and sparingly arrange a few under the ribs. Flip only once, and when the time arises, follow the same procedure of placing the majority of the coals around the thickest parts. Cooking time will very greatly depending on the size of the lamb and since you want to cook lamb slowly, expect the whole process to take about 2-3 hours. Toward the end, if the meat looks like it could use a little more browning on the exterior, add a good amount additional coals all around to finish it off quickly. Most people enjoy the meat fully cooked to the point that it practically falls of the bone and the skin crunchy like a potato chip.
Variation: If you want a little extra flavor, try rubbing some minced garlic, salt, parsley, and olive oil on the meat before cooking.