Few things look as festive or bring a community together more spectacularly than roasting a whole animal. The smell of wood smoke and roasting meat and the sounds of laughter and fire could waft from the coast of Italy, an island in Greece, the playa of Argentina — or a vacant lot in Detroit.
Detroit is made up of small neighborhoods, each with its own character and community. In recent years, a surge of interest in urban agriculture has brought natural treasures to unexpected places: a flower farm in an industrial area, a new grove of fruit trees, and a large-scale urban farm in a public park.
Last year, in a little neighborhood in Detroit, my friend Sam and I held a spring lamb roast for his birthday. Our friends and neighbors celebrated on a small farm created from formerly vacant lots, gathering around a fire until dark.
More than any real technical problem, the main barrier to your first lamb roast will be how intimidating roasting a whole animal can seem. Take these tips to heart and allow yourself time to loosen up, enjoy your guests, and savor the smoke.
Preparing to Roast the Lamb
First things first, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: There are easier ways to cook a lovely dinner. Roasting a whole animal is really for the spectacle, not the ease of cooking! With that in mind, consider the roast a performance. You can roast a whole animal on a spit, toss it on a grate over the coals, or even bury it luau-style — no matter what, it’ll be delicious.
For our lamb roast, I favored a complicated plan involving a spit powered by a stationary bicycle, so our guests would have to pedal for their supper. However, it was Sam’s birthday (and he would be constructing the thing), and he was more intrigued by an Argentinian-style asado. We used a 3-foot-tall metal scaffold to hold the lamb at a 45-degree angle above the embers. We threaded metal wire between bones and ligaments to attach the lamb to the structure.
If you do the same, sling a grate over your coals and allow plenty of space for heating side dishes and roasting vegetables. As our lamb slowly roasted, friends and neighbors arrived with more dishes to add to the meal. Soon, everyone was cooking their own dinner around a communal fire.
Locate Your Lamb
You can find whole lambs in the deep freeze at Costco these days. But where’s the fun in that? Exploring local possibilities and getting to know nearby markets, farmers, and butchers is an adventure by itself.
For a true farm-to-table meal, try to connect directly with a local farmer — it can be an amazing experience. You can often visit the land where your animal was raised and build relationships with the people who cared for it. Check with local farmers to see when they offer fresh, whole, market-weight lambs. Find a supplier near you with the American Lamb “Lamb Locator” or through Local Harvest, or ask around at your local farmers market.
Sam and I are lucky to live close to Detroit’s Eastern Market, one of the country’s largest open-air markets. The market attracts tens of thousands of visitors every weekend with local produce, meat, baked goods, and all sorts of other treats.
We befriended a butcher who serves the local Yemeni community, part of our city’s thriving Arab-American population. He was able to guide us to the freshest meat and suggest ways to prepare the whole animal. He even took us back into his shop to look on while he hacksawed through the backbone to ensure the lamb could be flattened onto our rack. Lugging a 40-pound whole lamb through the crowded market made quite a stir among Sunday shoppers. Many people commented that it was the first time they had ever seen a whole butchered animal.
Be sure to tell your supplier that you’re planning a whole-animal roast. Chances are they’ll be thrilled to get involved, and will give you all the tips on preparation you’ll need.
Build a Fire Fit to Roast
For the slow-cooked roast of your dreams, consider your fire. You’ll want to aim for an even, low temperature no matter which roasting method you’re using. Rearranging your fire will be easier than moving your lamb after the roasting frame heats up and the lamb starts to cook. Gather a stack of hardwood and a couple of good shovels, and — if you don’t have a fire pit already — prepare the area for your fire by clearing any debris and setting up a brick or stone border.
Fruit orchards are experiencing a resurgence in Detroit as formerly abandoned city blocks are planted with new trees. So we were lucky enough to have a pile of apple wood to start our fire, but any good hardwood will create the hot coals you need for a successful roast.
We divided the fire into a “social” area and a “working” area; this addressed the meat’s need for a low, slow cook while also creating a warm fire for company to sit around. To do the same, add plenty of wood to build a pretty, flame-licking fire for your guests. Then, after the first flames have died down, use a shovel to drag the hot, prepared coals over to the working area for a controllable, even temperature beneath the meat and side dishes. Keep feeding the social side of the fire, both to maintain a supply of coals, and for the ambience.
Baste Early, Baste Often
Your coals are arranged and your lamb is ready to put over the heat. This is the big moment! You’ve put in all the prep work, and you have a group of friends there to celebrate with you, so don’t get too nervous. Just don’t drop the meat into the coals, and you’ll be fine!
Lamb is a forgiving meat, naturally tender and full of flavor. You won’t need to marinate or fuss over the meat before roasting. Sam and I simply rubbed the lamb down with olive oil, salt, lemon, and fresh rosemary. You’ll just need to keep the meat moist while it’s roasting, so baste it with a mixture of olive oil, crushed garlic, and rosemary. Old-school Greeks use handmade swabs of local herbs dipped in oil to rub the lamb, but our Detroit tribe used what we had on hand. We poked holes into the cap of a 2-liter soda bottle filled with a blend of oil, garlic, and rosemary. Each guest got to squeeze oil onto the meat, often breathing in a delicious billow of steam as the oil dripped down onto the side dishes and coals below.
Monitor your lamb’s internal temperature to check for doneness, rather than keeping track of how many hours it’s been roasting. Probe the thickest section of thigh with a good meat thermometer. When your lamb reaches about 144 degrees Fahrenheit, it will be safe to consume. Our roast reached that temperature after about 3 hours, but we ended up cooking the lamb longer to get the fall-apart deliciousness we sought.
By the time the lamb is cooked through, all your friends will have shown up and you just won’t be able to resist the smell of roasting meat. If you’re feeling fancy, you could take the lamb indoors and serve it neatly. I’d suggest commissioning a couple of guests with work gloves to sling the roast onto a low table, and then letting everyone dig in! Set out bowls of different sauces so everyone can sample them, pour yourself a hard-earned beverage, and settle into a lovely evening with a full stomach in front of the fire.
Our lamb was so tender, our guests couldn’t wait for proper cuts of meat. Almost immediately after we moved it off the coals, everyone used sweet, fire-toasted pita bread to grab a handful of juicy meat right off the bone.
See Lamb Roast Condiment Recipes for sauces that complement the tender flavor of roast lamb.
Maggie McGuire is a writer and teaching artist who splits her time between Detroit and the canyons of southern Utah. Her current curiosities are baking kolach, getting her Wilderness First Responder certification, and making pizza in a wood-fired oven in one of the tiniest towns in America. You can keep up with her projects at Yes Yes Yes! …Okay!.