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The Best way to Cook Lamb Shanks
Introduction to cooking Lamb Shanks
The best way to cook lamb shanks is on an open coal fire using a traditional Cast Iron Pot. Ask any South African what their favourite cooking method is and the answer will in all likelihood be the ‘braai’. The ‘braai’ is basically a South African term for a BBQ or cooking with a fire. Although today, many people use gas braai’s (BBQ’s), the traditionalists still prefer burning wood or charcoal brickets to make the perfect BBQ. So, when I refer to open fire cooking, it is basically cooking using a wood or charcoal fire. Not only am I going to share with you the best way to cook lamb shanks, I’m also going to give you some insight on cooking lamb shanks in a Cast Iron Pot and a little information on the Cast Iron Pot itself.
Cast Iron Pot / Potjie Pot
Potjie Pot - Lid Off
Cooking with a Cast Iron Pot (Potjie)
The Cast Iron Pot or ‘Potjie Pot’ (as it is known in South Africa) is a utensil which has lost favour in most places across the globe, but not in South Africa, where it is still held in high esteem. Essentially the Potjie Pot used in South Africa is internationally known as a ‘Stove Pot’ or ‘Bean Pot’ and it is a derivative of the flatter shaped Dutch Oven Pot. Either the Dutch Oven Pot or Bean Pot (Potjie Pot) will suffice for the lamb shank recipe that follows below.
The best method to cook with a Cast Iron Pot is over the coals of an open fire. These coals can be charcoal or wood coals and ideally should be kept at a steady heat. The pot I use (Potjie Pot / Stove Pot / Bean Pot) has a round base and a dome shaped lid. The pot has three legs and a handle, both of which can be used to position the pot over the coals. By this I mean that the pot can either be placed on its legs in the fire/coals, or suspended from a hook above the fire. Each placement method has its advantages & disadvantages, but I’ll leave that for another occasion.
Types of Food you can Cook in a Cast Iron Pot
Anything you would normally cook in a normal oven could probably be done in a Cast Iron pot. Just remember that cooking times will be determined by your choice of ingredients, the heat of the fire and the size of the pot. Generally, the making of stews, casseroles or curries using a Pot on an open fire produces a dish with a depth of flavour that one can never achieve using a regular pot on the kitchen stove, hence its popularity. Almost any ingredient can be thrown in a pot and one can make Vegetarian, Chicken, Meat or Seafood pots simply using ones imagination. The only trick is considering the individual cooking time of each ingredient. In other words, if I was doing a beef and vegetable type casserole, I would start with the stewing meat and add the vegetables later, according to how long each would take to cook (i.e. Meat first, then Potatoes/Carrots, which are hard vegetables and then maybe some softer vegetables like courgettes/Baby Marrows at a later stage). So, following this very basic principle, one can cook almost anything in a Cast Iron Pot on the fire.
Why ‘Potjie Pot’ cooking is so popular in South Africa
South Africans love to Braai (BBQ), they love to entertain and they love to impress their friends with their secret Potjie recipes. Potjie cooking is so popular in South Africa, that it is not uncommon to hear of a Potjie Cooking Competition taking place at a nearby venue at any time of the year (rain or shine). Whether it be a cooking competition or just a social gathering, some ‘Potjie Cooks’ will out rightly refuse to share their recipes for fear of someone bettering them. The big attraction to cooking using this method is the entertainment factor, which unlike a typical BBQ, can go on for hours. Quite simply put, if you love to Braai (BBQ) and love to entertain, then spending hours next to the fire entertaining is what you will get when making ‘Potjie Kos’ (Pot Food). Cook like your ancestors, enjoy a few drinks, some fireside banter and hopefully a meal that is out of this world.
The best Lamb Shank Recipe
Before I share this recipe, I must first mention that the original recipe was taken from the Margot Swiss International website. I have made this dish on occasions and have made only a few changes, one of which I believe makes a major difference in the cooking process and makes for better tasting lamb shanks.
Lamb Shank Potjie Recipe / Lamb Shanks in a Cast Iron Pot
- Preparation Time: 30-Minutes
- Cooking time: Approx. 3-4 Hours
- Difficulty: Easy
- Serves: 6
3 Tbsp Cooking Oil (Vegetable, Canola or
6 350-400g (12-14 Ounces) Lamb Shanks (trimmed - ask your Butcher)
2 Celery Stalks, chopped
1 Large Onion, chopped (I prefer Red Onion which is slightly sweeter)
1 Large Carrot, chopped
6 Large Garlic Cloves, chopped/crushed
6 Anchovy Fillets (drained)
2 Cinnamon Sticks
2 Small Fresh Bay Leaves
2 Fresh Sprigs of Thyme
2 Tbsp Gin
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
4 Tbsp Tomato Paste
1 x 750-ml bottle of Red Wine (Merlot is best)
3 Sweet Bell Peppers (red/yellow/orange)
1 Tbsp Honey
1 Sweet Potato, peeled & chopped into small cubes
Salt & Black Pepper to taste
Make a fire using Charcoal or a hard wood that will make nice coals. When the coals are ready, you first need to brown the Lamb Shanks. There are two ways to go about this:
- The original recipe says to place Olive Oil into the pot and to
place the pot on the fire, to heat the oil. Once the oil is hot, insert
the Lamb Shanks and brown them evenly on all sides.
- My method is to brown the Lamb Shanks on the open fire using a
traditional grid before putting them in the Pot. To do this, brush the Lamp
Shanks lightly with Vegetable or Canola Oil (Olive Oil burns too quickly
using this method). Then, lightly season the shanks with a little salt
& black pepper. The excess oil can be thrown into your pot. Brown the
shanks on the open fire.
Note: I opted for this process, as trying to brown 4 or more Lamb Shanks in a Pot is a mission on its own, especially in a Pot with a curved base.
- Once the shanks are browned remove them from the Pot/Grid and set aside.
- Add the Onions and Garlic & any left over oil to the pot, together with the other herbs & spices Stir-fry for a minute or two, just to release their flavours (again this is my variation).
- Place the Lamb Shanks back in the Pot with the other ingredients and then add all the other remaining ingredients.
- Bring the Pot to a simmer, close the lid and let it cook until the sauce thickens and the meat starts to fall off the bone.
- When the meat is ready, take the lid off the pot to reduce or thicken the sauce. This process will also combine any additional fat/oil floating on top, into the sauce.
- You must check on the Pot occasionally to make sure it is simmering at a relatively steady pace. It must not boil and you must make sure the heat of the fire stays relatively constant. The best way to ensure a good heat consistency is to place coals all around the side of the pot and only a few underneath, if necessary. Keep an eye on the temperature of the coals and keep a small side fire burning, with new coals which can be added around the pot, if necessary. The cooking time will depend entirely on the heat of the fire and the size of the Lamb Shanks, but it should take approximately 3-4 Hours
- Side Dishes: I haven’t included any side dishes, but Mashed Potatoes; Couscous or Rice are recommended. I would suggest keeping these side dishes simple as the Lamb Shanks dish is very rich & hearty and needs something to tone it down a little. You could also serve the Lamb Shanks with a nice soft white bread. If you use a bread, then use one that can soak up the sauce!