Lamb is tender and delicate as a rule, but its shanks are notoriously the exception to that rule. They're filled with dense muscle and stringy connective tissue, which require long, slow cooking to tenderize them and unlock their flavors. Braising them in your oven takes patience, but the end result is well worth the time you'll invest.
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How it Works
Cooking meat quickly at high temperature browns its surface, which creates a lot of rich, savory flavor but doesn't tenderize it at all. Simmering meat gently in liquid, at low temperature, makes it tender but doesn't provide browning. Braising combines those two techniques, so you'll enjoy a tender end result along with the added flavor of browning.
Step by Step
Heat your oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Blot the shanks dry with a paper towel, and then season them with salt and pepper and dust them lightly with flour. The flour is optional, but helps the shanks brown more quickly.
Heat a Dutch oven on your stovetop over moderately high heat. Once the pan is hot, add a tablespoon or two of canola or other high-temperature cooking oil.
Brown the shanks one at a time in the hot oil, setting them aside once they're nicely seared on all sides. Add onions, carrots and celery to the hot pan -- onions should be half of the mixture -- and stir until the onions are translucent and the vegetables have started to brown at the edges.
Pour in a cup of red wine or beef broth, and stir it to get up all the browned drippings at the bottom of the pan. Arrange the shanks in the bottom of the Dutch oven, and add enough extra broth to immerse them halfway. Enrich the cooking liquid, if you wish, with additional flavorings such as garlic, thyme or bay leaf.
Cover the Dutch oven and transfer it to the middle rack of your oven. Slow cook the shanks for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, turning them once so both sides get the full benefit of the flavorful sauce. They're done when you can slide a fork easily into the thickest portion of the shank and remove a tender mouthful.
You can braise the shanks a day or two ahead of time and refrigerate them in their cooking liquid. They'll only gain flavor as they rest, and it's easier to remove fat from the juices after it has hardened in the refrigerator.
Once the shanks are done, remove them from the Dutch oven with tongs or a slotted spoon and set them aside to keep warm. Strain the cooking liquid into a heatproof measuring cup, and skim away the fat that rises to its surface. Pour it into a saucepan and simmer it on the stovetop, concentrating it, until it's thick enough to cling to the back of a spoon. Serve one shank per person with your choice of side dishes, and offer the rich, flavorful cooking juices on the side as a sauce.
Alternatively, bring the cooking juices to a simmer and thicken them instead with cornstarch, "instant" flour or another fast-acting thickener. Your sauce won't be as intensely flavored, but it will still be rich and there'll be more of it. Taste the juices before you decide. Concentrate them without a thickener if they're bland; use the quick method if they're already delicious.