In the U.S., lamb is the most popular form of sheep meat, and you don’t see mutton nearly as often.
There are multiple reasons for lamb being the most widely available form of sheep, not the least of which is the quality of the meat.
If you are raising sheep at home or find a good deal on some sheep too old to be lamb, you’re probably asking when a sheep is too old to eat.
Simply put, sheep do not get “too old to eat.” Sheep 5+ years old who are healthy and have meat on their bones means their meat is completely edible. However, age will change the flavor and texture and require different preparation and cooking techniques for maximum flavor.
Keep on reading for an in-depth explanation best age to eat a sheep, what old age does to the meat, and a bit more about the other reasons lamb is so popular.
What Is The Best Age To Eat A Sheep?
The best age to eat a sheep depends on preference and what the sheep will be used for.
First, let’s cover the differences between lamb and mutton.
Lamb is classified as any sheep under a year old.
Some people think of lamb as a young, fluffy newborn sheep, but the actual market animals are nearly fully grown.
Lamb meat is tender and has less distinctive flavor than the meat from older animals.
Typically market lambs will be 6-8 months of age, although up to a year is still classified and shares the characteristics of lamb.
Market lambs usually weigh 90-100 pounds, with up to 120 being common.
Over time, the farmer raises the sheep they can expect them to average 1.5 days per pound of growth.
Younger animals are the best choice for a whole lamb roast, using a slow-cooking method to keep the meat tender and moist.
Roasting lambs as young as 2-5 months is popular and used for events or a big family feast.
Further Reading: Lamb meat cost and the reason it’s expensive
In the U.S., we often consider sheep over one year of age mutton.
As a sheep ages, it develops a unique and gamey flavor.
Mutton has some interesting characteristics to its meat compared to many other animals because the meat will taste the same between rams, wethers, and ewes.
This means both castrated, and uncastrated animals are edible without any flaws in the quality of the meat.
The flavor of mutton is easily complemented with spices which turn an otherwise gamey shoulder roast or leg roast into a complex and flavorful dish.
Other animals, such as boars, suffer from problems with uncastrated males, and the resulting boar taint is enough for most people to steer clear.
Mutton does not suffer from this.
What Is Hogget?
Some countries where sheep is a more popular form of meat have a category between lamb and mutton, reserved for those animals between 1 and 2 years of age called hogget.
Hogget is very popular in many places because it offers the unique flavors of mutton while retaining the tenderness of lambs.
Hogget is pretty uncommon in the U.S, but sheep are the main livestock in Australia and New Zealand and require further distinction as a big part of their economies.
What Could Make A Sheep Unsafe To Eat?
Old sheep are safe to eat as long as they are healthy, but there are reasons the meat might not be safe for consumption.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Animal Industry lays out guidelines regarding grading lamb and mutton and the different factors going into deciding if the meat is inedible.
Animal welfare plays a big role in determining if a sheep is safe to eat with a clean environment, appropriate feed, and a stress-free environment.
Other things could make sheep unsafe to eat, such as the animal is already dead, sick, infected, or likely to carry parasites.
Inspections by the USDA are needed for any store-bought meat, but if buying from a local farmer, then these are all things you need to be careful about.
When preparing and butchering the meat, the older the animal, the longer you want to hang it.
Hanging the meat lets it break down so it is more tender and less gamey, and you’ll be thankful when it comes time to eat it.
Sheep might not be the most conventional livestock to grow for food, but they pose fewer health risks than many other species and offer an edible product throughout their life.
Why Is Mutton So Unpopular?
Go to a grocery store or local butcher, and you’ll probably find a rack of lamb, lamb chops, lamb shoulder, or lamb rack, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find mutton hams or any other mutton.
Americans prefer the mild flavor and tender meat of lamb over mutton.
However, consumer preference is not the biggest lamb driver in the marketplace.
The other reason mutton is so uncommon is simply economics.
Without the wool trade being a major industry, growing sheep for longer periods does not make much financial sense.
Before WWII, mutton was fairly popular across the U.S. because it offered a lot of nutrients and was easier to come by than lamb.
However, with the advancement of hyper-efficient growing strategies, the lamb became the king of sheep meats.
As a result, anyone looking to make traditional dishes will have to substitute mutton for lamb.
For the average consumer, this is not a big deal.
Still, people from Mediterranean Cultures or people looking to create certain Norwegian dishes or British food may think it is not the same without mutton.
You also might find some places that refer to goat meat as mutton.
Although this is less common in the U.S, in places like India, they will refer to both animals as mutton.
Lamb And Mutton Nutrition And Popular Cuts
Mutton and lamb are great dietary sources of various vitamins and minerals, including zinc, iron, and vitamin B12.
Lamb is an especially rich source of protein and helps promote muscle growth in moderation.
In large quantities, lamb can increase your risk of heart disease, but moderation will help you maintain a healthy diet.
In only 100 grams of lamb shoulder chops, you’ll find 25 grams of protein and 16 grams of fat with 260 calories, slightly higher than beef.
The most common cuts you’ll find of lamb and mutton are shoulder chops, baby chops, leg roast, loin chops, and ground lamb.
Most of the lamb cuts you’ll find still on the bone.
Whether the bone is the chine bone, rib bone, leg bone, or shoulder bone, cook it on the bone for maximum flavor.
Related Reading: Great sheep breeds to raise for meat
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