Lamb Braised in Milk with Fennel

Lamb braised in milk. Huh? Okay, yes, I know it sounds weird (at least it did to me at first) but hear me out. It’s just a spin on a traditional Italian recipe of pork braised in milk, in which the milk reduces down to a rich and creamy white sauce. For you I-don’t-eat-lamb types, check out the links at the bottom of the recipe to a few excellent recipes for pork variations. For you lamb-lovers (and yes I admit that here in the US we are definitely in the minority) I urge you to give this treatment a try. My friend Peg made this for a few of us the other day, served over farro, and I couldn’t wait to make it. She got the recipe from Mario Batali, and I tweaked with it a bit. So good! Especially over the farro, though I’m guessing it would be just as good over brown rice (for the nutty dimension) or even mashed potatoes.

As for farro, it’s a grain popular in Italy that is slowly becoming more known here. It’s essentially a wheat berry, but with much less gluten than wheat. The term farro can refer to several differ varieties of wheat, including emmer and spelt. The farro I used in this recipe was farro piccolo, or einkhorn. It sort of tastes like barley, oats, and pasta all rolled into one.

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Lamb Braised in Milk with Fennel Recipe

  • Yield: Serves 5 to 6.

You should be able to find boxed farro at Whole Foods or in some natural food stores. If you cannot find farro, you can substitute brown rice, for a similar nutty flavor. Although many farro cooking instructions call for soaking the grain overnight, I have not found it necessary so far.

If you use brown rice instead of farro, follow the directions on the package for making the rice (not the farro directions listed here). This dish can also be served with plain white rice, barley, or mashed potatoes.

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 1/2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 fennel bulb, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped parsley
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed (use mortar and pestle, or chop finely with a chef's knife)
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 sprig rosemary
  • 2 cups farro (can substitute brown rice)
  • Salt

Method

1 In a large (5 to 6 quart) thick-bottomed Dutch oven, heat 2 Tbsp of olive oil on medium high. Pat dry the lamb pieces. Season well with salt and pepper. Working in batches, place lamb pieces in the pan (do not crowd). Do not stir. Turn only once a side has browned. Brown all sides. Remove from pan and set aside.

2 Reduce heat in pan to medium. Add remaining 2 Tbsp olive oil. Add the diced fennel and cook a few minutes until softened, scraping up any browned bits from the pan. Add the garlic and crushed fennel seeds.

3 Add the meat back into the pot. Add the milk and cream. Bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low, add the sprig of rosemary, cover. Cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours until meat is tender.

4 While the lamb is cooking, prepare the farro (or brown rice). The farro will take about 45 minutes to cook, after which it can be kept warm, so time accordingly. Rinse farro through a sieve until the water runs clear. Add it to a large, thick-bottomed saucepan. Cover with about two inches of water and add about a tablespoon of salt. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a low simmer, partially cover and let cook for 45 minutes or until tender. Drain of excess water and set aside until you are ready to use it.

5 Once the lamb is tender, remove the pieces from the pot and set aside. Discard the rosemary. Bring the milk cream sauce to a boil over high heat and reduce to about 2 cups. Working in batches, purée in a blender (or with an immersion blender) until smooth. (When puréeing hot liquids in a blender it's best to work with relatively small amounts, filling just maybe a quarter of the blender. Otherwise the pressure can blow the top off the blender and make a hot mess.) Return the sauce and the lamb to the pot and if needed heat until warm through. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Before serving, stir in the fresh chopped parsley.

Serve the braised lamb over warm farro.

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Adapted from Mario Batali's Lamb Braised in Milk with Garlic and Fennel and Joanna Smith's Milk-braised Lamb with Fennel.

Links:
Heather's Farro Recipe from Heidi of 101 Cookbooks
Milk braised pork chops from Kalyn of Kalyn's Kitchen
Pork Loin Braise in Milk Bolognese Style from Cooking Italy

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23 Comments

  1. Attila

    I really don’t understand how people could NOT like lamb, it’s probably one of the best meats out there! I think I might not blend the sauce though, I like having some chunks in it, but to each it’s own of course.
    I also think that fennel is extremely underrated, you never hear people talk about it. Which is really a shame being as delicious as it is! I made some fennel soup last week btw!

  2. Gaelle

    What a great recipe! I would keep a few pieces of fennel instead of pureeing all…just for the sake of texture and presentation.
    Would it work with veal?

    Haven’t tried it with veal, but if you do, please let us know how it turns out for you. ~Elise

  3. Ellen

    I made milk braised lamb for christmas eve, only with rosemary, thyme and lemon. the fennel sounds like a nice variation!

  4. jane

    Lamb is a favorite in our house – and barley makes a great combination with most lamb dishes in case you can’t find farro. I do plan to try this. In Venezuela we cook lamb in coconut milk, but the seasonings are quite different.

    Yep, farro reminds me a lot of barley too. Love the idea of cooking lamb in coconut milk, care to share the seasonings you would use? ~Elise

  5. Suzanne

    This looks delicious. Do you think it could be made with lamb shanks instead of lamb shoulder? I have some lamb shanks in my fridge and am looking for a way to cook them.

    Lamb shanks may take longer to cook before they are tender, but other than that, should work fine. If they are bone-in, you might try cooking the dish bone-in just for kicks (and added flavor). ~Elise

  6. Katerina

    Yum! I actually just made a pork loin braised in milk over the weekend ( I haven’t posted about it yet) and it was delicious! Plus interesting and so different. I love the idea of using fennel to flavour the sauce.

  7. kathy

    Hello… any Italians out there? I live in italy and I would assume that this recipe would be okay for abbacchio, which is much younger than american lamb, I think. Working with italian lamb would there be any additional ingredients? or cooking times? I almost think that the addition of fennel to “italian” lamb would be kind of strong, what do you think? thx. kathy

  8. Jessica

    A milk reduction for a sauce sounds so obvious but innovative at the same time. Do you know if it would work as well with skim milk?

    You mean skim milk plus skipping the cream? Don’t think so. The sauce needs the fat in the cream to thicken it. If you use skim milk and keep the cream, then yes, it should work fine, though you might need to add a bit more cream. ~Elise

  9. Sharkey

    Hey, looks like a great recipe. I’m just curious: won’t the milk curdle if it’s boiled too hard? Is there a certain type of milk that should be used (full fat, 2%, etc)?

    If it curdles, it’s okay. You’ll be blending it all in the sauce anyway. As for the type of milk, I used 2%. I don’t think it matters because you’re adding a bunch of cream. ~Elise

  10. Anna

    I’ll definitely try this as grass-fed lamb is my faaaaavorite red meat! Will have to try something other than the farro, though, as “less gluten” is still too much gluten for my son and me (and too much starch/glucose for my BG, too). Usually I make some sort of roasted, smashed, or cauliflower puree side dish instead of a side starch. Or Turnips Anna with lots o’ grass-fed butter…mmmm.

  11. Fuji Mama

    What an awesome idea! This makes me think of a couple of cooking tips I learned somewhere…that you soak meat in milk to help tenderize it, and that soaking game meats (like venison) in milk helps to reduce the “gamey” flavor when cooked. I wonder if this preparation does a little of both? I know that there are some people don’t like lamb when it is a bit stronger flavored–do you think it helps soften this a bit?

    Hi Rachael, don’t know about the tenderizing, but I do think it mellows the flavor a bit. ~Elise

  12. Stephanie - Wasabimon

    I am such a lamb lover that it’s ridiculous. I’m going to try this with the alpaca shoulder roast we’ve got in the freezer.

    I’ve never braised anything in milk, though I’ve marinated lamb in herbed yogurt and then turned that into a cream sauce while the chops were roasting. I’m curious to see how this turns out.

  13. Jenny

    This recipe looks great. I wondering if the sauce will be okay if I skip the blender since I don’t have one. Would it be all separated?

    Personally I think the sauce needs to be blended. But if you skip that, please let us know how it works out for you. ~Elise

  14. Nancy Singleton Hachisu

    I like the warm tones and the old wood. I haven’t made milk-braised pork in years, but coincidentally, was recently thinking about it. We don’t really get lamb locally, but I do have fennel in the field and “to-die-for” grass-fed cow milk and cream. I’ll try this with pork as I’m sure it will marry well. Thanks for the recipe.

  15. Blithe

    This reminds me of a bizarre conversation I had one day with a meat exhibitor at the Minnesota State Fair. I was perplexed by the size of the “leg of lamb” on display and asked what it was. “Lamb” was the reply. I commented that it was too big to be lamb and the exhibitor, looking at me as if I was very stupid, told me that lamb is sheep’s meat like beef is cow and pork is pig.

    As an Australian, I replied that lamb is baby sheep’s meat and that anything older than a year wasn’t lamb but mutton or if it was really old, hogget. Needless to say I then got the cold shoulder.

    But I do think that is the problem that many Americans have with so-called lamb. What is sold is actually older than lamb and has a strong flavour which takes some getting used to. To get lamb, you have to specifically ask for “baby lamb,” however much of a tautology that might be.

    As for me, I will make this recipe with lamb when the temperature gets out of the 90s.

  16. Cynth

    I made this a few nights ago. It was fabulous and received rave reviews. I put the lamb on a bed of brown rice too which I added raisins for sweetness and crushed red peppers for warmth. To blend the sauce I just used my stab mixer right in the dutch oven. I served chopped red cabbage on the side.

    I have some rice and sauce still left over. I’m planning on grilling pork chops tonight and finish it off.

  17. Lisa

    When I told my husband that this was what I was making, he wasn’t excited, and in fact urged me to “take it easy tonight, I’ll just make a sandwich.” I explained that for once I had shopped for a recipe and I WANTED to make it. I served it up when he was enjoying football on TV, and he couldn’t stop exclaiming how good it was. He wanted to take some with him for lunch today. We were both VERY impressed. I’m inclined to prepare lamb more often if it can be this easy, and tender, and flavorful (without being overpowering).

  18. Julie

    Just made this tonight and it was a huge hit. Had to send husband out for emergency parsley run during the early stages because I’d forgotten to read the ingredients list all the way through. Wonder if it would have worked without the parsley? Would love your thoughts on that. Made the FARRO too! My first time — what a crazy delicious grain! Elise, I am a huge fan of your website. Your recipes are go-to for me. Especially the chile verde. It was a huge leap of faith to try braising in milk — and as I’d bought four pounds of lamb (originally for guests — long story). It came out perfect. I can’t wait to eat it again tomorrow! (Am assuming it reheats well.)

    Hi Julie, so glad it worked out for you! I know how nerve wracking that can be, especially when you make a big $ commitment for the ingredients. Here’s the deal with parsley. It’s a “bitter”. Your tongue can only taste five things – salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami (you’ll have to look the last one up if you are unfamiliar with it.) A well balanced dish hits many of these tastes. This recipe doesn’t have acid, but it does have sweet (fennel), salt, and bitter (parsley). A bitter can also help balance the fat in a recipe, the way acid (lemon juice) can. So yes the recipe can be made without the parsley, but the parsley does help balance the flavors. And I agree, farro is crazy good! ~Elise

  19. Julie

    Elise, you rock! Thank you for the explanation. That makes so much sense. What’s funny is in the end, after all that, I think I didn’t use ENOUGH parsley — I probably forgot to double it — and then I served the lamb and farro with an arugula and lemon juice salad; i.e. adding acid, which I probably wanted because there wasn’t enough bitter!

    I love the breakdown of the five flavors in this dish. It’s so clear now! I am familiar with umami, thanks to Top Chef and Next Iron Chef episodes on the topic.

  20. Holly

    I’m in the process of making this right now and it’s already delicious and I’m not done. However, I have a question–you have me adding the parsley with the garlic and fennel seed, then again at the end. Which is it, or both? Thanks so much–I can’t wait to eat it. I’m substituting barley for the farro, which I cannot find. I did find spelt but am not using it today. Is spelt actually a good substitute? Thanks–your website is absolutely the best!

    Hi Holly, good catch on the instructions. Add the fresh parsley at the end. Regarding spelt and barley, both make good substitutions for farro. ~Elise

  21. Holly

    First of all, I added the parsley at the earlier point. When I make it again, I will do the same AND add some at the end. This is a great dish! I could not stop eating it! Wow! The barley worked really really well. Will try the spelt next time. Keep these great recipes coming–so glad I found this website!!

  22. Renee

    Hi Elise! This is my first time commenting (shameface) but your website is our go-to and everything has always turned out absolutely delicious. Super late in the game but, I started this recipe and forgot that we don’t have cream or half and half, which is what I’ve used before for it. I just have milk, but I also have creme fraiche and was wondering if that would work as a substitute? I know the consistency isn’t the same, but I figure it’ll reduce in the braise anyway. No worries if you don’t see this in time!

    • Renee

      Actually never mind, looks like you can use a combo of milk and butter to sub for cream. Woohoo!

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