Each family has their own way of celebrating special occasions. Is Easter all about chocolate for you? In many Australian families, especially those of European decent, lamb is a way more important dish than chocolate!
I often get asked what the secret to cooking lamb on a spit is. The first answer is patience. The second is getting a good small, but not scrawny lamb. Making sure you have put on firmly using quality spit fittings is going to be crucial to it not landing in the fire! You need good spikes in the rear legs, and shoulders, and a spike that punctures the loin near the spine also helps.
When you are cooking something whole beast you need to consider ensuring the bulky areas like the shoulders are cooked through, and the leaner sections such as the loin are still succulent.
Smaller lambs (14-18kg) are easier to cook, and will be fall off the bone, melt in the mouth delicious from one end to the other. You can certainly cook larger, but that takes a practice and a bit more skill to work though the stages of the cook.
I learnt to cook on an open pit. We would build a large fire to the side, and bring coals closer to gradually increase the heat. The larger fire was quite a way back, but it provides a source of coal, and keeps the cook and the food warm on cold days!
Running a fire on wood, which you burn down to coal, or using lump wood charcoal is best. I avoid reconstituted charcoal products, especially when cooking spits. It is a a labor of love, so don't skimp on the fuel!
You will cook a smaller lamb comfortably in 4-5 hours. Don't become impatient, and don't start carving off the parts that look done!
Not much happens in the first few hours. The skin will sweat and you will see drips of darker liquid start to make pale stripes around the loin. You are gradually warming up the lamb from the outside right through, then repeating that process a few degrees at a time.
The shoulder of the lamb is the thickest part, its also where you find some of the most delicious meat. When cooking on the spit give away the idea of leaving the lamb blushing pink. Save that for a rack of lamb next Tuesday. You want to cook this little blighter through, and have every morsel of meat be tender, moist and delicious. It really should fall off the bone.
My family have always seasoned simply. Plenty of salt on the skin, garlic cloves pushed into slits in the legs, and a few onions wired inside the cavity. We use the shanks which burn if left attached to close the stomach cavity. It looks neat, avoids the need to stitch or wire, and they are the ultimate cooks privilege!
If you want to up the flavour, keep anything sweet right away. No honey. No sugar. No molasses. You will burn it. Cooking on a spit exposes the meat directly to flame. It is quite different to more gentle roasting and braising techniques where sweetness can be put to good use.
When is it cooked? You need to cook the lamb gently, you will be able to tell by the colour of the skin. When cooked the skin will have darkened, but not be burnt. The best and only way I decide if a lamb is done is the by looking at the shoulders. When it is cooked, the shoulder blades will poke though, along with the hip bone. This tells you the connective tissues are giving way and it truely is about to fall off the bone.
As it approaches this texture you can apply a little extra heat to finish the lamb and create that special lamb crackling style skin. Just because the lamb is starting to look delicious, it doesn't mean it is ready! Cook it until the leg and shoulder joints show through, it is worth the extra time.
So bust out the spit and feed the family lamb this easter, and perhaps a few little chocolates for good measure!