The first sheep came over with Columbus on his second voyage and were grown more for their fleece than their meat. Demand for wool kept the US herd up near 60 million head through WWII, and it has been on a steady decline since then, down to about 6 million head today. Tender young lamb is still a popular meat, but far less popular than beef, pork, and chicken.
When a lamb is no longer producing enough wool, more than 1 year old, it is slaughtered for food and the meat is called mutton. It has a distinctive and gamier taste than younger, more succulent lamb. As with so many other BBQ meats such as pork ribs and beef brisket, mutton found its way to the low slow smoker because it is tough, full of connective tissue, and less desirable than lamb.
And why Western Kentucky? Once upon a time, in the 1800s, Kentucky was the largest lamb producing state. It has now fallen to number 34. But the tradition of BBQ mutton lives on in dozens of barbecue joints and church socials. The cuts of choice are shoulder and rear leg.
Black BBQ Sauce sounds weird, but it is remarkably effective. I was pretty skeptical, but once I tasted it, I understood. Sweet sauce would be all wrong. This thin tart sauce cuts the rich fat, which is more intensely flavored than beef, pork, and chicken by far. The sauce is used as a baste, called a dip, because it is thin and penetrates. It is also used as a finishing sauce.
The meat is prepared in a similar fashion to pulled pork, but it is usually not shredded, it is sliced. It is then doused with the thin sauce that enters all its the openings it can find.
Some places, like the Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn, the most famous of all the Western Kentucky BBQ joints, have two slightly different recipes, one for basting, and one for serving. Moonlite published some of their recipes in a cookbook, Family Favorites from Moonlite, which I tried, and frankly, wasn’t impressed. So I studied their published recipes, ordered a bottle from their website, set about trying to reverse engineer it, and then I amped it up a notch. In head to head blind tasting, everyone liked mine better. So I called it Sunlite just to make sure there is no confusion.
Now keep in mind, this is a technique for long low and slow smoked mutton in the fashion of pulled pork. Shoulder or leg can be cooked this way, but for leg of lamb, I prefer a much different method. You can also break shoulder down into cubes and do spiedies or mechoui.
Serve with: a stout or porter.
Published On: 4/6/2015 Last Modified: 4/15/2021