Table for One is a column by Senior Editor Eric Kim, who loves cooking for himself — and only himself — and seeks to celebrate the beauty of solitude in its many forms. This week: his favorite lamb chop marinade.
"My dinners at home are startlingly simple," Marilyn Monroe said in a 1952 interview for Pageant Magazine. "Every night, I stop at the market near my hotel and pick up a steak, lamb chops, or some liver, which I broil in the electric oven in my room. I usually eat four or five raw carrots with my meat, and that is all. I must be part rabbit; I never get bored with raw carrots."
Animorphing aside, I identify wholly with Monroe — especially as a solo home cook. Steak is a no-brainer when you're cooking just for one. Liver, though less popular these days, certainly has a special place in my home. (Lightly salted, heavily peppered, and pan-fried in a little garlicky butter? Delicious.) Lamb chops are harder to find, but not impossible; purchasing them might just mean that you have to talk to your butcher, since he'll probably have them in the case or a specialty meat section rather than displayed alongside every cut of chicken, pork, and beef. This might sound intimidating, especially if you've had fewer interactions with strangers in the grocery store during the pandemic, but trust me, it's worth it because . . .
. . . Lamb chops are my latest obsession. And chops with our best lamb marinade are even better. They feel fancy-schmancy, when in reality they're even easier to cook than steak and liver, mostly because they're so little. They take hardly any time at all to come up to temperature in a hot pan (120°F for rare and closer to 145°F for well-done — I prefer the former). They also boast a gamey, succulent flavor that beef could never achieve, no matter how much you marinate it.
Not to mention that lamb, even more than steak, seems somehow more adept at gaining an absolute perfect sear every time, which means you get the best of both worlds: caramelized crust on the outside, juicy rare meat on the inside. Maybe it's the reduced surface area, I don't know, or the fattiness of the cut. Less effort with a higher culinary payoff is a no-brainer in my weeknight handbook.
The one thing you do not want to do with lamb chops is overcook them: They lose their flavor and their characteristic tenderness. But if you are, like me, prone to looking away for what you swear will be two seconds but which turns quickly into several minutes, then you might consider insurance. Also known as: a good lamb chop marinade.
A marinade serves as a lamb chop safeguard for a few reasons:
It's an opportunity to infuse the meat with other flavors (in the case of our lamb chop marinade, that means, jalapeño, garlic, and mint). Though, contrary to popular belief (and according to science, aka J. Kenji López-Alt over at Serious Eats), the molecules of these aromatics are much too large to penetrate that far into the meat. They're more flavoring agents for the outside, which is why I've developed this marinade to double as a great serving sauce to go with the chops after they're done cooking.
Lastly, I always add sugar to my lamb chop marinades because a) it balances out the other flavors and b) it aids in caramelization and just general deliciousness. In other words, Insurance Clause A: Even if you do happen to overcook your lamb chops, at least it'll taste incredible from a flavor perspective.
The salt in the marinade, however, does travel into the meat. As Kenji writes, salt "is one of the few ingredients that penetrates and seasons meat deeper than the outer surface." I'm also convinced that it keeps the lamb extra juicy, or rather helps it to retain moisture (not unlike what a dry brine does for chicken). Insurance Clause B: Let's say you accidentally leave your chops in the pan a minute or two longer than your desired doneness, chances are they'll still be pretty darn tender.
There's olive oil in the lamb chop marinade already, which means you can transfer them straight into a dry, heated skillet. Insurance Clause C: If all else fails, at least you'll have achieved less oil splatter (and less cleanup) because you've greased the meat, not the pan.
So go forth!
How long should you marinate lamb?
As a general rule of thumb, smaller cuts of lamb only need about four hours to sit in a marinade while larger cuts could benefit from a 24-hour to 48-hour marinade. Marinating the lamb for too long won't do it any good; you'll have successfully imparted as much flavor as you possibly can in this time frame. Once you purchase fresh meat from the grocery store, it should be cooked within three to five days (again, depending on the size of the cut). Marinate your lamb chops (I like to do it for an hour minimum, but you could let them sit overnight in the fridge covered in an airtight plastic bag), cook them for a couple of minutes per side, and enjoy a lovely solo supper lickety-split, just like Monroe — with raw carrots or cooked peas, depending on just how much of a rabbit you are.