In the canon of cooking whole animals, few ways are more fun, more drool-enducing, more catchy to the eye than spit roasting. Let’s be real: What method of meat preparation is more picturesque than watching an entire animal slowly turning over an open flame (okay, we do love us some slowly-spinning kebab meat, but spit roasting still wins out every time because it’s the whole animal)? It’s part caveman, part master of the universe. You, the human, are in charge. You are controlling fire, making a meal of flesh for your friends and family.
Of all the spit-roast-able animals, one of the best ones to slide on a spit during the spring months is a lamb. To be fair, it’s pretty great any time of the year, but when you consider Easter is a holiday where one of the major proteins served is — you guessed it — lamb, now is as good a time as ever to learn how to become the master and commander of your domain by spit-roasting an animal whole.
To make sure you don’t get in blind and end up simply lighting a lamb on fire while your nieces and nephews watch in abject horror, we’ve put together a simple step-by-step guide for how to spit roast a whole lamb.
Steps for Spit Roasting a Whole Lamb
Step 1: Buy Your Spit and Motor
You can’t cook a lamb without a spit and a motor. You can try your local hardware store or meat market as well as a little thing we like to call the internet, which has a variety of places for ordering materials. While it may seem funny to employ a younger sibling as the “motor,” it is inadvisable — you want a cooked lamb, not a bloodthirsty younger brother at the helm when he decides to say, “Screw it,” and go watch the game inside.
Step 2: Find Your Lamb
No matter where you live, you can likely find a butcher who will sell a whole lamb to you — spit and all. It may take a little convincing and bribing, but chances are your butcher or meat market will be interested in helping you out. A good place to look, too, is at a farmers market. There, you might be able to work out a deal with a farmer directly. Make sure, though, that they’re willing to prepare the lamb for you. Otherwise, you’ll still need a butcher.
Step 3: Get Your Wood Charcoal
Once you have found a kind butcher to prepare your lamb, make sure to pick up your natural wood charcoal. There is no alternative to wood charcoal when roasting a lamb and there is a fantastic go-to manufacturer as well. Depending on the size of your roast, you’ll want to buy four to five 17-pound bags of charcoal.
Step 4: Get Your Sides
While just eating an entire lamb sounds amazing, some people may want other items as well. The good thing is you’ll have plenty of time to prepare these while the lamb cooks. Potatoes and carrots are old standbys, but feel free to get creative.
Step 5: Set Up Your Grill Space
Once the lamb has been transported to your home, keep it in a cool shaded place. Then, prepare your roasting area. We recommend marking off an oval space approximately five feet long and three feet wide (though the dimensions may vary depending on the size of your lamb) with rocks or bricks. Place the poles or posts for your spit to rest on at opposite ends of the oval. Then, line the open space with two to three layers of tin foil. After that, empty two to three bags of wood charcoal in the middle of the roasting space.
Step 6: Get Ready to Burn It!
The charcoal, that is! Depending on when your guests are arriving and when you plan to eat, you want to leave about four hours for the coals to burn down as well as for the lamb to cook. A 30-pound lamb should take around five hours, bringing your total time to around eight to nine hours, give or take. What we’re saying is that spit roasting an entire animal is a time-consuming process, and that needs to be taken into consideration. Once the charcoal is burned, you’re going to want to have some extra on hand so you can periodically add some to ensure the heat does not dissipate over time.
Step 7: Preparing the Lamb
A 30-pound lamb should take around five hours to cook, bringing your total time to around eight to nine hours, give or take.
You could just throw the lamb on the spit and call it a day, but with so much time spent cooking, you’re going to want to prepare the lamb so that it does not dry out (and so, you know, it tastes good). To season and prep the lamb, lay down a number of clean garbage bags on a flat surface and set the lamb on them. Rub the lamb with seasoning (olive oil, salt, pepper, oregano, or whatever you desire) both inside and out. Whether you choose to stuff your lamb is up to you. If you do, you’ll want butcher’s twine handy to sew the cavity back up when you’re done. Now it is time to attach the spit. Slide it through and, once this is done, use metal wire to tie the legs to the spit to ensure that the lamb doesn’t spin while turning (imagine the lamb’s legs are in a Superman flying position when securing them).
Step 8: Roasting the Lamb
Once the charcoal is no longer emitting open flame, set your lamb and spit across the cooking area. Start with your lamb somewhat close to the coals (not so close as to touch, but on the lower level of the spit — about 18 inches above the coals). After 45 minutes or so, raise the lamb to the higher level for the remainder of the cook. As the lamb begins to roast, spread the coals evenly beneath the length of the meat. Occasionally, add a few more pieces of charcoal.
As the lamb cooks, you’ll want to keep it moist. Basting every 15-20 minutes will do just that. We recommend using the same kind of mixture you used in the beginning to season the meat. Depending on what doneness you want your meat, keep an eye on the lamb and have your meat thermometer handy. To check the temperature, you’ll want to go for the thickest part of the animal, the leg. Medium-rare is around 145 degrees Fahrenheit. A full list of lamb cooking times is provided by the American Lamb here.
Once the desired temperature is reached, take the lamb off the heat and let rest 10-15 minutes before carving and serving.
Step 9: Carving the Lamb
Carving lamb is similar to carving other large cuts of meat. If you need some assistance with it, check out this video from Australian Lamb on carving a lamb leg.
There you go — now there’s no excuse to not have that big lamb roast barbecue your friends and family always told you that you should have. It’s a great way to bring friends and family together. It isn’t often these days you find a whole animal roasting over a pit in a backyard. It certainly is a conversation starter!
Article originally published April 3, 2013. Last updated January 2020.
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