Keep in mind this Greek word “Kleftiko” and go buy the best lamb meat you can find. Then, follow my kleftiko lamb recipe for succulent, slow-roasted meat wrapped in parchment paper with potatoes, bell peppers, tons of herbs, and cheese.
WHY MAKE KLEFTIKO LAMB?
To begin with, it is easy to pronounce (not usually the case for traditional Greek recipe name). Consequently, you serve it with the confidence of an experienced Greek cook while you announce it: “This is kle-fti-ko, a traditional Greek lamb dish”. Impressive. Well done.
Furthermore, it is an excellent recipe for novice cooks because the meat is safely sealed in a parcel and you just forget it in the oven for hours. Thank God for that amazing smell coming from the kitchen all over your home (and probably around your neighborhood if windows are opened) that reminds you to remove the roasting pan and open the parcel.
This isn’t only an impressive and delicious dish but it feeds the crowds with only one roasting pan. No messing with other cooking gear to make rice or potatoes or other side dishes. Veggies are cooked along with the meat and you have plenty of time to make dessert, bread, salads, and the table too. So convenient and trouble-free.
Overall, this dish is perfect for any kind of dinner. But I would recommend it either for a Sunday dinner with family and friends or a special occasion like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and definitely Easter if you want to celebrate along with the Greeks for some reason.
THE HISTORY BEHIND THE RECIPE
Not interested in the historical background of the recipe (it is quite fascinating, guys!)? Ok… Jump to Recipe
The rest keep reading. You may say I am rather obsessed with food history and this recipe is the perfect example of why.
“Kleftiko” is a Greek dish and cooking method invented during the οttoman occupation (1453-1830). 400 years under the ottoman regime was a nightmare, to say the least.
Ottoman repressions led many Greeks to find refuge in the mountains and became “kleftes” (or klephts). It means “thieves” in Greek but they were not bandits or criminals but sort of partisans who were fighting against the occupants, taking back from them what was rightfully belonging to the Greeks. Greek people admired them for their courage and helped them in every possible way.
In order to survive, they stole goats or lambs and invented a way to cook the meat to avoid detection: they lit the fire in a hole, covered the coals with soil and branches, placed the meat on top, and covered it up again with more soil and branches.
An earthen pot/oven that was simmering the meat along with seasonal herbs like oregano, thyme, wild garlic, and branches from lemon trees, laurel, vine, etc. They went on their missions and came back after hours to enjoy the delicious cooked meal.
Brilliant, isn’t it? Harsh times and the need for survival gave birth to this unique cooking method and the lamb dish named “kleftiko” after its inventors.
KLEFTIKO LAMB TODAY
Nowadays, there is no need to dig pits in our garden to cook our meals (Traditional Greek Easter is an exemption but this is another story/post/recipe).
In the Greek countryside, some households use wood-fired ovens in yards to cook their meal, bread, and pies. The slow-cooked meals are out of this world. I can still recall my grandparents cooking in an oven like this and, sadly enough, this cooking way died when they passed away and my parents moved to Athens. Heavenly meals, divine pies, food made out of this world.
In the cities, the modern adaption of the traditional cooking method is to cook the meal wrapped in parchment paper or a Dutch oven, clay pot, or any kind of casserole dish with a lid. Good enough but still…
To make kleftiko lamb, you have two options: either you make the traditional recipe including only lamb and herbs (similar to the original recipe) or you may add vegetables along with the meat. Actually, add the veggies you like or the veggies that pair well with lamb following your preferences. It’s your ball game!
Personally, I consider this dish “a complete one-pot meal” and I love my veggies cooked along with the meat to soak up all the delicious lamb juices.
What is the best lamb cut for kleftiko?
Great question! To begin with, the best purchase is a free-range or organic cut whenever possible. Then, depending on the meal you want to make you’ve got quite a few choices.
If you want to feed a crowd (Sunday or dinner party) then you are going to purchase either the shoulder or leg of a lamb. These cuts are perfect for slow-roasting along with vegetables and an impressive fail-safe main dish to please many hungry guests.
Just prepare the parcel with the meat and the veggies and leave it to slow-roast until the guests arrive. So convenient! I would recommend roasting these lamb cuts on the bone for maximum flavor and tenderness.
If your dinner contains fewer guests and you want a slightly quicker way to make this recipe, purchase lamb shanks and cook them together over the vegetables.
Even though lamb shank meat is tough due to surrounding connective tissue, the kleftiko slow-roasting method breaks the tissue down, making the meat melt-in-your-mouth tender.
My favorite version of kleftiko lamb contains the following ingredients:
Whole leg of lamb
Even though it requires extra cooking time I usually purchase a whole bone-in leg of lamb. The main reason is that the meat is much more succulent. Additionally, the meal is more presentable on a big platter and quite an impressive dish for any dinner party.
As a wisely said quote mentions “We eat first with our eyes” and this dish is definitely a feast for sight.
Vegetables & herbs: I usually add potatoes, red onions, bell peppers, garlic, and herbs like oregano, thyme, and rosemary.
Cheese: I use a Greek hard cheese called Kefalotyri. You may find it in Greek delis but if it is difficult to purchase, replace it with pecorino or parmesan cheese.
HOW TO MAKE KLEFTIKO LAMB
This is one of the easiest fool-proofed meat recipes you can find and I highly recommend it for all the newbies out there. Use parchment paper to enclose the meat and the veggies and forget the parcel in the oven. What could possibly go wrong?
This is how you are going to make it:
Season and marinate the meat
Use a sharp knife to trim off any excess fat (if any) and to make slits on its surface. Alternatively, ask your butcher to do it for you.
In a small bowl, add all the ingredients for seasoning and mix them well.
Now, you’ve got two options: season the meat and keep on roasting it or season and let it marinate for a few hours or overnight. It’s totally up to you. I usually skip the marinating stage and my kleftiko lamb turns out really tasteful every single time.
Place the lamb on a cutting board. Pour the mix all over the lamb and use your hands to rub in the seasoning mixture, pushing it deep into the slits for maximum flavor. Let it aside while you prepare the vegetables.
In case you want to make the extra step just place the meat in a bowl. Rub in the seasoning mixture, cover the bowl, and refrigerate for as long as you like (up to one night). Remember to take the lamb out of the fridge about 1 hour before cooking for perfect roasting.
Assembling the parcel
Line a large baking/roasting sheet with 2 long pieces of baking parchment, one widthways, the other lengthways to form a cross. You will have 4 overhanging sheets.
First, place the potatoes. Season to taste and toss with olive oil. Then place the lamb with any remaining marinade on top of the potatoes. Add springs of fresh or dried rosemary, oregano, and thyme.
Place some pieces of garlic and cheese cubes into the slits and sprinkle the rest over the potatoes. To finish it off add wedges of bell peppers and onion.
Fold the overhanging sheet one by one and make the parcel.
Keep in mind that you need to unwrap the parchment paper for the last 20-30 minutes and turn the broiler up. That is how the meat will be perfectly roasted, and nicely colored and the potatoes will be crispier.
MY KLEFTIKO LAMP IS READY! NOW, WHAT?
Serve it hot on a big platter if it is possible to transfer the lamb. It won’t be that easy to serve it in one piece though because the meat is so tender that literally will fall off the bone. Nevertheless, give it a try.
Your kleftiko lamb will be the centerpiece of the table, the smell is amazing and it goes with a story as well. I believe that your guests would love to hear how this dish was created while eating their delicious meal.
At a traditional Greek table, lamb is served with tzatziki. It is a sort of unspoken rule and you have to follow it. No exemptions! Serve with my authentic tzatziki recipe. It is probable you already have the ingredients (cucumber, Greek yogurt, vinegar, garlic, dill) because it is so simple and easy to make.
Depending on the season, I recommend 2 salads: this traditional cabbage salad (politiki) for the winter season and Greek salad (horiatiki) for the summer. Equally delicious and with seasonal produce that will enhance their flavor.
A nice bottle of red wine will take this dinner to another supreme level. I love Agiorgitiko or Xynomavro, two Greek varieties that pair wonderfully with roasted meats.
If it’s difficult to find those then either Italian Chianti Classico or Bordeaux blends containing Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot would be excellent choices as well.
HOW TO STORE
Keep in mind that this lamb recipe is better served hot. You may keep leftovers in a well-sealed food container for up to 3 days.
WHAT ABOUT LEFTOVERS?
It’s always super when one big dinner turns into another meal without as much effort.
Reheat over low heat and add it to sandwiches and pizza, serve it over green salads with crispy vegetables, or use it as ground meat to make pasta sauce. So many ways to enjoy it!
If you have already made my kleftiko lamb recipe, I would be super grateful to leave a comment and/or give this recipe a rating or take a photo and tag me on Instagram with #30daysofgreekfood and Facebook with @30daysofgreekfood! Above all, I absolutely love your feedback. This is a huge motivation for me and it keeps 30daysofgreekfood’s kitchen alive. Thank you so much!!!
GREEK KLEFTIKO LAMB
- 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 cup (120ml) lemon juice
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/4 cup (60ml) white dry wine (optional)
- Red pepper chili flakes to taste
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 3.5 pounds (1.5kg) leg of lamb, bone-in
- 2 pounds (1kg) 4-5 medium russet potatoes, peeled and quartered
- 4 cloves garlic, cut in half
- 1 big onion, cut in wedges
- 2 bell peppers, cut in wedges
- 1 pound (about 400g) kefalotyri or Romano cheese or parmesan, cut in cubes
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 sprigs fresh rosemary (or 1 teaspoon dried)
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme or oregano (or 1 teaspoon dried)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Place the meat on a cutting board or in a big bowl with a lid in case you marinate it.
- Use a sharp knife to trim off any excess fat (if any) and to make slits on meat's surface. (Alternatively, ask your butcher to do it for you).
- In a small bowl, add all the ingredients for seasoning and mix them well.
- Pour the mix all over the lamb and use your hands to rub in the seasoning mixture, pushing it deep into the slits for maximum flavor. Let it aside while you prepare the vegetables.
- Place the meat in a big bowl with a lid. Season as mentioned above. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for as long as you like (up to one night). Take the lamb out of the fridge about 1 hour before cooking.
- Preheat the oven to 340° F (170° C) and set to fan. Position a rack in the middle of the oven.
- Line a large baking/roasting pan with 2 long pieces of baking parchment paper, one widthways, the other lengthways to form a cross. You will have 4 long pieces of parchment overhanging on all sides of the pan.
- Spread the potatoes over the pan. Season with salt, pepper, dried rosemary, thyme, or oregano (or place the fresh springs all over the pan). Pour in olive oil and toss.
- Add the lamb with any remaining marinade on top of the potatoes. Place some pieces of garlic and cheese cubes into the slits and sprinkle the rest over the potatoes. To finish it off add wedges of bell peppers and onion.
- Fold the overhanging sheets one by one to make the parcel.
- Position the roasting pan in the middle of the oven. Roast for 3 hours. Uncover and fold the excess paper or use a scissor to cut it. Use a fork to check if the meat is tender.
- Increase the temperature to 200°ο C (390° F) and roast for 20-30 more minutes, or until the lamb and the potatoes turn golden brown.
- Let aside to rest for 10 minutes and serve hot.