DISCLOSURE: I don’t condone stealing. There is just one instance, however, where I do pardon a certain group of thieves because their act of stealing eventually gave the world a glorious gift. The thieves I’m speaking of are the klephts, an indigenous population that descended from the Greeks who fled into the mountains to escape—and from which to fight—the Turkish occupiers of Ottoman Greece. The klephts snuck from the mountains to steal grazing lambs or goats, then retreated back to the mountains to cook their stolen goods. The meat was seasoned with oregano and thyme or even wild garlic, placed in an underground pit and covered with soil and branches on top to trap the aromas and the smoke while cooking. Doing so helped to avoid detection from their adversaries.
This sneaky style of cooking later became known as kleftiko—the food of the “klephts” or thieves. Over time, the method moved from underground pits to outdoor wood-fired ovens. These days, we make LAMB KLEFTIKO indoors, baked in any conventional oven. The lamb is either assembled in a casserole dish or completely wrapped in aluminum foil or parchment paper.
The parchment paper method has become my go-to and results in a dramatic presentation when finished. Imagine sitting down for dinner and opening up a package of fall-off-the-bone lamb that’s perfectly seasoned with dried oregano (a Greek’s favorite weapon), fresh thyme sprigs, smoked paprika (to evoke a smoky flavor), and a good amount of garlic (like any dish should have). It’s like Christmas except you can open this present whenever you want.
With my lamb kleftiko (KLEF-ti-koh), I prefer to assemble individual portions for each guest, though you can go family style and wrap everything altogether. In each package, I surround a thick lamb shank with a serving of potatoes, tomatoes, and onions. To enrich the kleftiko, I’ll add a hearty slab of Kefalotyri or any hard Greek cheese that bursts with flavor. When you’re assembling the lamb kleftiko, be sure to bundle everything tightly in the parchment paper to seal in the juices. This undisputed classic is worth the wait—and worth stealing, too.
- 4 lamb shanks
- 8 cloves of garlic
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 pound baby potatoes, peeled and halved
- 1 red onion, sliced
- 2 medium tomatoes, cubed
- 6 ounces Kefalotyri or Kasseri cheese, cubed
- 2 tablespoons dried oregano
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- Juice of one lemon
- 8 sprigs of thyme
- Parchment String
- Season each lamb shank with salt and pepper on all sides. Heat half of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Brown each shank for about 5 minutes, enough to get a good sear on each side. Transfer to a plate. Smash the garlic, discard the skins, and slice the garlic into slivers. Using a knife, pierce slits in the lamb and insert slivers of garlic into the lamb.
- In a bowl, add potatoes, cheese, onions, tomatoes, oregano, paprika, olive oil, any leftover garlic and lemon juice. Be sure to season well! Toss to coat and set aside.
- Lay two long pieces (about 12” each) of parchment paper in a crisscross manner. Place a lamb shank in the middle of the parchment paper and assemble the vegetables around the lamb. Douse with olive oil. Add two sprigs of thyme on top the lamb and additional seasoning if desired. Do the same thing with the remaining lamb shanks, making four total parcels.
- Bring the flaps of the parchment paper to the middle, twist and tighten the paper to close. Secure the parcels with a piece of string or twine. Place the parcels on a baking sheet for cooking.
- Roast at 350 degrees for 1 ½ to 2 hours, until tender. Remove the kleftiko parcels from the oven, cut the top of the parchment paper to slightly open. Baste the lamb with the juices in the parcel. Increase the temperature to 400 degrees, and roast for another 10-15 minutes to allow the lamb and vegetables to brown on top.
- Remove from the oven and cut off the top of the parchment paper. Serve in parchment paper or place on a serving platter.
Meat: You can also use a leg of lamb, cut into portions. Or, if you don’t like lamb, use goat or pork.
Vegetables: Peppers, carrots or peas.
Cheese: Feta cheese, Graviera, Kasseri or any other hard Greek cheese
Cooking method: You can also bake lamb kleftiko in a covered casserole dish by simply adding all ingredients together under one roof. If you use more or less lamb, adjust cooking time. You won't need parchment paper in this case.
Making mine now! Just pop
ped my αρνάκι in the oven!!!
Ah so happy to hear that, Maria! I hope you like it. Enjoy!
Oh, my gosh!!! It turned out absolutely amazing!!!! Thank you so much for sharing! Last time we were in Greece (5 years ago on my honeymoon), we had kleftico in Santorini…but I havent been able to duplicate it. This is perfect! I will definitely be keeping this recipe close at hand and making it over and over. Delicious! 💓 Great presentation and my home smells incredible! Feels like I am back in Greece❤
This makes me so so happy you made It and loved It! It’s such a simple one that always comes out perfect, and makes your guests think you spent hours and hours on it! Ah, Santorini, what a beautiful place to spend a honeymoon! Glad you could recreate memories through food! Xoxo
Lamb Kleftiko is one of those dishes that we make on a regular basis. It always comes out perfectly tender and flavorful! We don’t usually use paprika, but this is a spice that might be worth incorporating.
it’s such a wonderful dish! You’re right, it does come out so perfect every time. Yes, definitely try it with paprika or even some chili powder I just like the bit of smoky flavor that it brings!
This looks amazing I will definitely try this. If I cut the recipe in half to only make 2 servings do I cut the cooking time in half as well? Thank you.
The cooking time will still be very close. I would keep your packages wrapped for 1 hour and then open them up and check the temperature of the meat, which should be to 160F internally. For that extra browning I mentioned, crank the oven to 400F and then roast for an additional 15 minutes. Let me know how It goes!
Agreed. I actually used about 1 t. Paprika and 1 t. Smoked paprika (instead of 2). Worked out really well after all!
ah good, i’ll try it with the smoked paprika next time!
Yes, I combined the ideas from the narrative before the recipe and the ingredients from the recipe itself. 😉
Lamb Kleftiko is a staple dish in our household. Although we don’t make it as often as we like, it’s always a crowd pleaser. It’s especially good for when we have company.
Would love to make this! When do you add the cheese?
Hi Dorrie! You’d love this one. Add the cheese in with the packets when you bake so it melts into the meat and vegetables.. mmmm
So happy I found your website when searching for healthy Greek recipes! My biological father and some of my family are Greek and still live in Athens. I live in Boise, ID, and cooking this recipe helps me feel a connection to my roots when I am missing Greece!
Please keep posting recipes!
Hi to my neighbor in ID! I’m in Utah. Ah this makes me so happy to read. Thank you so much for this comment! I’ll definitely be sharing more.
Hi from the UK! I will be making these lamb shanks for guests next weekend. I have two questions: First, do you ever sear the meat first? And second: do you think these will cook as well at a much lower temperature for 4 or 5 hours? I have always done my lamb shanks like that, but have not made it in the Kleftiko style. I’ve managed to get some very meaty shanks from local hill lambs, and obviously don’t want to undercook them! Many thanks for sharing your recipe x
Hi there! Yes in the first step I have you sear the meat (I say brown the meat but sear would be a better term I should change that). As far as cooking goes, yes at a lower temperature you could cook these meat longer. But with this style, I find It doesn’t need to cook that long as the parchment wrap really traps in and cooks the meat well. I hope this helps 🙂