Kleftiko is a traditional Greek recipe for unbelievably tender and succulent lamb. Simply marinate the lamb then sit back and let your slow cooker, Instant Pot or your oven do all the hard work!
Take a look at my other popular Greek Recipes!
Published May 2017, updated March 2019. In collaboration with ‘Lamb – Try It Love It’
I realise that as summer approaches I have been unconsciously navigating towards the recipes of my childhood. Take Greek lamb kleftiko for instance – a traditional recipe that I certainly would have run a mile from when I was younger. Thankfully we live to grow, and I have rediscovered kleftiko from the perspective of an adult and grown to appreciate this very simple dish.
This recipe is one of the most popular and highly rated on Supergolden Bakes and I am so glad to be able to update it with a killer lamb marinade, oven and Instant Pot instructions PLUS a recipe video, thanks to my partnership with the EU-funded Lamb Try it, Love it campaign.
What is kleftiko?
Lamb kleftiko, or ‘bandit’s lamb’, was supposedly lamb that was stolen and cooked in a pit to avoid detection. These days, it is basically simply seasoned lamb that’s slow-cooked with potatoes until it is so tender it falls off the bone. The lamb is sometimes enclosed in parchment paper or aluminium foil to mimic the thieves (kleftes) method of cooking.
This type of recipe is simply tailor-made for the slow cooker, especially when it is hot out and you want to give your oven – and yourself – a break. You can literally put it on in the morning, forget about it for most of the day and have an amazing dinner waiting for you several hours later.
And I am very glad to report it is equally easy – and just as tasty – to make in an Instant Pot for a fraction of the time. My thanks to the many readers who kept asking me to adapt this recipe for the pressure cooker!
Which lamb cut to use
I have demonstrated how versatile lamb is in many recipes I have created for the Lamb Try it, Love it campaign. This recipe uses on-the-bone lamb shoulder which is a cut that needs to be cooked slowly to reach maximum tenderness. Be aware that your lamb shoulder needs to fit in your slow or pressure cooker when buying it – you may be somewhat limited as to what size you use.
Another cut that’s suitable for this slow-cooked recipe is butterflied leg of lamb which has the bone removed. This might work better for smaller cookers as you cut it into large pieces if needed.
Best lamb marinade
When I first posted this recipe the lamb was not marinated, simply seasoned and cooked. If you have time however then marinating the lamb overnight will add flavour to your kleftiko. You can also use this for any slow-roasted lamb or even for souvlaki.
The marinade is made up of herbs, lemon juice & zest, garlic, anchovy paste and olive oil. If anchovy paste is hard to find – or not to your taste – you can leave it out. The cooking juices from the lamb will be so tasty if you use this marinade… Use a gravy/fat separator to remove some of the oily residue and mix it with the shredded lamb or reduce it slightly and use as gravy.
Slow cooker tips and tricks
This recipe NEEDS a long and slow cooking time which is why your crockpot is perfect for it. To speed things along you can preheat the slow cooker while you are searing the lamb and preparing the potatoes. It’s a small thing that makes a big difference, just make sure to reset the cooking time when adding the ingredients to the cooker.
A major mistake – that I am totally guilty of – is OPENING the cooker to check how the recipe is doing. This ADDS time to your recipe because every time you open the lid the temperature will drop. I have to literally hold myself back from doing this every time I use my slow cooker.
This lamb will look a little grey and unappealing after several hours in the slow cooker. While this doesn’t affect the taste one little bit, you might want to give the lamb some colour by sticking under a hot grill (broiler) for a few minutes.
How to make lamb kleftiko
Start by making the marinade a day ahead of cooking this recipe. Mix all the ingredients in a bowl and then rub over your lamb shoulder. Season liberally with salt and pepper, transfer to a suitable lidded container and leave to marinate in the fridge overnight.
The following day, heat a large pan and sear the lamb for several minutes on each side until nicely coloured. You might need to press down on it so it browns evenly. Set the lamb aside and give the potatoes and onion a turn in the same pan until the start to colour a little.
Add a splash of the white wine to deglaze the pan and transfer to the slow cooker. Add lemon slice, a cinnamon stick, bay leaves and fresh thyme and top with the seared lamb. Pour in the stock, remaining wine and vinegar. Cover and cook on low for 7-8 hours – no peeking!
Test the lamb – it should feel very tender if pierced with a knife. The internal temperature should be 62°C/ 145°F (medium rare), 71°C/160°F (medium), or 76°C/170 °F (well done). Leave the lamb to rest for 10 minutes loosely covered with foil before shredding or slicing to serve.
Instant Pot Lamb Kleftiko
Follow the same instructions and method to cook this in a pressure cooker. It will need 45 minutes on high pressure and then allow about 25 minutes for natural release. The lamb will deliciously succulent when cooked – this method is more suited for slicing the lamb rather than shredding it.
Make sure the lamb will fit in your Instant pot – mine 6L IP Duo struggled a tiny bit but a larger cooker should have no problems. Alternatively cut butterflied leg of lamb into large pieces to use instead of shoulder of lamb.
Can I cook Kleftiko in my oven?
You sure can! In fact with the oven you are not restricted as to the size of the lamb and you can use a bigger cut if you are serving a crowd. I have employed my favourite trick of using a roasting bag for this oven kleftiko – it replaces the parchment paper without any of the fuss.
You will need an extra large roasting bag, such as those used for turkeys. Please be very careful when opening it as you can easily burn yourself with the steam.
If you can’t find a roasting bag that’s a suitable size you can use parchment paper or foil to create a sort of enclosed tent to cook the lamb in. Use the instructions for the homemade pastrami to see how to make this.
What to serve with Greek Lamb kleftiko
I was expecting great results from my Greek lamb kleftiko and I was not disappointed! The lamb was indeed so tender it was simply falling apart at the touch of the fork. This would make a great easy Easter roast maybe with some spanakorizo as a side dish.
You could shred it pulled-pork style if you wished to – would be delicious served in wraps with some tzatziki. Or you can serve it with the potatoes and a Greek salad for the full experience! By the way, most people recommend red wine as a good match for lamb. I prefer white wine or ice-cold beer simply because I am quite contrary 😉
NEED MORE LAMB RECIPE INSPO?
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Greek lamb kleftiko
For the lamb marinade
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 lemon zest only
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 tbsp anchovy paste optional
- 3 large garlic cloves minced
- 1 tbsp dried oregano
- 1 tbsp dried thyme
- salt and freshly ground pepper to season
For the lamb kleftiko
- 1.2 kg | 2 1/2 pounds lamb shoulder (or see notes)
- 1 kg | 2 pounds baby potatoes skin on
- 1 red onion peeled and roughly chopped
- 2 lemon slices
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 80 ml | 1/3 cup white wine
- 80 ml | 1/3 cup lamb or chicken stock
- 1/2 cinnamon stick
- 1 tbsp fresh thyme
- 5 tbsp crumbled feta optional
- lemon wedges
- handful fresh oregano and thyme leaves to garnish
- Mix all the ingredients for the marinade together in a small bowl and rub over the lamb.
- Season the lamb liberally with salt and pepper transfer into a lidded container and store in the fridge overnight.
- Take the lamb out of the fridge for 30 minutes. Preheat the slow cooker (this will speed your cooking time considerably) while you prepare the lamb.
- Heat a large non-stick frying pan and sear the lamb over high heat on all sides until nicely browned. Set aside.
- Add the potatoes and onion to the pan and fry, stirring, over high heat until the potatoes are starting to colour a little. Deglaze the pan with splash of the wine. Season with salt and pepper.
- Transfer the potatoes to your slow cooker. Add the cinnamon stick, lemon slices and bay leaves.
- Top with the seared lamb. Pour the wine, stock and vinegar over the lamb.
- Cook on low setting for 7-8 hours, or until the lamb is tender if pierced with a knife and falling off the bone.
- If you wish to brown the lamb for some colour (this is optional) place under a hot grill for about 5 minutes. Rest for 10 minutes, loosely covered.
- Shred or carve the lamb into portions and serve over the potatoes sprinkled with a little feta cheese, garnished with the fresh herbs and with extra lemon wedges on the side.
Instant Pot method
- Follow steps 1-5 and cook in your Instant Pot for 45 minutes at high pressure. Allow around 25-30 minutes of natural release.
- If you wish to brown the lamb for some colour place under a hot grill for about 5 minutes. Rest for 10 minutes before slicing to serve.
- Follow steps 1-5. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F).
- Place the potatoes and onion on in a large (turkey) roasting bag and top with the lamb. Add the cinnamon stick, lemon slices and bay leaves. Place on a heavy deep roasting tray.
- Add 60ml (1/4 cup) of white wine or stock and seal the bag. Add a small hole to allow some steam to escape.
- Cook for 3 1/2 hours. Remove from the oven and very carefully open the roasting bag – the steam can give you a nasty burn so protect your hand!
- Return to the oven for another 30 minutes to brown if needed. Check the internal temperature with a digital thermometer. It should be 62°C/ 145°F (medium rare), 71°C/160°F (medium), or 76°C/170 °F (well done). Leave the lamb to rest for 10 minutes loosely covered with foil before slicing to serve.
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