Before I moved to New York City, my interaction with goat was limited to the odd kiddie petting zoo (where, my mom tells me, an old billy goat once bit my finger), and maybe the occasional mesclun salad with goat cheese and Craisins, if I was eating somewhere fancy. (It was the 90s.) Once I moved to Brooklyn, a whole new world of goat opened up to me: with the borough’s rich Caribbean culture and food, goat curry became one of my favorite dishes. Goat cheese, too, broke free of the tyranny of mixed greens to become a star player in ravioli, cheesecakes, crostini and more. I dig the gamey, rich meatiness of goat meat and the grassy funk of goat cheese and yogurt, and the animals’ history is pretty interesting, too. Read on to learn more about the ruminant with the weird eyes.
A Brief History
Scientists now think that goats were probably first domesticated around 10,000 years ago in two areas – Western Iran, in the Zagros Mountains, and in the Euphrates River valley. It is thought that the Bezoar ibex, native to Southwest Asia, is the wild ancestor of domesticated goats. The Oxford Companion to Food tells us that, according to the archaeological record, goats were probably important as a meat animal, but it is likely that every part of the animals were used, from meat to skins to milk. Goats spread across the world with the domestication of agriculture, and remains of the animals have been found in the ancient city of Sumer (now in Iraq) and in Neolithic Chinese archaeological sites.
- In Internet slang, GOAT means “greatest of all time.”
- Check out this wonderful, award-winning photo of a boy keeping his pet goat safe from a “lion.”
- In Portland, Oregon and other parts of the country, you can hire goats to mow your lawn. As this article points out, they provide their own fertilizer, don’t burn fossil fuels and their famously iron guts sterilize weed seeds.
- Goats like to climb stuff (more on this, below). Watch this crazy video of a pet goat outfitted with a GoPro camera climbing cliffs over the ocean (not recommended for those who fear heights!). Here are more incredibly cute pictures of climbing goats.
- A few years ago, an innovative campaign from Heritage Food USA called “No Goat Left Behind” aimed to connect New York City chefs to local goat farmers with extra kids from their goat milking operations (to get goats to lactate, they must get pregnant and have baby goats). A company called Vermont Chevon aims to do the same in Vermont.
- There are a little less than three million goats in the US today. Here is a map of literally every one of them.
Goats, Capra hircus, are ruminants in the Bovidae family. They count sheep, cattle, water buffalo, gazelles and antelopes as their cousins. There are about 250 breeds of goats and around 450 million goats around the world. They are genetically adapted to live in steep, mountainous environments and graze on things like tree bark and shrubs. Most varieties of goats have horns and beards (yes, even the female goats). They also have super freaky eyes with rectangular, horizontal pupils. These specialized pupils give goats great depth perception, helping them evade predators in rocky terrain. The animals are very curious and love to climb.
Female goats are called “nannies” or “does,” and un-castrated males are called “bucks,” “rams” or “billies.” Baby or young goats are called “kids” (sometimes cabritoin Spanish, when referring to meat animals). Older goat meat is called chevon. Domestic goats are raised for milk, meat and hair, and generally have been selectively bred for one of these purposes. Here’s in-depth information on how to raise goats from Grit.
Seasonality and Where to Find It
Goats can be bred any time of the year, and as this article explains, many goat farmers breed their goats so that they kid (give birth) to coincide with certain holidays, like Easter. This means that you may be able to find goat most times of the year, depending on your source(s) and where you live. Check your local farmers’ market first – goat’s increasing popularity means that goat meat and other goat products (milk, cheese, yogurt) may be available from your local goat farmers. Halal markets and markets that cater to Mexicans, Central Americans, Caribbeans and Africans are also good places to find goat meat.
Goats are well adapted to most any climate, including hot and dry areas, and they will eat a wide variety of plants and shrubs as they forage (they are called “nonselective browsers” for this reason), including unwanted brush and weeds. Goats also require far less land than cows and are generally raised on smaller farms with more sustainable practices (possibly primarily because the demand for the animals in the US is low). Chances are also good that you can find locally raised goat.
Goat meat is extremely lean, so it generally has to be cooked “low and slow” (low heat for a long time), usually in some sort of liquid. It has a gamey, lamb-like flavor – if you don’t love this, look for meat from younger animals.
Goat milk is also grassy, tangy and a bit gamey. In addition to goat milk, which is becoming increasingly available at farmers’ markets and larger grocery stores, you may be able to find goat milk yogurt, cheese, butter and ice cream. Products made from goat milk have less lactose (a kind of sugar) and casein (a kind of protein) – two components of milk that can cause allergies – than cow’s milk products, so may be a good choice if you are sensitive to either. Goat cheese (aka chevre)is most frequently sold as fresh (un-aged) cheese, but there are a number of delicious, aged cheeses made from goat’s milk, like my favorite, Humboldt Fog, from California. Here’s a longer list of different goat cheese types.
Goat is high in protein and low in fat. It is also full of other vitamins and minerals, like riboflavin, niacin, Vitamin B12, iron, zinc, copper and selenium. According to this article, goat meat has twice as much iron than beef and is far lower in calories, to boot. Goat milk is low in cholesterol and high in protein, potassium and calcium.
What to Do with It and Cooking
As with most meat, what you do with it depends on the cut. Chops, loin and ground goat can be cooked quickly, while shoulder and other larger cuts should be cooked low-and-slow. Because goat is leaner than other meats, it does well with braising in liquid, like with Caribbean curried goat, but it's also great slowly roasted on a spit (with a good Barolo, according to the New York Times) – a common way to cook the meat, from Mexico to Italy to the Middle East. Goat pairs well with strong spices and herbs, like cumin, curry powder, oregano, rosemary and mint. Here’s more advice on how to cook goat meat, along with some recipes. I love goat cheese, and I think it pairs perfectly with earthy vegetables like beets and kale. It’s also great crumbled over whole grains, like farro and quinoa.
Goat Kefta Kebabs with Cucumber, Tomato and Mint Salad and Za’atar Vinaigrette
Although goat meat on the bone tends to be easier to find, goat’s increasing popularity means that we’re seeing different cuts of meat more frequently, including goat tenderloins, chops and ground goat, used here. I’ve taken a page from Middle Eastern cuisine for this kefta kebab recipe (kefta kebabs are usually made from ground meat) – goat tastes great with spices like cumin, cinnamon and black pepper. Za’atar is a Middle Eastern dry condiment made from sesame seeds, ground sumac, za’atar (a type of oregano or marjoram) and salt. Look for it in Middle Eastern markets, or you can make your own.
For the Goat Kefta:
1 pound ground goat
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh mint, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
For the Salad:
1 medium cucumber, peeled
2 medium plum tomatoes or 1 large heirloom tomato
1/2 small red onion, peeled
1 tablespoon za’atar spice mix
1 tablespoon (or more to taste) lemon juice
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
10-12 small fresh mint leaves
Pita, yogurt, harissa or other hot sauce for serving
Special equipment: metal skewers
For the Goat Kefta:
- Preheat your oven’s broiler to high, or light your barbecue grill.
- In a medium bowl, add the ground goat, olive oil, shallot, mint, salt, pepper, cumin and the pinch of cinnamon. Using your hands, mix gently until the ingredients are just incorporated.
- Form the mixture into golf-ball sized balls. Taking one metal skewer at a time, wrap the meat lengthwise around the skewer.
- Grill over hot coals for 8-10 minutes, or until cooked through, or broil under the hot broiler for 10-12 minutes.
For the Salad:
- Chop the cucumber and tomato into 1-inch chunks. Slice the onion into thin (about ¼ ; inch) half-moon slices. Spread on a medium platter.
- In a medium bowl, add the za’atar, lemon juice, salt and pepper and whisk just to combine. While whisking, slowly pour in the olive oil until combined. Taste the mixture – it should have a lemon-y, acidic bite. Add additional lemon juice and salt, if needed.
- Pour the vinaigrette over the cucumber, tomato and onion mixture. Top with the fresh mint leaves.
To serve: Carefully remove the goat from the metal skewers (skewers will be hot!). Serve with pita, a drizzle of yogurt, the cucumber-tomato salad and hot sauce.