Here's the Beef: How to Cook Roast Beef, Standing Rib Roasts & Prime Rib
This article first appeared in the Wine Spectator.

If it weren't chicken or turkey, the centerpiece of the Norman Rockwell portrait of Sunday dinner would be roast beef. But oh, how times have changed.

"When I shop I see young couples at the meat case of the supermarket looking at the roasts without the foggiest idea of what to do with them. And with pot roast, they know even less," says Marlys Bielunski of the Chicago-based Beef Industry Council.

It isn't worry about fat that has caused people to shy away from those hunks of meat. Steaks and hamburgers are being eaten in record numbers. No, it's sheer size. People don't like leftovers anymore. Gone are the days when Mom spun off the remnants of Sunday's roast into hot roast beef sandwiches on Monday, hash on Tuesday and cold sandwiches in between.

Another reason for the decline of roast beef is that the family dinner, regardless of what is served at it, has gone the way of the rotary phone. In the old days, eating out was a big deal. Today dinner at home is a big deal.

Until the early 19th century, most beef was spit roasted. As the century progressed, and as beef increased in popularity - though it did not become competitive with pork as the nation's favorite meat until the 1920s - roasts moved into ovens. But temperature control in ovens was so difficult that uneven cooking was more the rule than the exception. Frequent basting was needed to compensate for temperature fluctuations. In addition, before advent of feed lots, which created fat marbling to soften tissue, beef was mostly range-fed, much leaner and more susceptible to turning tough.

Which Cuts to Roast?

While ovens have gotten considerably more reliable, cooks have lost - or apparently never learned in the first place - how to cook a roast, beginning with which cuts are the most appropriate.

The no-brainer cut is the tenderloin or fillet of beef that runs down the animal's spine. It's as tender as soft margarine but just as bland. That's because, unlike ours, the steer's tenderloin gets no work, and exercise is what creates flavor in meat muscles. Too much exercise though, and the beef is no longer a candidate for roasting or cooking with dry heat. Then it must be braised or stewed in liquid. The key is to find the right balance of flavor and tenderness.

Alas, this is where we could use the help of that endangered species, the butcher. If you like beef and have a reliable butcher within your area code, pay him or her the same homage normally reserved for your cardiologist.

Cuts that do meet the flavor-tenderness criteria, albeit delicately, are from the beef round and include the eye round, bottom round, bottom round rump roast, tip roast (also called a tip sirloin roast), tip roast, cap off, and top round roast. All are flavorful but lean, so they must be cooked no more than medium rare. Some chuck roasts can be roasted but chuck, while extremely tasty, can be chancy when dry cooked. Again, this is where the butcher earns his pay.

Pot roasts, another homey family meal of yesteryear, are somewhat of a misnomer since they are technically not roasted but braised and involve more sinewy cuts such as chuck shoulder roasts and top blade roasts.

Meat Grades

As for meat grading, you're unlikely to come across prime meat for your roast because restaurants and a few high-end retailers have snapped up most of it. There is a broad range of choice, the next grade down from prime. And with some care (and yes, the help of a good butcher), choice cuts can be every bit as good, especially the scrupulously controlled Certified Black Angus. Most supermarkets sell the select grade, the next one down from choice.

How Much Per Person

When you're shopping, figure on eight to 10 ounces of uncooked, boneless meat per person. Increase that to 12-15 ounces per person if the roast has bones. Invariably this means you'll have some leftovers.

The King of Roasts

The king beef roasts is the standing rib roast. But if roast beef is an occasional thing, a standing rib roast is even more so, because it's usually larger and more expensive. That's probably why most folks only eat it in restaurants and why many restaurants provide it only on weekends.

There are several ways to cook prime rib, indeed any roast of that size. One is the long-slow method in which the meat cooks at temperatures hovering around 200 degrees, not much different from how true barbecue is produced. It's a favorite among large caterers like hotels, which have special upright ovens that cook and keep the meat warm for what seems like an eternity. It's also the kind of method that makes home economists blanch because it takes a long time for the meat to reach the desired internal temperature, thus allowing bacteria to grow in that happy medium (for the bacteria, anyway) between 45 and 140 degrees. For rare to medium rare meat, this process takes about 23 or 24 minutes a pound or until a thermometer reaches 125 degrees (see the temperature section below).

The most popular is the medium-heat method which calls for a steady cooking at around 325 degrees for about 17 minutes a pound until the internal temperature reaches 125 degrees for rare to medium rare.

My favorite is the seared method that follows. It provides for a nicer crust than the other methods, especially if the roast is small. You'll notice that it calls for very little seasoning. Good beef doesn't need much more than salt and pepper. In addition, the absence of herbs and spices will allow your best cabernet sauvignon or burgundy to shine through magnificently.

SEARED METHOD FOR COOKING PRIME RIB

9-lb. standing rib roast with seven rib bones, trimmed of all but 1/4-inch of exterior fat
Kosher salt
Freshly cracked black pepper

1) Have the butcher remove the "chine" bone from the bottom of the roast and have the meat separated from the rib bones so you have a boneless roast and a row of rib bones. Then put the meat back into the bone cradle and tie the meat back onto the bones with string. This allows the bones to keep the meat moist and flavorful and makes for easier carving.

2) Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Put the meat in a roasting pan, bone side down, fat side up, until it comes to room temperature. Rub the roast with salt and pepper. Roast 30 minutes. Reduce heat to 325 degrees and cook 13 minutes per pound from this point or until the internal temperature reaches 125 degrees for rare to medium rare.

3) Remove the roast and let rest at least 10 minutes before carving. If you wish, make gravy from defatted pan drippings during this time. Untie the bones from meat and carve the meat into slices of desired thickness. Cut through and separate the bones and serve separately like spareribs. Serves about 10.

Sam's tip #1: temperature control

What constitutes rare, medium-rare and medium (let's not even think about well done) varies. To placate government home economists, the Beef Council says rare beef means an internal temperature of 140 degrees. Fine of you like beef from a cafeteria line but not if you like moist, rosy meat. To me, rare begins at 120 degrees and starts to become medium rare at 125 or 130 degrees.

For accuracy, get an instant-read thermometer, the kind people who work in food service keep in their lab coat chest pockets with the leaky pens. The instant-read thermometer gives a temperature fix in about 15 seconds and can be used in many other dishes besides roasts. (Digital thermometers give more accurate readings than those with dials.) A meat thermometer, one that stays in the roast while it cooks, gets so grease-splattered it becomes a chore to read. Whichever instrument you use, remember that the internal temperature will rise an additional five degrees once the roast is removed from the oven.

Sam's tip #2: What to do with leftovers

In addition to hot roast beef sandwiches (particularly if you have leftover gravy), cold roast beef sandwiches (ask the butcher to slice the cooked meat to get the thinnest possible slices), and cool beef salads, there is roast beef hash, a leftover I often prefer to the original dish.

For roast beef hash, trim and cube or shred beef into barely bite-size pieces. Finely chop a small onion and cube a few cooked medium potatoes, with or without the skin. Put a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add all the above when the oil is hot. Fry and turn as the crust forms on the bottom. Season well with salt and pepper and serve when heated through and there is a sufficient accumulation of crusty browned bits.

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