Most people have ham for Easter. Yeah, we had some of that, but the star of the meal was standing rib roast – what most people think of as ‘prime rib.’ Given that Orthodox Easter isn’t until May and Passover is still a few weeks ahead, I figured maybe it was time to share my secrets for making a great rib roast.
The term prime rib is very specific but a misnomer when used generically: ‘prime’ isn’t a cut of meat but instead describes quality – prime is the highest grade, choice the second highest, and so on. Generally, a higher grade means more marbling, i.e., more fat, which makes the meat more tender, but that’s not 100% accurate; there’s more to it. You have to remember that today’s grading system for meat was developed before science knew how bad too much animal fat of the wrong kind can be for our hearts and circulatory systems. There’s also a point at which more fat stops contributing to the tenderness of the meat.
This particular cut of beef is correctly called standing rib roast. It’s taken from the long rib section of a steer (that’s also where rib-eye steaks come from). It’s called standing rib because it ‘stands’ on the big bones running through one edge (you roast it bone-side down, fat side up). You also buy it by the rib: a two-bone roast could be about 4 to 4-½ pounds, depending on how close to the bone your butcher cuts it on the edges; a three-bone can be between just under 6 pounds to 6½-7 pounds, etc.
About the marbling: you do want some within the red meat to keep it tender, but you really don’t need that much fat between sections or around the edges … and a choice cut of rib roast can have just as much marbling inside the meat fibers as a prime cut, but with less of the extraneous (i.e., useless) fat – which means that the right piece of choice-grade rib roast may be a better value than a prime-rated roast and still be just as flavorful. Consider ‘choice’ rib roast a happy medium between your love of red meat and your health goals (not to mention it’s easier on your wallet). Which means it’s not much of a compromise at all, right?
So: make friends with your butcher, and have him (or her) help you find the right piece of standing rib roast for your purposes. Then you just have to prep it and roast it right, for which you should follow the tips listed below, all of which I’ve acquired over 30+ years of cooking and assembled in nice, neat bullet points. For best results, read the entire tip list the day before you expect to cook the rib roast, if not before you shop for it (before you shop would be better). But be forewarned: you really must invest in a good meat thermometer if you don’t already have one – it’s the only way you can be absolutely sure that you cooked the roast to the desired doneness. Now read and have at it! You’ll be glad you did.
- How big a roast do you need? Start by allowing at least half a pound per person, then add more if you want to allow for seconds or leftovers, and about a third of a pound each for small children (for example, 1 pound for 3 kids). I usually get a 4 to 4-½ pound rib roast for 4 people or a 6-pound roast for 5 to 6 people because I want leftovers; without seconds, a 4-½ pound roast can serve 6 to 8 people. But remember, you’re buying this by the rib, and you may not be able to be precise about the amount you can get – so err on the high side.
- Before roasting, make a long cut (or better yet, have the butcher cut) between the bones and the meat, to allow you to season the underside of the meat. Cut right up against the bones, starting at the thinner end of the roast and working toward the wider end. You can either stop about an inch short of the end, so that the roast opens up like a book (my choice) with the ribs on one side and most of the meat on the other, or cut all the way through (the method used by Cook’s Illustrated), then tie the bones back on to the meat (you want those bones!). If you get the butcher to make this cut for you, be sure to ask for extra string or butcher’s twine, so that you can open up the roast at home to season it and tie it back up yourself.
- Season the roast all over with Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper, and your favorite meat or steak rub. Be sure to include ground thyme in the rub and/or fresh sprigs of thyme leaves, because thyme and beef really go together – thyme enhances beef’s flavor like no other herb does. You can even insert thyme sprigs between the meat and the bones before you re-tie the roast (see the end of the tip list for the recipe for a good all-purpose meat rub). Then let the roast sit for at least an hour on the counter, so that all of it comes to room temperature – this will allow it to roast more evenly. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. for at least 20 minutes (30 is better).
- Use a roasting pan with high sides and a rack high enough to allow at least 1 inch between the rack and the bottom of the pan, so that the heat can circulate under the rib roast. If you don’t have a rack like that, put a cooling rack for cakes on top of your roasting pan and sit the roast on that. Place the roast bone side down, fat side up.
- Use a meat thermometer (or, if your oven has one, an internal probe that stays in the roast and gives you a readout on the face of the oven) – I can’t stress this too much. Stick the thermometer or probe into the thickest part of the rib roast. Insert it on an angle so that you can see the face of the dial through the window of your oven door (this won’t matter for a probe). Roast the meat with the oven light on so that you don’t need to open the door to read the face of the meat thermometer.
- Put the roast in the center of the oven (the oven rack should sit about two-thirds of the way from the roof of the oven). Roast at 400 degrees F. for 40 minutes (set a timer!), then reduce heat to 325 (or even 300, if you have plenty of time) and don’t open the oven door for at least the first 90 minutes of cooking
- How long do you cook the roast? Until the thermometer says it’s done. How long it cooks depends on how big it is, how cold it is in the middle when you start, whether your oven keeps an even temperature, whether you let it sit on the counter first long enough, and how done you want it in the middle. For medium rare in the center, you want an internal temperature of about 120 degrees but no higher than 125 degrees (remember that it will still continue to cook on the counter for 10-15 minutes after you remove it from the oven); for medium in the center, aim for between 125 and 130 degrees. Don’t cook the roast beyond medium in the center – the ends will be more cooked than the center, so anyone who likes medium well can get a cut from either end.
- After roasting, let the meat rest for at least 20 minutes, on its rack on the counter with the thermometer still in it; the meat will finish cooking, and you’ll see the internal temperature bump up a few more degrees. Resting allows the juices to soak back into the meat; unless you allow enough time for this, the meat will taste dry, no matter how much juice leaks from it.
- Untie the rib roast and separate roast completely from the rib bones before placing it on a platter or carving board. Use a very sharp, long carving knife or roast knife to cut portions. Make the slices ½ inch to an inch thick. Expect that some folks will fight over the bones (yes, really; that’s okay). Serve with an au jus style gravy made from a reduction of unsalted or very low sodium beef stock with red wine or stock with wine and demi-glace (see separate recipe, which I’ll post next time).
All-purpose meat rub: In a small to medium-sized soup bowl, combine 2 oz. Lawry’s reduced sodium seasoned salt with 2 oz. garlic powder (not garlic salt!), 2 oz. onion powder, 2 oz. ground thyme, 1 oz. ground savory, 1 oz. ground coriander, 1 oz. sweet Hungarian paprika, 1 tbsp. hot paprika or cayenne pepper, 1 tbsp. ground cumin, 1 tsp. smoked paprika, and ½ tsp. plain sugar. Stir well and use immediately or pour into a large shaker bottle for later use. Makes enough for one really big rib roast (a 6-bone roast) or several smaller roasts. Also good for pork roasts, pork ribs, venison roast, and roasted poultry.