Prime time for beef
With the right equipment and tips, you can cook a roast with confidence.
The prime rib roast is a popular order at butcher shops around Christmastime, when many families are willing to splurge for a fancy cut of beef. Photo courtesy the Beef Checkoff.
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
The turkey may reign supreme at the Thanksgiving table, but when Christmas rolls around, old Tom has nothing on the king and queen of all beef roasts.
At meat counters across Southwest Virginia, standing rib roasts and beef tenderloins are the top-selling cuts of beef in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Although not all families choose beef for the holiday dinner, sales of those two roasts can hold their own against alternatives such as duck, ham and seafood.
But one does not enter lightly into the preparation of either cut, because the price is pretty heavy. In our family, the adults chip in $10 apiece for a standing rib roast — otherwise known as prime rib — that usually rings up at about $80. I’m so fearful of ruining the high-dollar cut that I have never cooked it myself. I leave that up to my father, who somehow manages every year to turn out a beauty that satisfies both my aunts, who like theirs bloody, and my sister, who likes hers well-done (or “ruined,” as the aunts put it).
But self-doubt should never prevent cooks from attempting a new recipe, and the truth is that neither of these roasts is as difficult to cook as we may think. In fact, it’s more challenging to make other holiday staples such as yeast rolls and fudge than it is to prepare a nice roast.
The key to delicious results, according to experts I consulted, is to have proper equipment and to remember a few important steps.
Choosing a roast
William O’Brien, who practically grew up at his family’s butcher shop in Salem, has prepared a few beef roasts in his time. According to his father, Conrad, William is the “gourmet cook” in the family, so the patriarch passed the phone to him when I called.
The younger O’Brien said they already have more than 100 special orders for late December, and a lot of those are for beef roasts. That number is sure to rise as the holiday approaches. At Tinnell’s Finer Foods in South Roanoke, they generally sell about 300 tenderloins and 100 standing rib roasts in December, said owner Rett Ward.
Depending on the butcher shop, standing rib roasts can come with the bones included or removed. Some butchers will even cut off the bones, then tie them back on for presentation. And when you’re spending that much money on a roast, your butcher of choice ought to be willing to trim it up however you desire.
Boneless rib roasts are known as Delmonico-style, O’Brien said, and they are easier to carve than a bone-in version. Believe it or not, they are also less expensive, and it’s not because of weight.
Some folks swear the bone adds more flavor , and there is meat between those ribs that can be gnawed off, though not very gracefully. Another bonus to the bone is that the ribs form a natural roasting rack on which to set the meat, and the presentation of a bone-in standing rib roast is second to none.
It’s clear from Tinnell’s sales figures that beef tenderloin is the Rolls-Royce of beef cuts in many minds. When portioned into steaks, they are known as filet mignon. But a whole tenderloin can be easier to prepare than individual steaks for a large group.
Choosing the right roast for your dinner comes down to personal preference. Standing rib roasts are fattier, so some would argue that they are more flavorful. But there’s not a darn thing wrong with the tender, melt-in-your-mouth goodness of a fine tenderloin. The former costs less per pound than the tenderloin but tends to be larger, so the price evens out in the end.
Whichever roast you choose, O’Brien recommends not skimping on the size.
“I tell people to go big,” he said. “Don’t go less than 8 ounces per person or 12 ounces per person. You are going to be eating all day and people will come back [for seconds]. It is no time to be stingy about it.”
When I ask more than one knowledgeable person the same question and get the same answer, I know I’m onto the real lowdown.
William O’Brien and Aaron Deal, executive chef at The River and Rail in South Roanoke, each described the same basic technique for cooking a high-quality beef roast. Here’s their advice.
Marinate or season the beef. O’Brien likes to marinate either cut in a mixture that is two parts red wine, one part soy sauce and one part Worcestershire sauce, then sprinkle it with a little garlic salt, pepper, ground mustard and rosemary. Deal likes to marinate his tenderloins but prefers to use a rub on standing rib roasts. He puts on the rub one or two days in advance, wraps the meat in plastic wrap and refrigerates it until cooking time. Letting it sit allows the rub to penetrate the meat and adhere to the outside so it forms a tasty crust when roasted.
The old fear that salting meat before you cook it will make it dry does not apply to these large roasts, Deal said, so feel free to include salt in your rubs. He does not put fresh herbs on a prime rib roast because the long cooking time can cause them to scorch, he said, but he likes them on a tenderloin.
Choose a prime rib roast with a nice fat cap, then ask the butcher to score the fat slightly or do it yourself. Position the roast in the pan with the fat on top. Scoring increases the surface area of the fat and helps it to render out, Deal said. The fat bastes the roast as it renders.
As with any beef cut, these roasts are best if the outside is browned quickly at first to seal in juices. Tenderloin can be browned in canola or grapeseed oil in a pan before being roasted, Deal said, but prime rib roasts are so huge and unwieldy that pan-searing is a pain in the rump.
O’Brien and Deal both prefer to start the roasting process for either cut in an extremely hot oven (450-500 degrees) for about 10 minutes, then cut back the temperature to 325. At that point, O’Brien covers the roast with a lid or foil for the remainder of the cooking time, while Deal covers it only if it begins to brown too quickly.
Use a good meat thermometer inserted in the fattest center part of the roast, but don’t let it touch fat or bone. A digital meat thermometer works the best. If you try to cook these roasts without a meat thermometer, you’re asking for trouble.
When the temperature hits 135, remove the roast and let it sit. Resting is hugely important because it allows the juices to redistribute. The temperature will continue to rise as the roast sits, and it should end up being a nice medium-rare to medium in the thickest part by the time you slice it. Deal rests tenderloin for at least 20 minutes and prime rib roasts for at least 30 minutes.
“I always say if you think it’s rested, rest it 10 more minutes,” he said. “It’s [still] going to be warm.”
To sauce or not to sauce is a matter of personal preference . Many will say the flavor of the beef is so wonderful that it would be a shame to mask it with sauce, but others enjoy some au jus or horseradish sauce with their roast beef.
At the restaurant, Deal makes a sauce by thinning Greek yogurt with a little buttermilk, then adding horseradish, a little Worcestershire sauce, a little lemon juice and some fresh chives to taste. The O’Brien family enjoys sour cream mixed with horseradish, a little Worcestershire sauce and a little fresh dill.
If you can’t afford a prime rib roast or tenderloin, you still can buy a nice beef roast for the family.
O’Brien’s next-favorite cut is an aged sirloin roast, which he cooks essentially the same way he does the other roasts, except he prefers to do it on the grill. Deal suggests a beef brisket, which can either be cooked like a tenderloin or slow-cooked until it begins to fall apart. There’s no shame in using a slow cooker for a brisket.
Also, Dave Zino, executive chef for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (a contractor for the Beef Checkoff Program), recommends a tri-tip roast. Those are not as commonly available as other cuts, so you may need to order in advance .
I’m sharing a dry rub recipe and a marinade recipe courtesy of Aaron Deal, as well as a recipe for horseradish cream from the Beef Checkoff. In addition, I made some calls to determine the prices for holiday roasts at local butcher shops.
Cook your roast with confidence — if hundreds of other Southwest Virginians can do it, so can you!
On the blog
Shrimp Queso Mac ‘n’ Cheese and other easy meal ideas for the holiday rush on the blog at blogs.roanoke.com/fridgemagnet.
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