PRIME RIB DEMYSTIFIED
Few dishes intimidate the home cook like Prime Rib. Don’t trust me, trust the science– You can do this! And better than restaurants do.
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As soon as Thanksgiving dessert is finished, many a wise family chef is already contemplating the logistics of preparing Christmas dinner. Unlike Thanksgiving, Christmas in America has no pre-ordained menu– a good number will repeat the roast turkey, and a small number, perhaps those with Continental traditions, will venture elsewhere in the avian realm and prepare capon or goose. A juicy pork roast or a nice smoked ham works for many. And the intrepid kitchen warriors who crave the incomparable deliciousness of juicy, slowly-roasted beef loin will tackle Prime Rib– perhaps the apex of fine home cookery. Don’t think you are up to this? With a combination of knowledgeable shopping and proven, scientifically-based preparation, your result will be not only reliably successful, but also superior in flavor to the prime rib served in most any restaurant.
WHAT EXACTLY IS “PRIME RIB?”
Shown above is a map of the “primal cuts” of beef. If this steer were a nation, then the primal cuts would be the sovereign states, which are further divided into “sub-primal cuts” (counties) that, in turn, are divided into “portion cuts” (towns.) Thus the “Prime Rib” that we take such delight in roasting and eating is a portion cut from the Ribeye Roll sub-primal cut, which is taken from the Rib primal cut.
While we humans are blessed by our Creator with 12 pairs of ribs, Bovinae have 13. However, only ribs #6 through #12 (counting from front to back) constitute the rib primal. (#1-5 are considered part of the chuck primal, while #13 is included in the loin primal.) This leaves us with 7 ribs, which is exactly what constitutes a full-sized Prime Rib portion cut that you might see at Costco or The Restaurant Depot.
An artisan butcher friend once explained to me how every single portion cut is unique, i.e., no two steaks are identical (though they may be mirror copies, one from each side.) Since the 7-rib portion cut is so big, it stands to reason that the meat associated with rib #12 differs greatly from that of rib #6… just as the last day of autumn is usually quite different from the first. How it differs is significant for our purposes here.
Because a whole 7-rib roast is often too much meat for a nuclear family to cook and consume, the meat industry tends to divide it into two pieces*. One is comprised of the frontmost 4 ribs– #6 through #9– and is known as the “second-cut,” or chuck end. Meanwhile, the rearmost 3-rib section, ribs #10 through #12, is called the “first-cut,” or loin end. They differentiate these two sections for a good reason– the second cut, while larger in diameter, actually contains less of the highly desirable loin muscle than does the first cut, and thus contains correspondingly more of other, less tasty and tender muscles. The clever home chef, therefore, might consider feeding a large gathering by purchasing two first-cut roasts rather than a whole 7-rib roast because the result will be both more uniform from portion to portion and also superior in flavor and texture. This might entail surrendering the notion of “one rib per person,” which is often way too much meat anyway. (As in our header photo.)
(*If you happen to see a 2-rib roast in your local meat case, it is most likely
the result of cutting a 4-rib second-cut roast in half. Note the telltale tangle
of different muscles rather than a single large area of pure loin.)
Now that we know what cuts are available, let’s examine the quality of the meat… because it can vary greatly among different breeds, feeding methods, and grades. And here is where I must rant a bit about restaurants– viewed through the harsh lens of the essential nature of capitalism itself, restaurants survive by selling us the worst possible food at the highest possible prices. How else to pay for ingredients, labor, electricity, and rent while maximizing profit? It follows that the greatest and most successful eateries thrive on the real or merely perceived “value added” by a talented chef to cost-effective ingredients. Others survive, quite frankly, by lying to us… telling us that cheap, farm-raised salmon is wild-caught; or by selling choice grade (or worse) beef as prime. Speaking of which…
IS PRIME RIB ACTUALLY “PRIME?”
Not necessarily… “Prime Rib” is the name of the portion cut in question, and “prime” is a UDSA-defined grade of beef. The grade of the Prime Rib roasts generally available for retail purchase can range from Select to Choice to Prime, denoting an increasing percentage of marbled fat and thus better flavor. Prime is the fattiest, and therefore tastiest and tenderest (if not the healthiest.) Prime-grade Prime Rib also costs more, but in my experience it is well worth the extra money. I have yet to find a restaurant that actually serves prime-grade prime rib, which is one reason why you can make this dish as good or better at home.
WHAT ABOUT “DRY-AGED?”
Dry-aging makes for fabulous steaks by allowing the meat’s natural enzymatic activity to tenderize them while making the flavor more complex. One can also find dry-aged prime rib roasts, such as this from Allen Brothers, a company I haven’t actually yet tried but one that enjoys a stellar reputation among people I fully trust. Now, dry-aging– as the name implies– does in fact make meat drier… which can be a bit of a problem with roasts, not the least of which is a comparatively paltry yield of delicious pan nectar for your au jus. Truth be told, I just tackled a dry-aged prime rib roast for the first time just two days before publishing this essay because A.) the prohibitively high cost; B.) I was afraid of screwing it up the first time; and C.) I like my roasts nice and juicy. The result was what I expected-- buttery rich and tender with exquisitely complex flavor, but not quite as juicy as I like; certainly worth the high price, especially as compared to restaurants, but not a bargain by any means. If I find one on sale after the holidays, I’ll be happy to buy it. (Interestingly, most of the celebrity chef recipes I found for dry-aged prime rib entailed roasting at comparatively higher temperatures than I’ve seen for non-dry-aged… perhaps to preserve precious moisture with a shorter cooking time.)
DOES THE BREED REALLY MATTER?
“Angus” is a specific breed of beef cattle, first brought to America from Scotland in 1873. The name became a familiar marketing buzzword after the formation of the Certified Angus Beef Brand in 1978. And yet, truth be told, 85% of American beef cattle have Angus bloodlines… and what matters far more than a particular steer’s genetics is how it is raised and what it is fed. Some Angus cattle mature under much better conditions than others; and while all weaned Angus spend their first few months on a diet of grasses, most are finished on corn and other grains in order to quickly fatten them for market. I’m a big fan of 100% grass-fed because it is healthier and tastier, if a tad less tender. In fact, my current favorite prime rib– and my final test run for this essay– is the Boneless 100% Grass-Fed Prime Grade Prime Rib from Holy Grail Steak Co. (This item is presently out of stock at Holy Grail as I write this, but keep a sharp eye if you’re interested.)
And then there’s Wagyu beef. Contrary to popular (mis)perception, “Wagyu” is NOT a specific breed– indeed, the name translates to simply “Japanese cattle” and applies to four different Japanese breeds, which in turn are each a genetic mish-mash of stock imported from China nearly 2,000 years ago and those brought from Europe in the late 1800’s. That being said, in Japan as well as here in the US, the name “Wagyu” specifically connotes beef purposefully raised and fed to achieve superior tenderness as well a decadently high fat content, like this–
The Japanese manage to get marbling like this.
American Wagyu is beyond-prime rich, but never quite THIS rich.
Needless to say, whether Japanese or American, a little Wagyu goes a long way… and yes, Wagyu prime rib is available. Snake River Farms, another of my favorite online premium meat distributors, offers a 3-Bone American Wagyu Prime Rib Roast (10-12 lb.) for a whopping $449.00. After you’re done choking on your wine, consider that meat this richly marbled would satisfy 10 normal appetites @ $45/person… and then check out what a decent restaurant charges for prime rib of less-than-transparent grade and origin. For example, my favorite local dining establishment (when someone else is paying) commands $42 for prime rib as a banquet option and also as a weekend dinner special... not too far off from the Wagyu, really. This is where I thrive and why I’m here, folks– to help you enjoy food that is better and/or cheaper than what is offered at restaurants.
(For more detailed information on Wagyu beef, check out the American Wagyu Association.)
HOW TO COOK YOUR PRIME RIB
I’ve scoured and tested multiple prime rib recipes over the past two years, and my recommended process is, dare I say, a foolproof synthesis of several of them. The first step, of course, is to purchase the right roast based on the information provided above. Some supermarket meat is a lot better than others… but if you wish to join me in shopping for top-quality beef online, I’m happy to recommend the three sources I’ve mentioned above.
Next, choose your cut– bone-in, or boneless; first cut, second cut, or a full-sized roast. I personally prefer boneless, for three reasons– I like not being locked into one rib per person, which is too much meat for many people; the seasoning covers all of the meat on the boneless roast you're serving; and, some chefs argue (contrary to popular wisdom) that the inedible bones we pay for actually add absolutely nothing to the final flavor. (To be fair, one is more likely to get “stuck” with a chuck end when buying a boneless rib eye roast, but the difference becomes rather negligible if you cook it nicely. If, like me, you are occasionally called a control freak in the kitchen, you can always purchase a bone-in first cut roast and then remove the bones yourself. They roast and/or smoke up nicely for informal gnawing with BBQ sauce.)
So– let’s get started. A day or even two days before your big dinner, lightly sprinkle your roast with kosher salt and coarsely-ground black pepper. (I like to add high-quality granulated garlic– just a personal preference.) Refrigerating your seasoned roast uncovered for a day or two will achieve two desirable goals– it will dry the exterior, thereby facilitating a wonderfully-browned crust as it roasts; and also the salt will dissolve some of the internal proteins and make your final product more tender.
Prior to cooking, remove the roast from the refrigerator and allow it to warm up for at least two hours. This will help it cook more evenly from the center to the exterior. While it warms toward room temperature, preheat your oven to 400º.
As meat roasts, its exterior forms a deliciously brown crust. This is a result of what is known as the Maillard Reaction, a complex interaction of cellular sugars and proteins that begins at just under 300ºF and should NOT be confused with Caramelization, which involves sugars alone and occurs at a slightly higher temperature. The Maillard reaction yields not only a wonderful color and crunch to your prime rib’s exterior, it also produces the delicious yet hard-to-describe umami flavors that we never realized how much we crave. (The sauces Soy, Worcestershire, and Marinara are umami bombs.) That salted sleep-over in your fridge contributed mightily to the Maillard Reaction, which works much better on dry surfaces than wet ones.
So, when your oven is hot and your roast has lost its refrigerator chill–
Thrust the probe of your digital monitoring thermometer that you need to buy (absolutely essential to this dish!) into the thick middle of the meat. Position your roast on a roasting rack that affords generous air circulation all around it. Roast at 400º for no more than 15 minutes, and then reduce the temperature to 190º. Feel free to leave the oven door open for a few minutes as the oven cools to 190º… it might not do much good, but doing this makes me feel better. (Interestingly, the numerous recipes I studied for this essay suggested temperatures ranging from 180º to 250º for this low-and-slow phase.)
Continue to cook (at oven temperature of 190º) until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 110º, and then turn off the oven with the roast in it until the internal temperature climbs to 120º (for rare) or 125º for (medium-rare.) Remove from the oven and tent with foil for a few minutes.
Now, if you think you could use a little more crust, by all means crank your oven back up to 400º, and then, only when you’ve hit 400º and not a minute before, put the roast back in the oven for no more than 10 minutes. You might want more crust, but definitely not at the expense of cooking the interior past your personal point of perfection.
Whether or not you’ve given the roast a second blast of high heat, tent it with foil for a few minutes before slicing.
What’s wrong with this roast? It was cooked at too high a temperature and/or taken directly from the fridge to the oven. Either way, the result is an undesirably steep gradient of done-ness– from well-done gray on the outside to perfectly pink in the center. (Not one of mine– I know better.) Compare it to a recent test roast of mine, cooked low and slowly–
From my own humble oven, prime rib as it should be– evenly cooked throughout.
(If this is a little too rare for you, another 5º would’ve made it uniformly pink instead of uniformly pinkish-red. Your thermometer is your most important tool for this. And, of course, you can always give it a minute on each side in a hot iron skillet.)
If you’ve achieved something close to this second photo, congratulations! You’re done… except, of course, for the sauce.
“With juice,” that is, for the non-Francophones among us. A big hunk of duly-managed prime rib yields a precious trickle of utterly delicious meat nectar as it roasts, and then a little more as it is sliced. Want more? It took me a few tries and some research, but here’s how I make “FAUX JUS,” which you can (and perhaps should) make the day before your actual dinner–
Purchase a pound or more of fresh or frozen oxtails and/or beef shins. (They are surprisingly expensive, but definitely worth it for this recipe.) Roast them at 300º with three or four coarsely chopped medium yellow onions and a few sticks of carrots and celery, all tossed with a splash of grape seed oil. When deeply and beautifully browned (maybe two hours later; please don’t burn them) slowly simmer the meat and veggies in a sufficient pot of water with a tablespoon of gluten-free demi glace and an optional glass or more of red wine until the oxtails literally disintegrate. Strain, and then refrigerate in order to solidify the fat cap for easy removal. Reduce the de-fatted remainder to desired richness, and then season as needed. (“Better than Bouillon” is my go-to hack here. A tiny dab goes a long way– 1 teaspoon gets you 30% of your sodium RDA. In a related story, umami flavors are natural sodium bombs.)
After you prepare your fabulous roast, simply combine this concoction with the pan drippings and the juice released from the slicing, and you’ll have a wonderfully delicious AND a copious amount of “au jus” for the table… enough for the potatoes as well as the meat.
Yes… Some people like their prime rib sauced with a horseradish-sour cream concoction instead of au jus. Recipes vary widely; here is a relatively simple version.
If you are going full Downton Abbey this Christmas, you’ll need to serve these ridiculously rich and nutritionally vacant popovers along with your perfect prime rib. Here is a traditional recipe.
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Most of the “low and slow” recipes in my background research call for searing at high heat at the beginning of the process, while “reverse-searing” (AFTER the low and slow roast) is currently gaining in popularity. I like to split the difference, lightly browning up front and then at the end, as needed. Restaurants enjoy an advantage in reverse-searing because the final browning is accomplished in their powerful convection ovens, which blast the exterior of roasts with powerful, crust-forming heat so effectively that the inside doesn’t have time to warm up. (More or less a corollary of the amusingly absurd and paradoxical “Froze so fast, the ice was still warm!”) For cooking in your home oven, searing up front (and briefly again at the end, if needed) is perhaps a safer choice than searing only after the low and slow roasting. Either way, yours will likely still be better than the restaurant’s.
What’s the best wine to serve with prime rib? French tradition dictates “Burgundy (i.e., Pinot Noir) with beef, and Bordeaux (primarily Cabernet Sauvignon) with Lamb.” My advice is to drink whatever the hell wine you like, but consider that the high-testosterone reds that stand up to a manly-man char-grilled steak won’t necessarily pair as compatibly with gently roasted prime rib. Therefore, I’d say, think soft– silky Californian Pinot Noir and cushy Washington State Merlots (the latter further softened by an overnight decant) are my personal go-to choices with prime rib. Really good Syrah (but not necessarily a tooty-fruity Aussie Shiraz) is a nice choice as well. Once again I cannot avoid recommending my favorite wine source– de Négoce, the website where you can legitimately purchase $60 wine for $20. My recent prime-rib-friendly acquisitions include their Lot 90 Merlot, Lot 217 Syrah, and Lot 165 Pinot Noir.
Unless you are feeding an NFL defensive front seven this Christmas, you are likely to have leftover prime rib. The slices reheat nicely in an iron frying pan, but consider that they won’t get any rarer in the process. You don’t need to heat it all the way through; in fact, prime rib is pretty delicious cold, so long as you remove as much of the hard white fat as possible. However, do NOT try to make regular beef stew with leftover prime rib… a tough cut (like chuck) that softens up only with a long simmer is far better for stew than is super-premium loin that’s seductively tender to begin with.
Remember– you can do this! The science, you see, is 100% on your side. I like to think that if you follow my page, then you must be a very intelligent and capable person. And yet, should your resolve ever waver and self-doubt cross your brow, even slightly, please feel free to contact me with any questions. I really want you to succeed.