Everything you ever wanted to know about your Sunday dinner roast
by David Joachim and Andrew Schloss
from Fine Cooking #110, p. 38-39
In 1825, the famous French Gastronome Brillat-Savarin wrote, "We can learn to be cooks, but we must be born knowing how to roast." So why is roasting meat such a mystery? Maybe it's because cuts of meat vary widely in thickness and in protein, water, and fat content, all of which can change the ideal roasting method. Or maybe it's because when you're roasting, all of the cooking happens out of plain sight. Whatever the reason, the truth is that roasting meat is actually simple-once you know what's going on behind that closed oven door.
Why do so many roasting recipes say to let the meat stand at room temperature for up to an hour before cooking?
To take the chill off the meat's surface so it browns better. Meat is typically refrigerated at about 37°F, but browning doesn't begin to occur until about 310°F. Letting meat sit out of the refrigerator gradually raises the meat's surface temperature, so when it hits the hot oven, it quickly reaches browning temperature and then develops a thick crust. (Cold meat won't brown as quickly or as easily.) Small roasts (less than 3 pounds) will lose their surface chill in less than 30 minutes, while large roasts can rest at room temperature for up to an hour. (This isn't a food safety issue as long as the meat doesn't stay out for more than two hours.)
Should I roast meat on or off the bone?
If you have a choice between a boneless roast and one that's bone-in, go for the bone-in. Bone-in roasts taste juicer and richer, thanks to collagen, a type of fibrous protein that concentrates in bones and in the cartilage surrounding bones. During cooking, water in the meat is driven out of the cells, helping to dissolve the collagen in and around the bone into rich-tasting gelatin, which creates a better mouthfeel.
Roasting meat on the bone also produces tender, rare meat near the bone (hence the phrase "tender at the bone"). That's because the honeycomb air pockets in bones make poor conductors of heat. Bones slow down the cooking, causing meat near the bone to roast at a slower rate and remain more rare.
Is it better to roast meat at a high heat quickly or at a low heat slowly?
It all depends on the cut of meat you're roasting and the results you want. Roasting at high temperatures (400°F and above) browns meat quickly, which makes a roast look and taste delicious. This method is generally best for thin, tender cuts like beef tenderloin and pork tenderloin, which rely on that well-browned crust for flavor. But high heat also has a drawback-it can cause moisture loss, resulting in drier meat.
For thick and somewhat tender cuts like beef standing rib roasts and center-cut pork loin roasts, a moderated version of high-temperature roasting works best. With this method, you start the meat roasting at a high temperature (450°F to 500°F) to brown the surface, and then reduce the heat to a more moderate temperature (300°F to 350°F), so the meat can gradually reach the ideal internal temperature (a remote probe thermometer is a good way to check). Some cooks prefer to do the browning step in a hot pan on the stovetop and then transfer the meat to a 300°F to 350°F oven to finish roasting. This stovetop-to-oven roasting method works best with smaller roasts, like rack of lamb.
Finally, low-temperature roasting (below 250°F) is excellent for very large and/or tough cuts of meat like pork shoulder and beef chuck roast. Lowering the temperature may limit the degree of flavorful surface browning, but it allows the meat to cook more evenly from the surface to the interior. Low heat also helps keep the entire roast moist, which reduces shrinkage and improves juiciness. Most important, slow-roasting allows time for the collagen to dissolve into gelatin, and for enzymes in the meat to help break down and tenderize the tough fibers, resulting in a more succulent texture.
Why should meat rest after roasting?
To make it juicier. During roasting, the heat concentrates the juices in the center of the meat. If you cut into it straight out of the oven, the juices readily dribble onto the plate. But as the meat cools, the proteins become firmer and are better able to retain the juices.
Keep in mind that, early on in the resting period, the heat from the surface of the roast will continue to radiate toward the center, causing the internal temperature to rise a few degrees at a rate relative to the meat's density and thickness. This is called carryover cooking. For this reason, roasted meats-especially large or thick roasts and those roasted at high temperatures-should be removed from the heat when they are 5°F to 15°F shy of the desired internal temperature, depending on the roast's size and the type of meat. (Note that good recipes should take this into account, instructing you to remove meat from the oven before it reaches the desired doneness temperature.) For an accurate temperature reading, insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat but not near or touching bone. Bones conduct heat more slowly than do fat and muscle, so meat near the bone will register a slightly lower temperature.
How long you let the meat rest depends on the size and final internal temperature of the roast. Meat tends to taste best eaten at a temperature of about 120°F. The larger the roast and the higher the meat's final temperature, the longer it will take for the internal temperature to drop to 120°F.