rowing up in a large family, we traditionally had a huge Christmas gathering, replete with swarms of screaming, hungry children and at least 20 adults. We always had the obligatory turkey, but my grandmother would also make an impressive prime rib. Although she cooked the beef to a dry well done, it was my favorite, and everybody else’s too.
I’ve developed my own holiday traditions since then, but I still make prime rib each year, only I cook it to medium rare. The cut, also called a standing rib roast, is elegant, abundant, and extremely flavorful—qualities I like in roasts. It isn’t cheap, ranging from $8 to $14 per pound, depending upon quality, but the good news is that cooking it to perfection couldn’t be easier. All you need to do is season it and roast it. The less the meat is fussed with, the better.
The seven ribs of a rib roast
When shopping for a rib roast, you’ll have some choices to make. First, how many ribs do you want? A full rib roast contains seven ribs, but for most families, a three-rib roast is plenty big enough, since it will feed seven to eight people. (A full sevenrib roast can weigh up to 16 pounds and could be a tight squeeze in your oven). Which three ribs are the best? I prefer what is called the “small end of the ribs”—the area of relatively lean, flavorful meat adjacent to the expensive short loin. You might also hear this three-rib roast referred to as ribs 10–12, since the full rib roast is actually ribs 6–12 from the upper rib section of the animal. The “large end of the ribs,” or ribs 6–9, lies next to the chuck and has more chunks of fat between smaller lean areas.
When prime rib isn’t “prime”
“Prime rib” is simply the popular name for a rib roast; it doesn’t necessarily mean that your beef has been graded prime (the USDA’s best grade). Choice is the next-best grade, but look out: Many grocery chains now stock select, the next grade down. Select is leaner and lacks the flavor of choice, so be sure to check the label before buying.
Some beef has been dry-aged
which means it has been allowed to sit uncovered in a cold (36°F) refrigerator for three to five weeks. Aging releases natural tenderizing enzymes, softening the tough connective tissue. The evaporation of moisture helps the flavors to mellow and the beefiness to concentrate. Today, most butchers haven’t the room or the wherewithal to provide dry-aged beef. Some age their beef in the cryovac bag in which the beef arrives, but this “wet-aging” doesn’t provide the same wonderful results. If you can find dry-aged and are willing to pay the premium, give it a try.
You can also buy a rib-eye roast
with the rib bones removed. It’s expensive, and for my money, not as spectacular a presentation as the bone-in roast. Besides, you don’t get those wonderful ribs to nibble on while you’re doing the dishes.
A good start in a hot oven, and a long rest
There are many opinions on the best way to roast a prime rib. Some North American cookbooks advise roasting it in a 325° to 350°F oven. British books suggest searing it in a 450° to 500°F oven for a short time and then continuing to roast it at 325° to 350°F until it reaches the desired doneness. I side with the Brits, the originators of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Their method ensures a crusty brown exterior and the wonderful aroma and flavor that we crave in roast beef
Just like the stressed-out cook, a well-roasted prime rib needs time to rest.
Once out of the oven, a roast’s residual heat continues to cook it, causing a 5° to 10°F rise in the internal temperature. Resting not only completes the roasting of the meat, it also lets the juices that have risen to the roast’s surface settle back into the interior of the meat, not onto the bottom of the carving board. A proper rest is crucial for juicy, succulent slices of meat, so be sure to build it into your timetable.