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Finding the Perfect Prime Rib Recipe

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Ready for the oven

I’m a huge fan of steak, and prime rib in particular.

Unfortunately, the cost of dining out when it comes to prime rib can be quite expensive.  The better steakhouses that we’ve frequented in the Bay Area (e.g., Sundance Steakhouse, or House of Prime Rib) can easily run $40+ per person based on just the menu prices of the meat.  At nicer establishments, the menu prices can easily be a multiple of that.  Of course, we are also now well-versed in the fact that the true out-of-pocket cost is much more than the menu cost.  Factor in the time and expense to actually travel to the restaurant and potentially enduring a lengthy wait even with a reservation, and even the non-financial costs start to add up.  After all that, the food had better be worth it!

It’s for a scenario like this that motivates me to learn how to do something for myself.  If I can somehow replicate the food quality at home, maybe not to restaurant-quality but at least close enough, and potentially at much lower cost and hassle, then cooking and eating at home (at least when it comes to prime rib) would be quite the victory.

It turns out it’s not even that much of a hassle.  I’ve experimented with a few different approaches and have found what I think works pretty well for me.

Here’s a good overall summary for what to look for in a rib roast and how to cook it.

TOOLS REQUIRED

  • Roasting Pan (needed to catch the drippings for the au jus)
  • Meat thermometer (instant or oven-safe)

 

INGREDIENTS

  • Prime rib roast
  • Butter
  • Garlic, minced
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Herbes de Provence

 

COOKING NOTES

Prime Rib Roast

We typically will select a prime rib roast of 2 to 4 bones, depending on how much meat we want.  Note that a full rib roast has 7 bones.

In our experience, a 2-bone roast is about 4-5 pounds, a 3-bone roast is about 7-8 pounds, and a 4-bone roast is about 10 pounds.  We will typically figure about one pound of meat per person, though we inevitably wind up with leftover meat using this rule of thumb.

Note that the term “prime rib” is used colloquially to describe a method of cooking a rib roast.  The meat will likely not be labeled that way in the stores.  That’s because the term “Prime” is reserved by the USDA to denote a certain (top) quality grade of meat, along with the terms “Choice” and “Select.”  In stores, the roast will most commonly labeled as a rib roast or a standing rib roast, which indicates that the bones are still attached to the meat.  Fortunately, it’s easy to tell whether or not the roast still has the bones.

We typically buy meat from grocery stores, Costco or butcher / specialty meat shops.  Grocery stores will carry meat in the “Select” or “Choice” range, while Costco and specialty stores will carry “Choice” and “Prime” grades.  Typical prices are in the $10 per pound range for “Choice” grade, while “Prime” quality can be considerably more expensive ($17+ per pound).  Pay attention to the grade of meat that you’re getting, particularly at chain grocery stores.

It’s often worth checking with the butcher or meat counter to see if they can remove the meat from the bones and tie the bones back to the meat for you.  You can also do this yourself at home, but it’s easier to just let the experts handle that part.  It’s not necessary to separate the meat from the bones prior to roasting, but it definitely helps you serve the meat after you take it out of the oven.

Butter Rub

The purpose of the butter rub is to give the roast a nice delicious crust.  Smear the butter over the outside of the roast, with particular attention to the cut ends of the meat.  The top of the roast will already have a fatty layer, but it’s good to rub some of the mixture in there too for consistent seasoning.

We typically use about 1/3 stick of butter softened in the microwave, with perhaps 12 cloves’ worth of minced garlic and ground pepper mixed in.

Herbes de Provence

Including additional herbs into the butter spread can enhance the flavor, though my palate isn’t sophisticated enough to really notice much difference.  If you’re like me, you probably aren’t familiar with which herbs are actually associated with Provence.  You can use a specific herbes de provence recipe to prepare a large batch for future use, or you can do what I do and add a few shakes of whatever herbs I happen to have on hand.  Typical herbs include: marjoram, rosemary, thyme, oregano and lavender.

Defrosting

It is absolutely critical to give the roast adequate time to defrost prior to roasting.  You want the meat to be at or close to room temperature prior to roasting, but more importantly, you want the meat to cook evenly.

If it’s previously frozen, this could take a day or longer to defrost in the refrigerator, so you’ll need to plan ahead accordingly.  Otherwise, your meat may still be partially frozen when you cook it, resulting in an uneven mess when you finally take it out of the oven.

After defrosted, most recipes will instruct you to take the roast out of the refrigerator and let it stand for a few hours prior to roasting in order to bring it to room temperature.

The easiest way to circumvent this is to purchase the meat the day of or the day before you roast it.

 

DIRECTIONS

  1. Pre-heat the oven.
  2. First, salt and pepper the the roast liberally.
  3. Make the rub, using soft butter, minced garlic, pepper, and herbes de provence.  I’m pretty generous with the butter; typically the roast has a coating that is almost like a layer of frosting.  Most of the butter will end up melting off into the pan, but it’s great for getting a delicious crust on the meat.
  4. At this point, there are two approaches.  You can either start off with high heat (500F +) to “lock” in the juices and then roast at lower heat (~300F) for a few hours, or you can start off with low heat to get to 120F, and then finish off with high heat at the end.

This is where the meat thermometer is key.  The challenge is that roasting times will differ depending on the size of the roast, as well as the state of the meat in when you put it in the oven (i.e., how close to room temperature it is).  The rule of thumb is generally 15 minutes per pound of roast at 325F.  Until you take a reading, however, you just won’t know where it is.

DonenessTemperatureDescription
Rare120-125FCenter is bright red
Medium rare130-135FCenter is very pink
Medium140-145FCenter is light pink
Medium well150-155FNot pink
Well done160F+Meat is uniformly brown

 

There seems to be quite a bit of variation in the recommended beef temperature for cooking.  I took the above guidelines from this recipe, but in my experience, even that seems to be a bit overstated.  The primary reason is that when you take the meat out of the oven, the internal temperature will continue to rise, sometimes by 10 degrees F or more.  Additionally, there will be some variation depending on where you take the reading, (e.g., whether it’s near a bone).  Consequently, I will target an internal temperature reading of 120F to take the meat out of the oven.  By the time the meat is served, the internal temperature will likely be above 130F.

I used the high-heat-first method for my initial attempts.  I had been trying out several of Chef John’s recipes with excellent results.  His perfect prime rib actually calls for turning off the oven completely after the initial 500F segment and letting the roast sit in the oven until it’s ready.  I’ve never dared to try that out, as the margin for error seems high.  Opening the oven door would cause heat to leak out and disrupt the cooking process.  Under this method, I would reduce the heat to around 250F to 300F and take out the meat once I hit the 120F target.

More recently, I have switched to the low-heat-first method, and this has become my preferred approach.  This is also Alton Brown’s recommended approach.  Under this method, you start roasting at a low temperature (e.g., 200F),  Generally, the lower the temperature the better, but the tradeoff is the cooking time.  Once you hit the 120F internal temperature target, you remove the meat and cover in tin foil.  When you are approaching meal time, you reheat the oven to 500F and finish off the meat for 10-15 minutes to get the desired crust.

I think there are two key advantages to this approach.  First, the meat will be uniformly cooked at the lower temperature, which means that pink medium-rare area will be more uniform.  If you blast the meat at high heat right at the start, chances are that the meat will have a thick uneven border that is brown and more well done.  Second, this method allows you to better match cooking time to meal time.  Since finishing at high heat does not take much time and is relatively predictable, you can be assured that the meat will be perfectly done when you are ready to eat.

More links for reference:

 

SUPPLEMENTAL

There are plenty of sides that complement beef, but two must-haves are au Jus and mashed potatoes.  I follow Chef John’s recipes for both.  These are quite simple and can be prepared while the meat is being finished.

That’s about it.  It may take a few attempts to get the process down, but I think you will quickly conclude that it’s silly to splurge for a prime rib dinner at a restaurant when you can get great results at home.