There's no more impressive centerpiece to a holiday meal than a roast beef. And there are few main courses that are easier to prepare: Place beef in preheated oven. Roast. Carve. Serve.
And yet home cooks shy away from roast beef because it brings with it a number of difficult questions: Which cut of beef should I roast? What temperature should I roast it? For how long?
Everybody loves prime rib
Ask a butcher what his favorite roast beef is, and here's what he'll say: Prime rib. The prime rib - aka standing rib roast, bone-in rib roast - is cut from the ribs that lie between the chuck (shoulder) and loin (upper midsection) of the steer. "There's rib roast and there's every other roast beef," said Lenny Popp, owner of Babylon Village Meat Market. "It's its own thing - and it's so much better. You can cut it into big, thick slices, and it tastes like eating a roast steak."
A full rib roast - seven ribs - will feed more than 15 people. For smaller roasts, figure on two people per rib. Since you could never carve through the ribs yourself (unless you have a bandsaw in the kitchen), your butcher will either use his saw to cut the bone between the ribs, or he will trim off the bones entirely, and then tie them back on.
Prime rib does have one major drawback: It can run as high as $26 per pound for dry-aged prime. (Bear in mind that the "prime" in "prime rib" does not signify that the meat has been graded prime by the USDA.)
And so, we asked three butchers what their second favorite roast beefs were
The runners up
"We sell this roast we call the bullet roast," Popp said. "It's also called the knuckle roast or the silver tip." It's tender and tasty, and it weighs anywhere from 21/2 to 31/2 pounds so it cooks quick." Popp's bullet roast sells for $11.49/pound
"I sell a lot of top round for roast beef," said Peter Kinzie, owner of Mercep Brothers butchers in St. James. "It doesn't have the fat of the prime rib, but it's got more than the eye round. It's got lots of good flavor, and it's perfect for roast-beef sandwiches." Kinzie's top round sells for $6.49/pound.
Lou Kreitzman, owner, with his son Josh, of Prime Time Butcher in Woodbury and Roslyn Heights, likes the hip sirloin roast so much, he's dubbed it the "Prime Time roast."
"Instead of slicing the sirloin into steaks, we cut it into anywhere from a 3-pound to an 8-pound roast. I like the flavor and the texture - and the price," he says. Prime Time's prime Prime Time roast sells for $13.98 per pound; Kreitzman sells a dry-aged choice version for $9.98 per pound.
Of time and temperature
Roast beef recipes always tell you to "take the meat out an hour before you plan to cook it, and let it come to room temperature." The reason is simple arithmetic: Meat coming out of the refrigerator has an internal temperature of about 40 degrees. Meat that is consumed medium-rare registers about 130 degrees. According to Bruce Aidells, sausage magnate and co-author of, among other cookbooks, "The Complete Meat Cookbook" (Houghton Mifflin, $35), "a good chunk of roasting time is just bringing that piece of meat up to 70 degrees. Once it gets to 70, it starts going faster."
Thanks to my favorite new cooking tool, the digital probe thermometer (see below), I can tell you that it takes much, much longer than an hour for meat to come to room temperature. I took the temperature of a 31/2-pound top round 90 minutes after it came out of the fridge and it had gone from 39 to 51 degrees. I let an 8-pound rib roast sit out for 21/2 hours, and it only got to 48 degrees. Aidells said, "I've let big roasts sit out for four to six hours." That's what I'd do too, if I had the time.
(The FDA recommends that "ground beef or any perishable food" not be left out for longer than two hours, but Aidells pointed out that, unlike ground beef, "the interior of whole cuts of meat is sterile." And any bacterial growth on the outside of the meat, he said, "is going to be killed because it's subjected to the highest direct heat."
Before I roast beef, I sprinkle it liberally with kosher salt. It's important that air circulate around the meat while it cooks, so place it on a rack that elevates it high enough above the bottom of the pan that the meat doesn't steam in its own juices. Put the beef in an oven that has been preheated to 450 degrees. After 15 minutes, turn the heat down to 350.
I cooked four roasts for this article. All of them went into the oven at about 50 degrees, and they took about 20 minutes per pound to come to 120 degrees.
But be wary of general timing advice. Roasting time depends on the cut of the meat and what the starting temperature is. More important, shape is just as critical as size. A long, thin piece of meat is going to cook quicker than a fat chunk of the same weight. A tenderloin of beef is basically a cylinder measuring about 4 inches across. It will take 45 minutes or so whether it weighs 2 pounds or 4 pounds.
Here's where your digital probe thermometer comes in handy. For rare meat, take the roast out when its temperature comes to 115 degrees; for medium-rare, 120; for medium, 125. Let it rest before you carve it, and its temperature will rise another 5 to 10 degrees. I took Lenny Popp's bullet roast out of the oven at 100 degrees. I wrapped it tightly in foil and watched, amazed, as the internal temperature rose to 129 degrees - and stayed there - over the course of an hour. Carry-over heat. Believe it.
My new best friend
Lenny Popp wouldn't let me leave his butcher shop without purchasing this digital probe thermometer, pictured below. "It takes all the guesswork out of roasting beef," he said. And he was absolutely right. You stick the probe into the center of the roast before putting it into the oven. The probe is connected via a cord to a digital display that sits on the counter (or sticks, magnetically, to the oven). The silicone-covered cord is thin enough to allow the oven door to close completely. Set the thermometer for your desired temperature, and it beeps when the meat is ready. Taylor's "Classic" digital cooking thermometer sells for about $15 at amazon.com. Most cookware stores stock similar items.