28. Apr, 2015

A lot at steak

“I love treating friends to a barbecue. Nobody has friends over to microwave.” – Pat Conroy.

Carnivores the world over, like their fellow sinners the smokers and drinkers, tend to have very strong beliefs about their likes and dislikes. Take steak for example: in South Africa, there is little doubt that Rump is king. Texans love their T-Bones. In Argentina, the Rib Eye and Short Rib rule supreme. The Yankees on America’s Atlantic seaboard go gaga over Sirloin and the French prefer have made Chateaubriand (Filet) and Côte de Boeuf (Prime Rib) their own. Fortunately I am agnostic when it comes to steak: I appreciate each of these at the appropriate time and place.

This past weekend, I decided to be bold and cook something I had never attempted before: a Beef Prime Rib Roast. I have of course eaten it before, but in a restaurant as a “steak” – a single rib with its adjacent meat. The single rib cut can therefore be cooked the same way as a T-bone or Club Steak. Two 1.5kg chunks of bone-in beef, each nearly 15cm thick, were a different proposition. The fact that - as a “Boerseun”- I had decided to do it on the braai, instead of in my oven, added further complexity to the job at hand. The obvious challenge was to have an end product that was neither raw nor dry and overcooked.

The prime rib is a choice cut of beef, taken from the second half of the rib cage (ribs 6 -12). A Prime Rib Roast can therefore contain anything from two to seven ribs. In some countries, like the United States, it is called a Standing Rib Roast, because it is most often roasted "standing" on the rib bones so that the meat does not touch the pan. A slice of standing rib roast will include portions of the so-called "eye" of the rib, as well as the outer, fat-marbled muscle (spinalis dorsi) known as the "lip" or "cap". The much sought-after Rib Eye Steak is cut from a standing rib, boned with most of the fat and lesser muscles removed.

The traditional preparation for a standing rib roast is to rub the outside of the roast with salt and seasonings and slow-roast with dry heat. This sounded a bit too much like English “Meat and Three Veg” for my liking. My four favourite words in Afrikaans are “ons”, “gaan”, “nou” and “braai”. I am sceptical of any red meat that cannot be successfully cooked on the braai. Fortunately for me, I own a kettle braai - universally known, regardless of make, as a “Weber” in South Africa. My Weber (which incidentally is not a Weber!) has thermometer, which is indispensable when I roast, as opposed to just braai. Armed with this technological marvel, I gave myself better than average odds of producing an appetising piece of meat.

Because my “guinea pigs” were special friends, I could not afford to learn on job. As a bit of a miser, I also kept reminding myself that the meat had not exactly been cheap. I therefore spent a couple of hours trawling my cook books and the internet for guidance on how to get it just right. In the process I unearthed a few interesting “rules of engagement”:

The meat

Grade: Cooking is not alchemy. Start with poor quality ingredients, and you are bound to end up with a mediocre outcome. With beef the grade (quality) is of paramount importance. Technically a prime rib is supposed to be Prime Grade and anything else is just a Standing Rib Roast. These days, however, prime rib is a more general name and refers to the cut, not necessarily the quality. Be wary, and ask the butcher if you have any doubts. Choose a cut that has a bright colour with milky white fat - avoid dull-coloured meat and yellow fat like the plague. Also, look for even fat distribution and a good layer of fat around the ends. This isn't the time to look for the leaner cuts.

Trim: The less trimming, the better. You want all the bone and fat right where it is. Unless a piece of meat is hanging loose and looking ragged, you shouldn’t touch this roast any more than you have to.

Size: It might sound strange, but larger roasts are actually easier to cook. Small roasts are less forgiving. Think about it this way. A small roast can go from perfect to ruined in a few minutes, but a larger roast will give you a bigger window of opportunity.

Ageing: If you have a butcher who dry-ages meat, it is definitely worth the expense. Aging meat concentrates flavour and improves the tenderness. It can take as much as three weeks, and should best be left to experts because the meat is exposed to bacteria. DIY ageing means there is a chance that you might end up with a smelly, toxic mess in your refrigerator.

Handling: The meat should preferably never be wrapped up in plastic or tin foil. Try and buy it over the counter, and have it wrapped in paper. Remove it from the refrigerator at least an hour before cooking, otherwise it will be tough. Last but not least, only apply salt or other seasoning during cooking.

Rest: This is the key to serving the perfect prime rib. When the roast is nearly at the perfect temperature (as your trusty meat thermometer told you), it's time for it to rest. Remove the roast from the heat, cover, and let rest for about 15 minutes. This allows the meat to relax and tenderize. As the meat relaxes, the juices flow back into the interior of the meat; improving its flavour.

Serve it naturally. Top-quality meat should not be smothered in gravy or sauce. A knob of butter on each serving does enhance taste and appearance, though.  

To sear or not to sear?

It is received wisdom among many home cooks and even professional chefs that the only way to get a roast to retain its moisture, one should first sear it. This createsa crust that will "lock in the juices." Anyone who has ever seen juices squeeze up through the seared side of a steak after you flip it over on the grill would suspect that this can't possibly be completely true. Since I can hardly look at a dried-out piece of meat, let alone eat it, this was going to be the crucial part of my research.

Producing Prime Rib that combines an attractive “braai” appearance with a tender, moist inside requires some insight into how the cooking process works. When aiming to cook beef to medium-rare, there are really only two temperatures that matter, viz:

  •  51.7°C is the temperature at which beef is medium rare—that is, hot but still pink, cooked, but still moist and able to retain its juices. Any higher than that and the tissue fibres start to shrink rapidly, forcing the flavourful juices out of the meat.
  • 154.4°C is the temperature at which the Maillard reaction is triggered. This is a complex process by which amino acids and reducing sugars recombine to produce appetising “roasty” aromas. At and above this temperature, meat will quickly brown and crisp.

Exposure to the latter temperature range should be carefully controlled, since a big beef roast cooks from the outside in and prolonged cooking renders the outer layers overcooked, gray, and dry. Conversely, cooking it at a lower temperature minimises the volume of beef that gets overcooked, but results in a roast with a pale, flaccid exterior. Clearly searing the outside is the silver bullet that lets you have the best of both worlds. Most of us would start off by searing the meat at high heat first, and then letting it cook slowly at a lower temperature. According to some authoritative sources, this would be tantamount to putting the cart before the horse. Let me try and explain the contrarian view step by step:

  • A completely raw roast needs around 15 minutes in a hot pan (or on a hot braai grid) to develop a golden brown, crispy exterior.
  • During this time, the meat in the outer layers of the roast starts heating up and overcooking.
  • If, however, one introduces the high heat after the prime rib has roasted, it takes only around eight minutes to develop a crusty exterior.
  • Moisture is at the heart of this variance in outcome. For the surface of a roast to start searing, it first has to reach temperatures above the boiling point of water (212°F). If raw meat is seared, about half the time it is exposed to high heat is spent just getting rid of excess moisture before browning can even begin to occur.
  • On the other hand, a prime rib that has first been slow-roasted has been hot for a while. During this time the exterior has completely dried out, making searing much more efficient.
  • An added plus is that all but the very exterior of the meat has less chance of overcooking.
  • The goal should therefore be to cook the interior of the roast as slowly as possible, then sear it as quickly as possible.
  • Some recipes agree with the principle, but execute it erroneously by telling us to simply increase the oven temperature towards the end of cooking.
  • This ignores the simple fact that an oven can take 20 or 30 minutes to go from the initial low temperature to the setting required for searing. During this time, as we know, the outer layers of beef are busy overcooking.
  • Remember that a big roast needs to rest for 20 to 30 minutes in any event.
  • The correct approach is therefore to first cook the meat at a low temperature (just under 100°C) until on the point, and then take it out of the oven to rest. Meanwhile heat the oven to the maximum (250°C in my case), then pop the roast back in just long enough to achieve a crust.

Last but not least, cooking with this two-stage method affords a much larger window of time to serve the beef. After the initial low-temperature phase of cooking, you can keep it warm for over an hour by merely wrapping it in foil.  Around eight minutes before the meal is served, pop the meat into the piping hot oven. The roast will emerge sizzling hot and ready to carve. There is no need to rest it, since the only part affected is the very exterior.

The proof of the pudding

“And so how did it turn out?” I hear you say. In a word, surprisingly good. I cooked my two roasts/steaks over medium heat in the “Weber” for just over an hour – 45 minutes in Standing Rib mode, and 10 minutes on each side. I then put it on a platter to rest, and heated my oven full blast. When the meat and the oven were both ready, I administered the coup de grace. Less than 15 minutes later it was ready; pink and succulent yet not oozing blood or meat juice. Cynics might ask why I didn’t just cook it in the oven from start to finish? It’s not just because I am what Barry Hilton would call a “Boertjie” – I firmly believe that time spent over coals adds an extra smokiness that no amount of seasoning could. Do yourself a flavour and try it yourself – whether in the oven or on the braai is a matter of taste – you’ll thank me for it...  

“You know you’re a South African when you ‘braai’ your meat because ‘barbecue’ is a chip flavour” – Joe Parker.