It Was the Stove’s Fault!

What a difference a year can make! I found a source for my beef that I trust…a farm just 17 miles from my house that raises a herd of beef so tasty and tender it practically cooks itself. If my takeaway from last year’s prime rib was to place more importance on the quality of the roast I start with, my takeaway this year is that once I get that quality piece of beef, how I cook it matters a great deal.

Not to brag, but if I’m being honest my holiday dinner skills have progressed considerably over the past few years. Let’s see… I didn’t end up in the ER needing stitches, the fire department didn’t show up although I did set off the smoke alarm…again…and I didn’t have to break out a chain saw to carve the roast. I’ve made great progress!

The Set-up

This year’s holiday prime rib was a thing of beauty. It was a 3-rib roast from Roseda Farms that was everything I could ever want in a prime rib. I took pictures of it when I got it home, that’s how beautiful it was. It was richly marbled, and it looked to me like it came from the chuck end of the rib primal. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t…it would be unusual for a 3-rib roast to be cut from the chuck end, but if I am being honest the chuck end is what I prefer. It is more tasty, and this prime rib was nearly 10 pounds of bovine perfection in a vacuum sealed package.

Anytime I tackle a major cooking project I develop a plan, and this year my plan was simple…follow the Ridiculously Simple Recipe for cooking the prefect prime rib as I described in my last post. I was confident that this year my holiday meal would be a success. I had a quality piece of beef and a proven plan. What could possibly go wrong?

The Tools

I consider my stove to be the equivalent of a blunt instrument. I have so many tools in my kitchen that allow me to cook with more precision than I could ever get out of the stove, I rarely use it for anything beyond boiling water. I thought about using my sous vide cooker to do the heavy lifting and using the grill to sear it off at the end, but I was concerned my sous vide cooker wouldn’t be big enough. It’s one thing to cook a couple of steaks that way, it works beautifully by the way, and quite another to use it for a 10-pound roast. I went with the oven.

Though I consider my stove to be a blunt instrument, it is the consumer version of a high-tech professional commercial model. To say I’m not on altogether the best of terms with my stove would be an understatement. My stove has a back mounted control unit, an electronic brain as the salesman described it. What he didn’t tell me is that the brain they gave my stove, the oven in particular, was the electronic equivalent of a petulant, adolescent teenager’s brain. In other words, my oven has moods. The salesman called them modes but I know better. It’s supposed to be a model that you set and forget, but no. Like a teenager, it doesn’t always do what it is told to do.

I have a couple of high-tech precision temperature monitoring gadgets from ThermoWorks to help me maintain control over my oven. I used a ThermaPen MK IV instant read thermometer, and a ChefAlarm oven safe temperature probe and display unit. Both performed admirably and helped keep the oven part of my stove from throwing a tantrum.

The Plan

My plan for this year’s prime rib was quite simple. Start with the best quality roast I could both find and afford, and then follow the Serious Eats’ reverse sear cooking guide with a few added tweaks of my own. I did both, and the results were incredible. The roast came out juicy, flavorful, and with the perfect balance of toothful tenderness. Which is to say the tenderness of a filet but the flavor of a ribeye.

I read a food science journal article recently…because I’m a food nerd…that presented an analysis of the effect of heat on the breakdown and reconstitution of fat and muscle tissue at the molecular level of post-mortem beef. In other words, why does a dead cow taste so good after you cook it? Those guys must be fun to have over for a BBQ. The article listed 27 different chemical compounds perceived as desirable by human taste buds that are formed as fat and muscle tissue break down when heated and then come together in different ways to form new compounds. It’s like the molecular equivalent of a swingers party. I think I was able to taste 25 of them, that’s how good this roast came out. Just don’t ask me to name any of them…they have multisyllabic names with numbers and symbols, and I darned near flunked high school chemistry. Might have had something to do with that cherry bomb incident in class #itwasntme…I wasn’t exactly the best-behaved kid at that point in my life.

I seasoned my roast with kosher salt and white pepper powder two full days prior to cooking it, and left it in the fridge uncovered to absorb the salt and tenderize. I pulled it out of the fridge on Christmas Eve morning, sprinkled some fresh cracked black pepper all around and popped it directly into the preheated 200-degree oven. We planned to eat at 4 PM and I counted on an 8–10-hour cook time, so I started cooking it at 5:30 AM. I was going for a finish on the upper end of medium rare and estimated I’d get an additional 10 degrees of carryover cooking, so I set my ChefAlarm for 125 degrees. When the alarm went off I took the roast out of the oven and made spot checks all around the roast with my ThermaPen MK IV. It confirmed a consistent 125 degrees with no cool spots. My roast was ready to rest.

As the roast rested I prepared for the finishing sear by resetting the oven to 500 degrees, and gave it an hour to get there. It only took half an hour to heat up but that was after the half hour it took me to realize I hadn’t turned the oven back on, so it took an hour. Once the oven let me know it was at 500 deg, I put the roast back in for six minutes to sear off the surface and form a nicely textured crust.

I pulled the roast out of the oven again, this time setting off the smoke alarm in the process because smoke happens when you take a well-marbled hunk of beef out of a 500 degree oven with an attitude. I reset the alarm system so the fire department wouldn’t show up, because that tends to happen when I cook. I checked the internal temp of my roast and it was 141 degrees…bit more done than I was aiming for but close enough for my oven. Honestly with a roast this tender it’s a crap shoot whether it is better cooked to medium rare or medium.

I checked the clock to see the time…10:20 AM. Oops. We didn’t need to leave for Chris and Kelly’s for hours! How did that happen? Well…I forgot to account for the fact that when I use my oven’s convection mood things cook much faster. In this case MUCH faster. Could be the oven snuck a Red Bull while I wasn’t looking, I don’t know. Teenagers…what can you do? Not to worry…I had an over/under plan.

I carved the roast into individual portions, vacuum sealed the portions in sous vide bags, and tossed them in the fridge until it was time to go to Chris and Kelly’s place. They live just 15 minutes away so I brought along my sous vide cooker and once in their kitchen, used it to gently reheat the prime rib portions. I set the water temperature to 135 degrees to warm the meat without cooking it any further, then put the baggies in for an hour.

We sat down for a nice family Christmas Eve dinner and I plated up my extra juicy perfectly cooked medium prime rib portions, which were now an ugly shade of brown…over done, and dry. What in the hell happened? The beef was still tasty, but it had lost much of the tenderness and almost all of the juice it had when I bagged the portions up.

As with last year there weren’t many leftovers so it couldn’t have been that horrible, but I knew. I knew how much better it could have been…how much better it was when I tasted it straight from the oven.

What I Did Wrong This Year

I didn’t worry too much about what went wrong while we were at Chris and Kelly’s, but I did think about it the next day, when I got up at 5AM on Christmas morning. It didn’t take me long to figure it all out. I had carved the roast into individual serving sized portions straight out of the oven. It didn’t need to rest since it was already rested and I hadn’t heated it enough to draw moisture back out of the muscle tissue. But the roast still had significant residual heat coming out of a 500 degree oven. By carving it right away and then sealing the individual portions in sous vide bags I trapped all that residual heat and steam in the bag. With the meat. By the time the fridge cooled the meat enough to stop the cooking it was too late. My perfectly cooked prime rib slices were well done, bone dry, and an ugly shade of dark brown.

Right about now all of my Texas friends are cringing mightily and shouting at their computers, “FTC!” Mea Culpa. One even posted the suggestion to me on social media, before I went the sous vide route. I should have paid attention. FTC, for those who don’t know, is the way BBQers have been keeping large cuts of beef warm for generations. Or at least for as long as Reynolds has been making aluminum foil and Coleman has been making coolers. Foil, Towel, Cooler. You wrap the whole hunk of meat in foil, then wrap that in some beach towels, then pack it in a cooler stuffed with even more beach towels stuffed all around it…bottom, top, and sides. FTC. It keeps meat warm for hours without cooking it further. This is one time I should have believed what I read on Facebook! I should have listened to the pros.

What I Did Right This Year

Even though this was yet another holiday meal that didn’t turn out as perfect as I wanted, it was good enough, which is a testament to just how good the beef was before I nearly ruined it. And my antics were once again entertaining for the whole family. The effort validated all of my objectives with using the Ridiculously Simple Recipe to cook a prime rib in the oven, and since I sampled it as I carved it, I know how good it was straight out of the oven. Those were the best few bites of prime rib I’ve ever tasted. I now know what I did wrong, but what did I do right? What worked?

Choosing a reliable source for my prime rib and selecting a quality roast worked. I learned my lesson last year. Roseda Farms has been my go to source for beef since spring, and this year’s prime rib is yet another reason I keep going back.

Using a dry brine approach to seasoning worked. Just as I will forever brine my Thanksgiving turkey, I will now be using a dry brine on all of my Christmas prime rib roasts. While Serious Eats said to let the salt set on the roast for up to four days, I gave it two and I’ll probably dial that back to just one day or maybe a day and a half the next time I cook prime rib. As long as I am dealing with beef of the quality I get from Roseda Farms, one day of tenderizing is enough and I’m hoping it leaves the meat tasting a tad less salty.

Skipping the “let the roast come to room temperature before cooking” bit worked.  The internal temperature of my roast when I took it out of the fridge was 31 degrees. An hour later my roast had warmed just six degrees, to 37 degrees. That wasn’t after sitting at room temperature, it was after an hour in a 200 degree oven because I skipped the sitting out bit. Looking at the results I got it would have been an utter waste of time to let my roast sit out on the counter for an hour or two, or even three. Is it too late to return that Wolfgang Puck guide to the perfect prime rib? Going straight from the fridge to the oven had no negative impact on how it turned out. It was tender, juicy, and flavorful.

The reverse sear method worked. I had a nice tasty crust on the outside of the roast, and below that the meat was tender, juicy, and tasty. I did not get a perfect edge-to-edge finish but I didn’t expect to. There wasn’t enough of a fat cap to insulate the cap muscle and balance out the insulation the ribs gave to the bottom of the roast. No matter…it was all juicy, tender, and delicious. And then I ruined it.

As NASA described the Apollo 13 mission, this year’s holiday rib roast was a successful failure. Now all I need to do is stick the landing. I’ve got 359 days to figure it out.

Happy New Year to all!

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