I served a prime rib from a mutant cow last Christmas Eve. I didn’t mean to…I didn’t know the cow was a mutant until I carved the roast. By then I had no backup, so I had no choice but to serve it. Fortunately, I was just feeding my family. Shhh…don’t tell them!!!
I wanted last Christmas to be special since both Rob and Chris and their families would be with us for the holiday, but serving mutant cow was not exactly what I had in mind. Nobody complained, likely because they didn’t realize the cow was a mutant, but I knew.
I ordered a USDA Prime grade standing rib roast, a Prime prime rib, from a local butcher shop I was using at the time for special orders. I arranged to pick it up a couple of days before Christmas, and since it was a pre-order the roast was already cut, trimmed, and wrapped up in butcher paper when I picked it up. I should have asked the clerk to unwrap it so I could inspect it, but I didn’t.
Everything was fine at first. I mean it wasn’t really. I could see as soon as I unwrapped the roast that it wasn’t USDA Prime grade, but by then the butcher shop was closed for the holidays so I cooked it. It left my whole house smelling yummy, just like every other Christmas before, and that’s the part that was fine. Then I started to carve it, which was about the time all hell broke loose. As I started carving off the first big juicy portion of prime rib I got about two or three inches into the meat and my knife stopped. It had struck an impenetrable object and would go no further. I had already removed the ribs so I knew it wasn’t bone, but beyond that I didn’t know what it was.
I tried muscling my way through it with my general-purpose, usually-sharp-enough-for-prime-rib carving knife but that didn’t work. I switched to my ultra-sharp J.A. Henckel precision German steel carving knife and tried sawing my way through, but that didn’t work. I grabbed my blade-so-big-and-sharp-meat-parts-like-the-Red-Sea-out-of-fear-of-it Chef’s knife and tried hacking my way through it, but that didn’t work either.
At this point the profanities were coming out of my mouth fast and furious. I had to get something on the plates for Christmas Eve dinner, so I decided to change tactics. I traded in the big knives for my fileting knife and took a deep cleansing breath to center myself. And to stop the profanities…the grandkids were within earshot now that everyone was sitting at the table waiting for me to finish up in the kitchen. No pressure. With the skill of a surgeon I used my fileting knife to probe the margins of the obstruction and then neatly cut around it to carve off enough decent sized portions of prime rib to serve my family.
As I lifted a portion of prime rib off the roast to plate it, I got my first good look at the mutant bovine anatomy and that thing that kept getting in the way of my knives. It looked like the cow’s aorta…that was my first thought anyway. Once I was finished carving, I realized I had laid bare a two-inch-wide piece of something white, thick, sinewy, and as tough as the toughest shoe leather I’ve ever encountered. It ran the length of my roast and it didn’t belong there. My rib roast came from a mutant cow.
After the holidays I tried getting in touch with the butcher with a WTFO but I never heard back from him. I gave up on that shop and went back to Wegmans for my beef. I had several decent conversations with the Wegmans butcher after I went back, and not long after Christmas I asked him if he had ever run across any mutant cows. As I explained what I had encountered, the butcher nodded knowingly and sympathetically. He knew right away what it was. Not a mutant cow he told me, just an old one. What I thought was the aorta was a piece of connective tissue that is found in every prime rib from every cow at that spot. Normally you don’t notice it because you can cut right through it, but in an older cow or one with poor genetics it can get thick and tough and, well…impenetrable.
I pictured my holiday roast coming from an overworked cow on an Amish farm sold for meat after a long life of hard labor pulling a plow for the Yoder family. That thought made me sad. Most likely it was just a regular cow from a regular herd that got sold as ungraded beef destined for a local budget restaurant to be served as the $4.99 Tuesday night all you can eat prime rib special. For reasons I’ll never know, this budget special from the shallow end of the bovine gene pool found its way to the butcher I no longer use, who sold it to me as USDA Prime.
The Lesson Learned
I was on a quest last Christmas to find the perfect recipe for the perfect holiday prime rib and I failed miserably. I discovered that the decisions you make at the meat counter are far more important than the decisions you make in your kitchen. There isn’t much a recipe can do if you are starting with beef from a mutant cow. Find a store that is reliable and get to know and trust their butcher. Then you can think about the recipe.
I now buy my beef from two places I trust: Wegmans, and Roseda Farms. I discovered Roseda Farms’ beef sometime this past spring and fell in love with it. It has a unique flavor that appeals to me, and the farm’s backstory does as well. My Christmas prime rib this year comes from Roseda Farms and I can’t wait to get it in the oven!
A Ridiculously Simple Recipe for Perfect Prime Rib
I found a ridiculously simple recipe on a website I go to for cooking tips, Serious Eats. The recipe is from my favorite food writer, Kenji. He developed the reverse sear prime rib recipe that I now use for prime rib and my steaks. It works, and it isn’t complicated. In fact, it is ridiculously simple.
Start with a quality rib roast with both the rib rack and fat cap on. Use a roasting pan that has a rack to elevate your roast so the drippings have some place to go. From there, all you have to do is remember four numbers: 4, 200, 125, and 500.
4 — The number of days to season the roast before you cook it. And by seasoning, I mean salt. Nothing else. You can use some fresh cracked black pepper later but at this point use just salt. I start by removing the rib rack and fat cap so I can season the entire roast…salt can’t work through bone and fat. Once the roast is seasoned I tie the ribs and fat cap back…the roast gets a more even edge to edge finish if you cook it with the ribs and fat cap in place. I put the roast on a rack and put it back into the fridge. It takes at least one full day for the salt to work its osmotic magic, and longer is better up to four days. After that the muscle tissue starts to break down.
200: The temperature to set your oven to for the start of your roast. Forget the recipes that have you cranking the heat up to 500 degrees at the beginning and then dialing it back. The reverse sear method is, well, the reverse of that. It is safe to cook meat that low…I’ve done it and lived to tell. There’s no need to let the roast sit out and “come to room temperature.” Stick an oven safe temperature probe in your roast, pop it into a 200-degree oven, and go watch football.
125: The internal temperature of your prime rib when it’s time to remove it and let it rest. After a 30 minutes rest period your roast will have continued to cook until the temperature reaches the perfect range for medium rare…132-135 degrees. If you like your prime rib closer to medium, set the temperature alarm to 127-128. If you prefer your meat cooked any more than that, save some money and buy a chuck roast. You won’t know the difference.
500: The temperature to reset your oven to after you take the roast out to rest. By the time your roast is rested, 30 minutes minimum, your oven will be up to temp and ready to put the crispy finish on your perfect holiday prime rib roast. It should only take about 5-10 minutes to get the perfect finish on your roast, at which point you can take it out of the oven and go straight to carving. It doesn’t need a second rest period after this short high temp finish.
That really is all you need to do to cook the perfect holiday prime rib roast. If you want to know the science behind why it isn’t any more complicated than that, check out Kenji’s prime rib Q&As. He even takes Wolfgang Puck to task, though not by name, using science to prove him wrong about the need to let your roast come up to room temperature before cooking. You don’t…myth busted!
I hope you’ve found something in this article useful, or at least entertaining. If you get the chance to try the ridiculously simple recipe for perfect prime rib, let me know how it turns out.