The Roast Primer

Damn! That’s a sexy looking lamb leg roast. Rosemary and garlic, lamb roasted onions, roasted yams.

As a meat cutter, my most frequent customer query was: “How do I cook this roast?” And there are two fundamentally different answers to this question: wet or dry.

The wet-roasting (“pot roast” in the vernacular) scenario involves, as you may have inferred, liquid.  Refer to my (very) early post about braising for more information on how I feel about that. The dry roasting scenario is equally intuitive. Synonymous with simply “roasting” and referred to by some grandmothers as “baking,” it involves putting a piece 0f meat in the oven and cooking until done. Of course we could cook a piece of meat and eat it from this description, but maybe we want it to be a little more soigné.

Cuts of meat appropriate for dry roasting are typically leaner and have less connective tissue (gristle, stringiness; technically collagen and elastin matrices) than those for the pot. Leg cuts are typical. The leg (butt muscles) of a cow or veal cow is called the round; of a lamb is just called leg; of a pig is called the ham or leg. Confusingly, a pig’s shoulder is called a butt.

A special occasion calls for a nicer cut. The loin of any animal is typically the tenderest part and these are the cuts one associates with high living. They go by a similar range of confusing names that are oftentimes criminally contradictory. Meat nomenclature is less than linnaean in its logic, so I am here going to make a little list of the different beef cuts generally considered suitable for dry roasting, including their aliases and other helpful notes:

Beef Leg (Round) Cuts are the cheapest:

  • Top Round is sometimes sold as huge steaks called “London Broil,” which is generally not suitable to our purposes here. Although you can, if you find it on sale, have them cut it in a manner suitable to our purposes, explanation below.
  • Bottom Round is sometimes called “Rump Roast” which is suitable for our purposes. The first cut or “watermelon cut” is by far the best, those toward the tail end will be flatter and wider, the whole thing is shaped roughly like a doorstop, and progressively less desirable.
  • Eye of Round has no aliases that I know of, although I have seen meat shops try to pass off other cuts as the eye of round. Old people seem to love it; it’s always seemed too lean to me. But hey, maybe you should try it and tell me about it
  • Sirloin Tip is also known as the Knuckle. It is not to be confused with either the Sirloin or the Tri-tip roast. This cut is lean, but the tenderest of the round cuts. Try to find one without too many pieces of white connective tissue running through it.

Sirloin Cuts are slightly more expensive:

  • Top Sirloin is, as a marketing ploy, sometimes cut into very large steaks referred to as Chateuabriand. As before, these are not great for roasting. Top Sirloin makes a great roast, but is nearly impossible to get properly cut because most butchers refuse to remove the-
  • Culotte, which is hard to find because butchers generally just leave it attached to the Top Sirloin and sell it as one cut (the Culotte being the smaller, leaner part on the cut with the grain running the opposite direction). It’s usually referred to as a steak. Indeed it’s a little on the small side for a roast, but quite delicious.
  • Tri Tip is also on the smaller side, has incredible marbling, and is usually referred to as a roast, unless it is cut into steaks.

Loin Cuts are the most expensive cuts of all:

  • Tenderloin, also known as Fillet Mignon, Fillet or Chateuabriand (beware of this last name which literally means “house cut” and usually refers to Top Sirloin) is the very most expensive and tender part of the cow. It is generally regarded as overpriced.
  • Striploin might be referred to as the Top Loin or the New York. The steak is more popular than the roast version of it, but it makes a tasty (expensive) roast.
  • Rib Roast goes by the most confusing mess of names of any part of the beast. It can be boneless (usually just called Boneless Rib Roast, but possibly called a Ribeye Roast,) or bone-in and referred to as Standing Rib Roast, Seven Bone Roast (not to be confused with the Seven Bone Chuck Roast) or Prime Rib Roast. This last is generally a huge misnomer as the “prime” part refers to the USDA grade of beef, prime being the top level in terms of maximum fat marbling. It is the most reasonably priced, popular and possibly the <tastiest_synonym> cut of beef loin for roasting. Bone in is the way to go; it’s ordered by the bone and can be cut from from the leaner loin or “large” end, or from the fattier rib or “small” end .
A Top Round roast, browning in the cast iron.

Here, the sustainably raised top round roast is browning.

So that was about as exhaustive of a list of beef roasting cuts you’re likely to find on the internet. I see Cook’s Illustrated has a nice illustrated pdf guide but it lacks my snarky, authoritative voice and my impeccable credentials. Mine also has a little actual information that their’s lacks.

I made my last roast beef with a 5 pound Top Round Roast from a Crooked Gate Ranch steer that I bought with some other people. This guy produces some of the best pasture- finished beef anywhere, right here in the Willamette Valley. I was fortunate in that the processor cut my roast properly, a rarity anywhere anymore. Here’s what I mean by that:

Meat has a grain pattern, a direction in which the muscle fibers run. You can see this grain pattern if you look closely. Look at the end of the cut to see that there aren’t fibers running parallel to the face. It is desirable that the grain runs across the longest dimension of the cut. If the cut is a rectangle, the grain should run the length. This is because, when it’s sliced, we want to slice across (perpendicular to) this grain, cutting the grain pattern into cross sections. It is easy to imagine how this results in more tender slices of meat. The cheaper the cut of meat, the more thinly the meat needs to be sliced.

That is a well-browned roast. you can easily discern the grain pattern running the length of it.

Another consideration is the fat cap. Most meat cutters and butchers will take off every bit of visible cap since customers hate to see fat on their meat. Try to pick, or order, a roast with a layer of fat on top, which will help protect the meat from the heat of the oven and may or may not baste the meat as it cooks. If a piece of meat with a fat cap is unavailable, barding is an option. Barding involves tying a piece, or pieces, of fat or bacon to the top of a piece of meat in order to protect it. My roast was already so nicely tied, I didn’t wanna mess with it, so I just laid the bacon right across the top. I don’t have time to go into how to tie a butchers knot here. I’ll do that someday in future.

Let the roast sit in the refrigerator for a couple (or three or four) days, uncovered. Replace that box of baking soda! Turn it over every so often and pour off the excess blood that collects under it. This is an (weak) approximation of aging. Grocery stores “wet age” their beef which means that the beef doesn’t get a chance to lose some of its excess moisture, which would intensify the beefy flavor. The night before the roast will be cooked, season it relatively heavily with salt and pepper (season it with whatever you want, just make sure you use primarily salt.) By heavily I mean a teaspoon per pound or so. The next day pull the roast out of the refrigerator, maybe two hours before you plan on cooking it. If this is all starting to sound unsanitary, I really don’t know what to say. I don’t have the time to go into the fundamentals of sanitation and bacterial growth here, so just believe me, it’s fine. It’s important that we begin with roast that is at room temperature through and through.

Put a heavy, preferably cast iron, skillet that is large enough to hold the roast on the range,  turn the burner on high and add some vegetable oil to it. Olive oil would just burn here, as would butter. Let the skillet get so hot that the oil smokes and brown that roast really well (remember, perfection is just this side of burnt) on all sides. Set the roast aside, turn off the pan. At this point we can add wet flavoring ingredients (garlic, herbs, etc…) to the exterior of the roast. I like to either make a crust of herbs (parsley, rosemary, thyme, whatever…), mixed with olive oil and garlic to coat the exterior of the roast with, or make little incisions all over the outside that I stuff with garlic and herbs (rosemary.) Then, if we are going to, we bard. I suppose I don’t recommend barding with the herb crust idea, but I’ve never tried it.

So this isn’t “Barded” proper like. I just laid the bacon on top . Properly, there would be more bacon, and it would be tied down.

We want the roast to sit above the bottom of the pan, otherwise it will just stew in its own juices. I like to cook mine in my cast iron skillet. I don’t have a roasting rack that fits it, so I make a rack from vegetables. I cut two peeled onions through the stem into quarters. I put these into the pan, and the roast on top of those. The onions keep the roast up so that hot air can get around it, and simultaneously flavor and prevent the juices dripping from the roast from burning in the bottom of the pan. Clever.

The slower the better. 200° for 30-45 minutes per pound is about ideal. 325° for 15 minutes or so per pound is okay too. We need a thermometer to take the temperature. The roast will finish to a nice rare/medium rare if we pull it out at 125°-130° and let it rest. Resting is really important, 30 minutes is not too long. Let it rest on a plate so that the delicious juices that leak out of the roast do not run all over the floor for the dog, baby or cockroaches to lap up. As the roast rests, the muscle fibers relax and the blood redistributes itself throughout, resulting in an evenly red interior.

That’s nice color you can’t get by just fiddling with the oven temperature, not on this size a roast anyway.

While that is going on, it’s time to make the sauce. Put the pan over high heat, onions and all, on the range top. If the juices are not browned, brown them first. Add wine (I use a combination of white and red- white for acidity, red for earthiness and tannin) and cook down to about half. How much wine depends on how much you are willing to sacrifice. Don’t be too much of a lush, as you will have no sauce. As the wine cooks, be sure to scrape any browned bits from the bottom of the pan so that they are able to dissolve into the sauce. After this we can add beef stock if we have it and cook that down until it is of a relatively saucy consistency; we could add a small amount of tomato paste to make it more rich and substantial; we could add cognac or brandy or bourbon for sweetness and complexity. We could do an infinite number of things to vary this basic sauce. Make sure to pour the drippings from the resting roast into your pan and reduce that too. Finally, strain that juice from the onions into whatever, maybe a measuring cup. If we like this, it could be our sauce. We could return it to the empty pan and throw a large chunk of butter into it, swirling the pan over low heat until the butter melts happily into a rich brown sauce. We could then add herbs, or green peppercorns, or chopped anchovies. We could have sautéed some finely diced shallot and or mushrooms in the empty pan before we returned the juice. We could have toasted a little flour and butter into a nice roux to give our sauce more body, more substance. We could then have added chopped hard-boiled eggs, parsley and lemon to make it more interesting. There is no end to the ways we could finish our roast.

What’s important is that we slice it correctly. If the roast was cut correctly (in the case of loin cuts it would be nearly impossible to do otherwise) then we will be slicing across the width of it. Slicing across the length would be exceedingly difficult, and a real mess. If we are using a Round cut, slice it thinly, say an eighth inch or less. A Sirloin cut can be sliced somewhat more thickly, and a Loin cut could practically be cut into steaks if we liked.

The beginning of a nice sauce. The possibilities from here are endless.

Choose the right cut. Make sure that cut is cut right. Season early and heavily. Allow it to warm up. Brown it well, roast it slow, keep it raised. Rest and slice appropriately. That is all we need to know.