By James Temple

A prime-grade three-rib roast

On my first day of research about cooking prime rib, I learned an important lesson: Chefs agree on nearly nothing.

It's either critical to sear the meat before roasting -- or superfluous. Crucial to allow the beef to age several days in the refrigerator -- or a waste of time. A necessity to coat it with fresh herbs and garlic -- or un-American to season it with anything but salt and pepper.

With so many competing voices, each as insistent and authoritative as the next, what is a home chef hoping to produce the perfect holiday meal to do?

Find the areas of consensus, cook to personal preferences, and, when all else fails, flip a coin. So long as you start with decent prime rib and follow some basic guidelines, you should produce tender slabs of pink beef that will titillate everyone around the table save the vegetarians -- who may find their resolve strongly tested.


I consulted four sources to learn how to cook prime rib: "The Best Recipe," by the editors of Cook's Illustrated; celeb chef Suzanne Goin's method in a recent issue of Fine Cooking magazine; and local chefs Tyler Dwyer of Vic Stewart's in Walnut Creek and Jacques Kirk of Danville Prime Rib and Steak.

The first and biggest decision I had to make was deciding what type of meat to buy.

Prime rib, sometimes called a standing rib roast, refers to the meat surrounding ribs six through 12 of a cow, which is often sliced into two three-rib cuts. One area of agreement among the chefs and recipes was that ribs 10 through 12, known as the loin or small cut, are preferable "because it contains the large, single rib-eye muscle and is less fatty," according to "The Best Recipe." Most also suggest asking for it "on the bone," as the ribs impart flavor during roasting.

Prime in this context refers to the flavorful beef produced in this part of the cow, not USDA grading, which ranks meat as prime, choice and select according to the degree of marbling and other factors. A second area of accord is that a prime-grade prime rib is ideal, a choice will do nicely, but a select will not.

That still left me with a mind-numbing array of options: Kobe, Angus, grass-fed, organic, dry aged, wet aged. Fortunately, prices and availability quickly whittled down the list.

I only found dry aged, which came highly recommended by "The Best Recipe," at Whole Foods, but none was available from the Berkeley store before deadline. Enzo's Meat & Poultry in Oakland's Rockridge offered Kobe or Wagyu prime rib, but the $27.95 per pound cost put it out of our price range.

Prime-grade prime rib is also difficult to find, and expensive, though it should become easier to locate as December wears down. The one East Bay store where I found it during November was Andronico's in Berkeley, which priced it at $16.99 per pound. I bought a three-rib roast that weighed in at 81/2 pounds for $144.08.

For comparative purposes, I also picked up the cheapest choice grade I could locate, Safeway's Rancher's Reserve prime rib, which ran $9.49 per pound or, with a club card, $7.49. The three-rib cut weighed a little more than 7 pounds for a total cost of $67.57, $53.33 after the discount (practically a third of the cost of the Andronico's prime).

As recommended, I unwrapped the roasts at home a few hours before cooking to let them reach room temperature. They could hardly have looked more different. The prime grade was glossy red, with clean white marbling consistent throughout. The Safeway brand was a dull pink, with fewer streaks of fat.


The next big decision concerns preparation. Here, too, there are nearly as many methods as chefs.

Goin sears the roast in oil to caramelize the crust and seasons it with rosemary, thyme, garlic and butter. Kirk literally buries the meat in rock salt, a pound-for-pound ratio. Dwyer merely slathers his in kosher salt and cracked pepper.

I like a flavorful crust on my prime rib, and I've yet to meet the meat that garlic and rosemary didn't enhance, so I opted for Goin's approach. The downside was that it entailed a little more work -- and bodily harm.

Fine Cooking shows a picture of the petite Goin casually flipping a three-bone rib roast with a pair of tongs. Either it was staged or she's incredibly strong.

After I placed the first roast in my largest skillet, I had to quickly scrounge around for a second set of tongs to turn the thing over. Even then I had trouble getting a proper grip on the roast, and, of course, hot oil splashed up and sizzled my knuckles with just about every movement.

After struggling to pull my Safeway rib roast out of the pan, I realized I'd already made my first mistake. I had forgotten to tie twine around it, which "The Best Recipe" advises in order to prevent the bone from pulling away from the meat during roasting.

I slowly flossed the string under the roast, being extra-careful to avoid burning my hand on it. Instead, I smashed my finger into the underside of the adjacent -- and still very hot -- pan.

After searing both ribs and bandaging my wound, it was time to place the meat onto the roasting rack and into the oven. Roasting temperature is yet another area of wide disagreement, ranging from 200 degrees ("The Best Recipe") to 500 (Kirk, who roasts it at that temperature for two hours and then lets it continue to cook within the by-then-formed "salt shell oven" for one more).

I opted for 300 degrees, the temperature recommended by Dwyer and just 25 degrees shy of Goin's instructions. Nine out of 10 experts agree that you should actually light your oven if it's required, rather than, say, letting your kitchen fill with gas for a half-hour like I did.


A timer is useless, even dangerous, in cooking prime rib. So every half-hour, I basted the cuts and stabbed in my instant-read thermometer. By the time of my first check, the deep, earthy scent of roasting meat and garlic filled my kitchen. By my last, it had spread throughout my apartment.

The rule of thumb is to cook prime rib to between 120 and 125 degrees for rare, 130 to 135 degrees for medium-rare and 140 to 145 degrees for medium. The roast will continue to cook after you remove it from the oven, so most suggest taking it out a few degrees short of where you want to end up.

Cooking a prime rib higher than medium is, in my humble opinion, the culinary equivalent of boiling ice cream: The preparation method undermines the essential quality of the food. Prime rib is just supposed to be pink.

"The Best Recipe," in fact, doesn't even provide a temperature guide beyond medium-rare, employing a passive-aggressive tactic that I fully support here.

Which made what happened next all the more horrible.

After about three hours, the temperature on the front roast registered 132. I immediately pulled the roasting pan out and poked the thermometer in the rear roast, the prime-grade cut. The dial shot to 145 -- which is apparently the temperature at which my blood boils.

An image of my $150 chunk of meat, dried and dark brown throughout, flashed into my mind. I fought to suppress the urge to throw something. Then I had to fight the instinct to immediately cut the roast open and confirm or alleviate my worst fears. Recipes suggest letting prime rib rest for at least 15 minutes to allow the juices to reabsorb and distribute themselves evenly.

I counted to 10 and turned my attention for the time being to making au jus from the drippings by setting the roasting pan over two burners and adding red wine and beef stock.

That complete, I sharpened my butcher's knife, said a quick prayer and jabbed the chef's fork into the prime-grade roast. I sawed off thick slices, pink around the edges, red in the middle, beautiful and perfect. In fact, the Safeway version, which had registered the 132, looked less rare, an even pink throughout.

I can only think that my thermometer hit the hottest part of the meat, perhaps a bone. But in my near-failure lies an object lesson: Check the temperature in several places and rotate the meat during roasting to account for heat variations in the oven.


I had invited five people -- friends, colleagues and Kevin Gin, executive chef at Bridges Restaurant in Danville -- to sample the roasts. I didn't tell anyone which one was which, as I didn't want expectations to influence the assessments. I gave each person a sheet of paper to record impressions and determine a favorite.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say, as Gin pointed out, that it wasn't a perfect apples-to-apples comparison: I didn't give each person identical cuts of each type, the meats were different temperatures by the time of serving, and the roasts were cooked to different levels of doneness.

That said, the prime-grade cut earned comments such as "tender, soft, juicy, buttery"; "chewy, flavor drops"; "better but tougher, maybe because it was more rare"; and "tender, velvety, very flavorful."

Reactions to the Safeway rib roast included "More flavor, tender, muscle fiber tends to break apart"; "rougher texture, softer on the teeth, more flavor"; and "less tough, a little stringy, gamier."

Three of my five guests preferred the prime grade, but among the two voting for the Safeway was Gin, the only food professional among us. Even those who did vote for the prime agreed that the difference didn't justify the wide price gap. They were different, but each delicious.

Prime rib is such a high-quality cut that quibbles over technique and temperature and selection often become about the finest grades of subjective perfection, like haggling over a penny. Season it with what you like, pop it in the oven, keep an eye on it and enjoy.

Just watch out for scalding pans and remember to light the oven.

James Temple is a staff writer for the Contra Costa Times. Reach him at 925-977-8534 or


Serves 6-8

1 3-bone prime rib, preferably from the loin end

3 tablespoons flaky sea salt

11/2 tablespoons coarsely cracked black pepper

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

8-10 sprigs rosemary

8-10 sprigs thyme

10 medium cloves garlic, smashed and peeled

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1. Take beef out of the refrigerator 2 hours before cooking to allow it to reach room temperature. After a half-hour, season it with salt and pepper on all sides.

2. Position a rack and roasting pan in the center of oven and preheat to 325 degrees. Heat a skillet over high heat for one minute. Add olive oil and, when it gives off the first wisp of smoke, place the beef in the pan and use tongs to brown on all outer sides, except the cut ends (about 6-8 minutes). Be careful of splashing oil.

3. Transfer the beef, bone side down, into rack with two sets of tongs. Arrange the rosemary, thyme, garlic and butter evenly on top.

4. Roast the beef, basting every 30 minutes, until a thermometer reads 120-125 for rare, 130-135 for medium-rare, or 140-145 for medium.

-- Suzanne Goin's recipe in the December issue of Fine Cooking.

Per serving (approximate, based on an 8-ounce boneless serving): 930 calories, 50 g protein, 0 carbohydrates, 79 g fat, 195 mg cholesterol, 1,200 mg sodium, 0 fiber. Calories from fat: 76 percent.

-- Times analysis


Makes about 11/2 cups

1 cup red wine

2 cups beef stock

• Place the roasting pan on the stove burners over medium-high heat. Add 1 cup red wine and scrape the browned bits on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Add 2 cups beef stock and season with salt and pepper. Continue to cook until the liquid is reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Strain the sauce through a sieve to remove the solids before serving. De-grease, if necessary.

-- Emeril Lagasse on

Nutritional info depends on type of stock used.


Here are price quotes for various grades of prime rib from meat departments in mid-November.

• Andronico's: Prime: $16.99; choice: $8.99.

• Enzo's Meat & Poultry: Wagyu: $27.95; choice: $12.99.

• Raley's: Certified Angus, choice: $11.99; choice: $9.99.

• Safeway: Rancher's Reserve, choice: $9.49 per pound ($7.49 with a club card).

• Whole Foods: All grass-fed (not USDA graded): $13.99; at least two-thirds range-raised, $9.99.

For a dramatic presentation of a large bone-in prime rib, carve it standing upright as shown here by Jacques Kirk, chef at Danville Prime Rib and Steak. You should let the roast rest for 30 minutes to allow the juices to reabsorb, and you'll need a sharp knife, chef's fork and cutting board with a groove (for catching remaining juice). Slice a small piece off the large (chuck) end to create a level surface so the roast will balance safely on the cutting board.

1. Holding your fork into the back side of the prime rib, place your carving knife at the front, measuring the cuts' thickness by the location of the bone.

2. Cut the meat in long even slices, using the full length of the blade, sliding the knife under the bone when you reach the back side of the prime rib.

3. Keeping the knife underneath the separated slice, move the fork to the top of the slice for balance.

4. Transfer the slice directly to a plate, and repeat.
posted by Billy Shears; on Saturday, December 9, 2006 - link to this photo

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