This "Encore" article was originally published December 24, 2016.
Today I talk with Randy Plummer, someone I respect as an excellent cook and retired caterer, but also someone whose specialty is prime rib, a meat that intimidates the heck out of me. I'm honored to learn from someone I consider a master when it comes to preparing delicious prime rib.
Q: Randy, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me, especially right before Christmas, when it's so crazy. But I need your help. I'm making prime rib for Christmas Eve dinner, and I'm scared. I know you're officially retired from catering, but you still do special events, such as the one you did earlier this month. But I will forever think of you as the prime rib expert. Before we get to my questions, can you tell a bit about your prime rib history?
Let's see, my prime rib history... Well, the first time was for friends, back in the early '80s. I was just as confused as you are, by the sound of it. I followed the advice of the butcher where I'd bought the meat and it turned out very well. My next attempt at cooking prime rib was for 80 people. That was within the first couple years of starting my catering business back in 1990.
Q: Randy, just humor me and tell me what's the most prime ribs you've ever prepared for one event?
During my catering career, I did prime rib dinners for as few as 20 people and for more than 300. The process is the same, no matter the number of people.
Q: Prime rib for 300? Oh my gosh! What scares me about prime rib is how expensive it can be, and if I ruin it, then I've lost an investment. That's one of the things I love about baking. The ingredients are relatively inexpensive, so if I screw up, it's not a huge financial loss.
You are right, the price of "prime" rib can be daunting.
Q: OK, let's start with "prime" rib. You have some thoughts about that, I know, so go ahead and give your prime rib speech.
Let me clarify what we are talking about when we say "prime rib". The actual roast is call a rib eye roast. The prime part is the grade of the meat. When you order prime rib in a restaurant, more than likely you are getting a "choice" grade of rib eye roast. I have only served "prime" rib once, and that's when my butcher educated me on the difference.
I checked just a week ago and the cost of choice rib eye roasts were $8.99 a pound. Prime rib eye roasts were more than $14 a pound. I personally can't see that much difference between the two. The largest number of whole roasts I've cooked at once was 17. That was for a local lumber company's Christmas party. Those events were always a bit stressful. Just the thought of being responsible for more than $2000 worth of meat "burning up" and 300 people depending on you to provide their dinner that night was somewhat daunting.
I can't even imagine. And here I am all stressed over one little roast. How in the world do you actually cook that much meat at once?
When I was catering for a large group, over 100 guests, I used my barbecue to cook the meat, mainly because the venue used didn't have the oven space for the roasts, and also the baked potatoes. Because I was using the barbecue, I wanted the added protection of having the bones on the roasts. To make carving easier, I asked the butcher to "cut and tie" the roasts. That means that they remove the bones and then tie them back into place on the roast. The bones then work as a "cooking rack" for the meat. I remember one event I was doing where where the barbecue caught fire from all the fat dripping off the roasts. Because of the bones attached to the roasts, they protected them from turning to charcoal! Out of the 15 whole roasts I had, three of them were well done, which actually worked out really well. So, now I always ask my butcher to cut and tie my roasts. You can also get the roasts without the ribs, they are a little more pricey per pound, but they will take up a little less room in your oven. To me, having the ribs to nosh on the next day is a treat.
Q: I agree about the ribs the next morning. And I have to say, that "cut and tie" instruction is new to me. I'm learning a lot here.
I just realized, I bought mine at Cash & Carry, where there is no butcher. I just have a slab of meat sealed in heavy plastic. What should I do before proceeding with cooking?
The roast you bought at Cash & Carry is most likely a "choice" rib eye roast without the bones. In that case, all you really need to do is remove it from the plastic. It has already been trimmed of excess fat, but check to be sure it's trimmed enough for you. Remember that "fat is flavor". It doesn't mean you eat it, but that it will add flavor while it's cooking.
Q: OK, my roast is ready to go. Now what, in the way of seasonings should I apply, and how long before I start cooking? Which reminds me, I know you don't marinate your roasts. Why not?
I like to keep it simple. Why pay so much money for a flavorful piece of meat and disguise those flavors with all sorts of herbs and spices? The same goes for marinating the roast; it takes away the true rib eye flavor. I prefer the natural beef flavor to shine through. So I only use garlic salt and course ground black pepper.
Q: That's it? Just garlic salt and pepper?
I use a lot thought, maybe on a whole roast, I'll use a good half a cup of each. A little hint, if your roast is dry, spray it with a little water (or wine works too) just to moisten the meat. I always try to season the roasts at least two hours ahead of starting to roast them. These two hours will also allow the meat to come to room temprature, which is very important for even cooking. If you don't want to season them yourself, your butcher will be happy to use their "house spice" on them for you.
Q: Now we need some crucial details: What temperature should we cook the roast, and until what internal temperature?
Cooking the roast[s] is the easy part. Actually, I never use the "per pound" charts. Preheat your oven to 450-500. Put the roast in and let it come back up to temperature for 10-15 minutes to get a slight sear on it. Then turn the oven down to 300 degrees and forget it. I like to use an instant thermometer. If you have a regular oven thermometer, put it in the roast, in the end of the roast as far in as you can get it. Check the temp after two hours. It should be around 110 by then. The temp will come up between 5-8 degrees every 15 minutes. I like to take my roast out of the oven at between 120 and 125 degrees. You must let the roast rest for at least 20 - 30 minutes, covered. The meat will come up another 5 to 15 degrees, depending on how long you let it rest. 125 is rare, 130 is medium rare, 135 is medium.
Q: Should we assume we're shooting for rare? And if so, can you share your trick for how to make some slices more done for those (strange people IMHO) who actually like it more done? Ick.
Wow, you really want me to spill all my secrets, don't you!? Well, don't tell anyone, but it's so simple, it's surprising. If you know that Aunt Sue must have her meat "cremated", ask my Dad used to say, use a frying pan that will hold the slice of meat easily. Put enough beef broth, bouillon, or even water in the pan to almost cover the meat. Bring it to a boil and when you are ready to serve, put Aunt Sue's slice of meat in the pan. Turn it over after about 45 seconds, let it sit for 20-30 seconds and serve. Aunt Sue's serving is now medium-well to well done. I learned this trick from the chef at the Doc's Hilltop restaurant back in the late '70s.
Q: I remember seeing you do that once, and it works like a charm.
For me, where I usually screw up is I tend to get food cooked too early, and in the case of meat, it keeps cooking, so there I am staring at well-done meat, rather than the rare beef I love. I know from working with you that you're the king of the clock, and of timing everything right down to the last second. So what's the prime rib time table?
The whole cooking time is between 2 1/2 and 3 hours. As I mentioned before, check the temp after two hours of roasting. If you want it "blood" rare, take it out a little before it gets to 120 and it will come up to 123, but you will have "real" rare. Most people prefer it medium rare, which is 130. For those folks, they would take the roast out at 125 degrees. If you want medium, take it out at 130, or just let it rest another 15 minutes. If I have the time, I like to let the roasts rest a minimum of 30 minutes. Even longer is great.
Q: What else should we know?
Humm, what else do you need to know? Don't panic! Have a glass of wine and relax. If the meat is done earlier than expected, take it out, cover in foil and let it rest in a draft-free place and finish up the side dishes.
Another hint is simple: Leave the oven door closed! If you are using an in-the-roast thermometer, it should be inserted where you can see it easily. That way you can open the oven, check the temp and close the door in just a few seconds. Don't leave the door open so everyone gets a look at their dinner. Every time the door is opened, the temp will go down at least 30 degrees, even for just a few seconds. Even when I use my instant thermometer, I insert it and close the door while waiting 15-20 seconds for the temperature to register, then I remove the thermometer and check the temp outside the oven, with the door closed! The new electronic thermometers connected to a panel outside the oven are wonderful, if you have one, it saves you from opening the door, maintaining an even temp at all times.
Thank you so much Randy, for sharing your prime rib knowledge with us. We appreciate your taking the time with us today to help us overcome our fear of prime rib. Merry Christmas to you and yours, and have a wonderful meal and fantastic holiday.
DEC. 26 UPDATE: I followed Randy's instructions and this is how my prime rib turned out. (Note: My thermometer was defective, and read 142 degrees at one point, which would have meant it was basically super, super well-done, but obviously, the thermometer was wrong, and this is how the roast looked.
I guess the moral of the story is have two thermometers, or just one that you know is valid.)
Thank you so much, Randy!