Secrets of Prime Rib on the Grill (and Indoors if You Must)


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Is there anything more impressive and luxurious than a big juicy standing prime rib roast? Well it's easy to make outdoors and it definitely tastes better. There are a few tricks to bring it to its peak (and will also work if you are cooking indoors):

1) Go boneless. We will remove the bones so it browns on all sides and save the bones for another great meal.

2) A killer crust. We will coat the meat with a paste of oil, herbs, and spices that will create a flavorful crust.

3) Let it sit at room temp. This allows enzymes that are dormant in the cold meat to kick in and tenderize it.

4) A great gravy. We will make a jus in a drip pan well below the roast.

About going boneless

This addendum was added after reading several comments.

I know you've heard that the bones add flavor. The fact is they don't. Not in a roast. Submerged under liquid in a stew or braise they produce immense flavor, especially as the marrow dissolves into the liquid. It is essential to leave bones in a stew or braise. But they do not add flavor under the dry heat in a roast.

Think about it. Beef ribs are a honeycomb of marrow inside a casing of calcium wrapped in a sheath of leathery connective tissue. The marrow is not getting through that thick layer of calcium, the calcium is just not getting through the connective tissue, and even if some of it did, the molecules are just not moving more than 1/16" through the muscle tissue during the cook.

If you leave the bones on, they make a very effective base upon which to stand the roast, they act like a heat shield at first until they get fully hot and then they conduct heat and continue to cook the meat after you take it out of the oven.

Most importantly, the bones keep almost half the surface from browning and developing that wonderful rich herbal crust. Brown flavors, created by the maillard effect and caramelization, are among the best part of the meat. I know that gnawing on the bones is fun and tasty, but I submit that if you remove them and make an second meal of them, they will taste better. Beef ribs are a blast.

Another reason to remove the ribs before cooking is because they are a pain to remove at the dinner table when you are carving. Unlike a pork roast, you just cannot cut a slice one bone wide. One bone wide is too much for a normal person. It's enough for two. To avoid this you can remove the rib slab before cooking an put seasoning on the meat and then tie the bones back on. Fine. But those seasonings and the surface still don't brown.

So get two meals from your roast, make the roast taste better, and just cut the bones off.

5) Just a kiss of smoke. If we are cooking outdoors, we will add wood chips to the fire, just a few, to give it an exotic smokey undertone.

6) Reverse sear. We will cook the interior with indirect convection heat at first and sear it at the end of the cook with direct radiant heat.

Let's start by getting the name right. Chances are that gorgeous hunk-o-meat in the butcher case is not technically a "prime rib" as a lot of people call it. "USDA Prime" grade meat, with web-like threads of fat running through the muscles for added flavor, is an expensive grade that is sold primarily to restaurants. Chances are your grocer's meat is "USDA Choice" grade, not prime grade.

You and I call it prime rib because that's what it was called before the current grading system was created and because that's what they call it in restaurants. But that's OK. Choice grade is going to make you a pretty darn good dinner because those muscles, located along the back of the steer, are almost always tender and juicy. You can order USDA prime grade meat if you wish, and it's a real treat, but bring a wheelbarrow full of cash. Otherwise ask your butcher for "top choice" which is the best looking most marbled choice grade roast in the house.

What your grocer has is more properly called a rib roast, but you can call it prime rib if you want. It usually comes in two forms, with the ribs still attached, or boneless.

Many people prefer a roast with the ribs attached because gnawing on ribs is fun, because it is a dramatic presentation, and because the curved ribs can act like a built-in roasting rack that the meat can stand on while cooking, hence the name standing rib roast. This is, by the way, the primal from which ribeye steaks are cut.

I like to get mine with the bone on, and then I remove the ribs so I can season the meat on all sides. The bones get in the way of the rub and prevent browning on almost half the surface. I don't know about you, but I like that brown bits on the outside crust. I leave a bit of meat on the ribs when I cut them off and I save them for another meal. They can be smoke roasted Texas or Chicago style or braised.

Another option is to cut the bones off so you can apply the rub to all surfaces and then tie the bones back on with butcher twine. Just cut a length of twine a few inches longer than you need and loop it around the roast between the bones and tie it with a granny knot or square knot. The bone in version makes a more impressive impression, but I usually just get them the heck outta there.

If you get a roast with ribs on, you should make sure the butcher removes the chine for you. That's the end of the rib that was connected to the spine. Most of the time is has already been removed, but if it hasn't it can be a pain to cut through when you try to separate the bones. Having the butcher do this makes carving easier. Even if you are cooking a boneless roast, I recommend you tie it every inch to hold it together and to help make it round which helps it cook more evenly.


Prime Rib Recipe

Makes. A typical rib roast weighs two pounds per bone width depending on the size and age of the steer. Allowing for waste (fat and bone), and shrinkage (about 20%), you should buy 1 pound per person, or 1 bone width for two people. That will be more than enough and guarantee leftovers for superb roast beef sandwiches (most roast beef is made from sirloin, a tougher cut). If you can, get the small end of the rib rack starting with bone 12 and counting backwards from there. If you need four bones, order bones 12 through 9. Three bones wide is about 7 to 8 pounds raw untrimmed, enough for about 10 people after trimming and 20% shrinkage.

Two tricks for the adventurous

1) Rib roasts have two major muscle groups. The eye of the ribeye, which is a long, tender tube about 4" in diameter, and the spinalis muscle, sometimes called the deckle or the rib cap, that wraps around the side opposite the bones. They are separated by a layer of fat. The spinalis has a bit more fat woven through it and it is very tender and juicy, a lot like the fabulously expensive kobe or wagyu beef. Because the roast is so thick and because heat takes so long to penetrate the fat layer separating the muscles, the spinalis tends to overcook while waiting for the center of the eye to get to temp. So here's a trick I've used: Carefully remove the spinalis and set it aside for another meal. Rib cap makes incredible steaks and it is showing up on more and more restaurant menus.

2) Another trick popularized by Adam Perry Lang of Daisy May's BBQ in NYC is to deeply score the spinalis in two directions making 1" squares on the surface that he deliberately overcooks to get crunchy. Click here to see a video of his technique.

Preparation time. 20 minutes to make and apply the dry rub, 1 to 24 hours to marinate, and 2 to 3 hours to come to room temp before cooking.

Cooking time. It is important to understand that there is no easy rule for the timing of a prime rib, but there are some guidelines here. The most important determinant of cooking time is the thickness of the meat, not the weight, and cooking time can vary significantly depending on a number of other variables: Bone on or bone off (bones slow the cooking), how cold the meat is when you put it on, the ambient temp outside, how well your grill holds temp, how long you leave the hood open when you check the drip pan, how often you show it to your wife, neighbor, and guests. But remember, your grill's thermometer is not reliable and many are off as much as 50°F, even on fancy grills! You really need a good digital oven thermometer and another good digital meat thermometer. Please read my article on thermometers. The cooking times below are highly approximate and assume you have a good oven thermometer, a good meat thermometer, the bone has been removed, and the meat has been at room temp for 2 to 3 hours before cooking. As insurance, I strongly recommend that you start earlier than you think you will need and that you have on hand a faux cambro, a plastic beer cooler in which you can hold the meat and keep it warm if it finishes early. Click the link to read more about how to set one up.

3 ribs, 7 to 8 pounds: 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours at 325°F, then 20 minutes browning over direct heat
4 ribs, 9 to 10 pounds: 1 1/2 to 2 hours at 325°F, then 20 minutes browning over direct heat
5 ribs, 11 to 13 pounds: 2 to 2 1/2 hours at 325°F, then 20 minutes browning over direct heat,
6 ribs, 14 to 16 pounds: 2 3/4 to 3 hours at 325°F, then 20 minutes browning over direct heat
7 ribs, 16 to 18 pounds: 3 to 3 3/4 hours at 325°F, then 20 minutes browning over direct heat

1 beef rib roast, about 3 bones wide, 6-8 pounds before trimming
4 tablespoons Mrs. O'Leary's Cow Crust before mixing with oil
2 medium onions, stem removed, skin left on, and cut into quarters
2 carrots, peeled and chopped into 1" lengths
1 stalk celery, leaves left on, cleaned, and chopped into 1" lengths
32 ounces beef broth
1/4 cup dry red wine (optional)

A cheaper cut. If the price of a rib roast is daunting, a sirloin bottom round will work beautifully. It will be a bit chewier and a bit less juicy, but it will have great flavor. Just make sure you slice it about 1/4" thick and across the grain to make it less chewy.

Serve with. Garlic Mashed Potatoes, French Green Beans, and a big red wine.

Do this
1) About 24 hours before cooking. Make a spice paste like my recipe for Mrs. O'Leary's Cow Crust, a blend of herbs, spices, and oil. The oil releases the flavors in the herbs and spices, helps it penetrate the meat's surface, and helps with browning and forming a crust. If you can, make the rub a few hours before cooking so the oil can extract the flavors. Do not use Meathead's Memphis Dust or any rub with sugar in it. Lawry's Seasoned Salt is a good choice, it was designed for this sort of thing. But if you can, try my recipe for Cow Crust.

2) Remove the bones. Remove the rib bones leaving about 1/4" of meat on them, and set them aside for cooking another day. The bones do not add or subtract any flavor from the meat. This is an old myth. And they cover over a lot of meat surface that could be seasoned with rub and get a nice dark tasty crust. Yes, the bones are fun to gnaw on, but they can also make a great meal on their own. Check out my articles on beef ribs.

3) Trim off the fat. If there is a fat cap, remove some but not all of it. You want to get rid of most of it because you will not want to eat big globs of fat and if you discard it after you are done cooking you will be discarding much of the seasoning. You want to leave a little on because it melts and bastes the meat and flavors the jus. Trim it to about 1/8" thick and make cross-hatched cuts through the fat down to the meat about 1" apart.

4) Make it round. After the bones are removed, the roast is sort of tear-drop shaped. Tie it with string in a few locations to make it rounder. This will help it cook more evenly.

5) Apply the paste. Get a pan larger than the roast to be used for a drip and gravy pan below the roast. Put the roast in the pan. Pat the meat dry with paper towels and pour most of the paste on top of the roast. Spread it around all visible surfaces working it into the meat. Turn the roast over and pour the rest on the bottom and work it around. Put it back in the fridge.

6) About 2 hours before cooking bring it out of the fridge. Take the meat out and let it sit at room temp. Don't worry, this is safe. Any microbes will be killed during cooking. Letting it sit at room temp warms it and gives the meat a running start on cooking. If you are going to heat a large mass of meat from 70°F in the center to 125°F (rare) it will go a lot faster, and the interior color will be a lot more even than if you try to move it from refrigerator temp, under 40°F to 125°F. If you must start at fridge temp, then add about 20% to the roasting time.

7) Prepare the grill. Set up your grill or smoker for 2-zone indirect cooking and preheat the indirect zone to 325°F. Click the link to learn more about how to do this. You don't want to cook so hot that the meat burns on the outside before it is done on the inside. A good technique is rotisserie, but only if you have a basket rotisserie. Do not use a spear type rotisserie. If you put a rotisserie spear through the center of the meat, the metal rod will get hot and cook the meat in the center of the roast. Bad idea. Cooking times for a basket rotisserie will be about 25% faster.

8) Make the gravy. This roast will be moist, but you will still want a bit of gravy, a.k.a. jus, especially if you make my Garlic Mashed Potatoes, and you should make my Garlic Mashed Potatoes. Yes you should. In a Weber Smokey Mountain or other bullet smokers, you can use the built-in water pan as the drip and gravy pan. Just make sure it is scrubbed clean on the inside. If you can't get it clean use a disposable aluminum pan on the lower shelf. On some grills you may need to use a more sturdy baking or roasting pan and place a wire rack on top. Read my articles on how to setup a gas grill, a charcoal grill, and a bullet smoker. Put the beef broth, wine, onion, carrots, and celery in the drip pan and add water until it is about 1" deep.

9) Put the meat on the grill. We will not sear the meat at this time. Be patient. Put the meat on a rack above the drip pan. Do not put the roast in the pan with the liquid. We are roasting this meat with dry heat not boiling or braising it. Do not use a roasting rack that puts the meat into the pan. We want warm air circulating around all sides of this meat. If you have a meat thermometer with a probe on a cable, you should insert it now so the tip is dead center in the thickest part of the meat. If you don't have a probe you can leave in the meat, you absolutely must have a good instant read meat thermometer, preferably a digital, to get this meat off properly cooked. Dial thermometers are notoriously inaccurate. Read my Thermometer Buying Guide to learn how they work and which are the best.

10) Smoke. If you want a smoke flavor in the background add just a little bit of hardwood to the hot part of the cooker, about 4 ounces max. Don't overdo the smoke. A little bit is nice, but too much can ruin it. I cannot overemphasize this. Use just a little wood.

11) Monitoring your meat. You will need to look under the hood occasionally during the cook, but make it infrequently and quickly. You can lose a lot of heat and humidity when you peek. Remember, if you're lookin', you ain't cookin'. During the cook check the meat temp after 60 minutes and then every 15 minutes. Check the drip pan, keeping at least 1/2" of liquid in the pan. Add water if necessary. Do not let it dry out and burn. Look at the meat and if one side is getting too dark, rotate or turn the meat, otherwise there is no need to turn it. Do not leave the lid open for long or you will lose a lot of heat and extend the cooking time significantly. If you have a problem with your cooker, perhaps the gas runs out or the temp just won't stay at 325°F, or it is really cold outside, you can bring it inside after about an hour and finish it in the oven. By then all the smoke flavor is already in the meat.

12) Searing. When the temp in the deepest part of the interior reaches 115°F, take the meat off the rack and place it over the hottest part of the grill. If necessary, remove the drip pan and bring it inside. Raise the lid and stand by your grill, as Tammy Wynette once sang (click the link for the lyrics). Conventional wisdom tells you to sear the meat at the start of the cook, but it is also a myth that searing seals in moisture. It does no such thing and in fact, it may make the meat drier. But darkening the exterior generates deep rich flavors from a chemical reaction called the maillard effect and caramelization of sugars. Darken it too much and you can carbonize the surface and burn all the good stuff in the paste. So we will roast the meat first slowly with convection heat and then sear it just before taking it off with high radiant heat, a technique called reverse sear. Get the surface a deep dark brown by leaving it on the hot part for about 3 to 5 minutes. Roll it a quarter turn and repeat on all four sides. We leave the lid up because we no longer want to roast the interior. We are focusing the heat on the exterior now. During this process, the interior will rise another 5 to 10°F anyway. Check the temp again and take it off at 120 to 125°F in the center if you want the meat rare, 125 to 130°F if you want it medium rare, and 130 to 135°F if you want it medium. The temp will continue to rise about 5°F after you take it off.

Most rib roasts are served rare to medium rare in the center, that's red to dark pink. Scientists have measured the force it takes to shear the meat, in other words how tough it is, and it is at its most tender in the medium rare range. They have also measured moisture, and beyond this medium rare it begins to dry out. Now a lot of people are squeamish about the red liquid. They need to know it is not blood! It is a protein liquid from within the cells called myoglobin. All the blood was drained long ago. So stop calling it blood!

There is a high likelihood that some people will want their meat medium to well done. They can have the end cuts which heated not only from above and below, but from the ends, so they will be browner. They have the added benefit of having the most crust. If you have more than two people who want well done, you can cut off a few slices and put it over the hot part of the grill to cook them further. They will be getting incredible ribeye steaks. Click here for more about ideal meat serving temps and a handy clip-out chart.

13) Resting. Let it rest 20 minutes before cutting. The temp will rise about 5°F in that 20 minutes, a phenomenon called carryover. In addition, the water pressure inside the muscle cells will go down a bit and less juice will come gushing out when you slice. If the meat is finished early and your guests are not ready to eat, place the roast in pan and place that in a faux cambro, a well cleaned plastic beer cooler. That will keep it warm until you are ready to serve. It will also soften the crust a bit, but that's not the end of the world. It's better than putting it back on the grill and overcooking it.

14) Finishing the gravy. While the meat is resting, pour the jus through a strainer and taste it. It should be thin and rich. If it is too thin, dump it into a frying pan, turn the heat to high, and reduce it. Taste and add salt if needed, but it shouldn't need it because some of the paste dripped into the pan.

15) Serving. Remove the string. Use a really sharp knife and cut servings about 3/4" thick. Pour any drippings from the cutting board into the gravy. If you want to amp it up to 11, serve my Secretariat Horseradish Cream Sauce on the side.

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