As meat geeks, we are always looking for the best representation of our avocation. Sometimes that is a so-so cut of meat elevated to a sublime meal. Other times it is taking the best available and making it a feast to remember. That’s what we are here to talk about. The mac daddy, the mother of all roasts, the prime rib.
That’s right, it does involve opening up our wallets and we’ll talk about that aspect. There are choices regarding grade, quality, etc. so that will be covered. It can also be part of a holiday extravaganza, so we’ll look at that. But fundamentally, we want it to be absolutely awesome, whether in the heat of summer or the dead of winter, it needs to be a well-executed spread. And that will be the focus when we talk technique.
The difference of Prime.
Prime with a capital ‘P’ is the highest grade of beef as judged by USDA standards. It has heavy and consistent marbling, excellent flavor, and will likely cost twice as much as the next grade.
In the name of the cut, prime with a small ‘p’ references it as the best of the rib and loin meats, encompassing rib numbers six to twelve (out of 13). A butcher shop will know the phrase ‘standing rib roast’ as those rib bones with the loin attached, and it will weigh in at around 15 pounds. Those monsters are often cut in half, offering the superior ‘first cut’ from the loin end, and the ‘second cut’ a slightly less consistent cut of meat landing nearer the ‘chuck’ sections.
Show me the money
You may pay twice as much for a ‘Prime’ grade, and in our opinion it is not twice as good. If you are a money is no object person – first we hate you…just kidding – then by all means go for it. The rest of us can serve up an excellent meal using a ‘Choice’ cut at a reasonable value.
Costco usually stocks Prime while Safeway Rancher’s Reserve is a good Choice cut. Our advice; if you don’t always go big, this is a good time to do so. Find the best cut you can at a local butcher. You may not find U.S. Prime, but look for a nice fatty marbled cut. You’ll pay a bit more, but working with a person to help you select a good looking roast will give better results than just a market product.
Bones or no bones
The debate quietly rages on. It is all about what you like, that’s it. If you decide to go with a boneless prime rib you can expect a more predictable even cook throughout. Don’t worry about losing flavor without the bone, you won’t be cooking hot enough to extract any flavor from the bone into the meat. As a matter of fact, you’ll likely have a better caramelized crust if you go boneless.
Personally, we do like bone-in cuts and opt for bone when it comes to prime rib as well. If nothing else, they are the best leftovers in the world when you cut the roast off the bone to serve it up. Or you add a rib bone to the plates of the big eaters in your group, so they can get their primal Flintstone experience.
How Much Meat Do I Need?
A pretty simple gauge is to assume ¾ to one pound per person. A single rib will comfortably feed 2-3 people and a four rib will serve 8. If you are having more guests for dinner you might need to go with the awe-inspiring full 7 bone prime rib which can serve as many as 17-20 people. If you are going with a boneless cut then you will want to be at the lower end of that weight scale.
For a holiday meal, there is little as impressive as a full rib roast to serve your group. Don’t misunderstand, we do love us some turkey, and ham. But you can’t argue with the appeal of a properly prepared prime rib to set the mood for your festivities. There is even speculation that the quality gets better during the holidays as more prime rib hits the market. In our experience the pricing often gets better during the holiday season as well.
Your Best Prime Rib
To make the most attractive prime rib, you will want to “French” the bones, or clean the rib bones off before smoking. Use a knife to scrape the excesses meat, fat, and cartilage off the ribs, or ask your butcher to do it for you. Watch a quick video here. Little paper frill caps are entirely optional when serving.
Next, you need to bind the roast together. Prime ribs have lines of fat throughout the meat which often separate as it cooks. You prevent this by binding the roast with butcher’s string. Not only will this help the smoking process it will make the roast easier to carve. Your butcher can again be a help. Some will even cut the roast off the bones, then tie it back down with twine to make it much easier to serve.
Brining; time is on your side
Like so many of our familiar processes related to smoking meats, time is our friend and patience truly a virtue, resulting in great meals. A dry salt brine is in order so give yourself 24-48 hours for the process. Sprinkle kosher salt equally around the roast but be careful not to over-salt as you will not be washing it off. A good rule of thumb is about 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt per pound of meat.
By doing this at least 12 hours (24 – 48 hours is more ideal) in advance you will allow the salt to penetrate the meat, breaking down the proteins and ultimately making a juicier, flavor filled roast. Ideally, leave the seasoned roast uncovered in the fridge during this time as drying out the exterior will intensify flavor and help get a better crust.
Seasoning, and wood choices
At this point, you are probably at the threshold for salt. This is a large cut, and can certainly handle some heavy seasoning, but we do need to be judicious. Now is a good time to add a layer of black pepper, granulated garlic and even some crushed dry rosemary. We recommend this step of seasoning when you pull the meat from the fridge to sit at room temperature, for at least an hour.
There are different schools of thought when it comes to choosing the right wood for prime rib. Many like to use hardwoods such as oak, which will certainly produce a delicious flavor. But you have to be careful with hardwoods, or your oilier woods like mesquite. Their smoke can be so strong it will override the meat, making the roast taste too much of smoke instead of beef. We prefer to use Cherry wood or a similar fruit wood. The flavor is light and sweet and the smoke is less likely to overpower the other flavors.
Fire it up
Get your smoker ready and warmed up at 250 degrees…it is show time. Place the prepared meat bones down, fat side up, and let it go for 3-6 hours depending on weight. General rule of thumb is 20 minutes per pound. But whatever you do, use a thermometer so you know when you have reached about 130 degrees for medium rare. You do not want to overcook this one! And you can easily broil or sear a piece to a more done level if that is a specific diner’s preference.
Keep in mind that there will be carry over cooking when you remove the meat from your smoker. The internal temperature can easily rise another five degrees while it is resting. 135 degrees is pushing the top end of medium rare so keep that in mind while you are working. A rest of 15 minutes while you prepare your sides works perfectly.
Are we there yet?
This is not an especially long time to smoke a large cut like this. As a result it does not develop much of a crust, although it will color up pretty well. But who are we to argue with another layer of flavor by putting some high heat to the exterior.
Fire up the hot side of your broiler or open grill, or you can crank that oven up to 500. Give it 5 minutes on each side on the broiler or 10 minutes in the oven. Feel free to serve immediately since this short term temp blast will not affect the interior significantly.
Come and get it
Cut the string that bound it together and start cutting. Step one is to get the loin portion off the bones with your slicer knife. It’s your call, cut as close or far from the bones as you want, within reason of course. Leaving an inch of meat on the bones may make the rest of the roast not as nice for your meal. Slice the roast into portions and cut the ribs apart for the more carnivorous to enjoy.
Save those drippings, and check their saltiness with a small taste. These make a great add-on to finish you au jus if you have some ready. Ease the drippings in to share the smoky flavors without overpowering the jus flavor.