If you like beef, you like prime rib. This classic cut, most often served during the holidays, is a thick slice from the primal rib section of the cow and features your typical “eye” of rib (with or without the actual bone) surrounded by deliciously marbled muscle.
However, prime rib (aka standing rib roast) is different than other meats like steak of or a rack of ribs — instead of throwing it on the grill, you bake it as a roast for a couple hours. Sounds simple, right? But there are a few things you should know before you slap on your favorite apron and fixing it up for the first time.
To better understand how to cook prime rib, we tapped the culinary wisdom of Beau Carr, executive chef at RingSide Steakhouse in Portland, Oregon. Carr has more than 30 years of experience in the restaurant industry, and has served as the chef at this Portland institution since 1998.
Prime Rib temperature:
- Plan to remove your prime rib roast from the oven when it is at 10 degrees below your desired final temperature.
- The final prime rib temperature for rare meat is 120-125°F, medium rare is 130-135°F, and well done is 140-145°F
- When you cook for a crowd, the best rule of thumb is to remove your prime rib roast from the oven when it hits 120°F and allow it to rest for about 20 minutes while loosely tented with foil. If you target medium rare, you’ll most likely please everyone’s preferences for how they like their prime rib roast cooked.
As with any large cut of meat, your prime rib cooking time must depend on an accurate thermometer. Long ago I stopped following directions that just gave oven temperature and time. When you cook a giant hunk of meat in a roasting pan, you have to get the inside to the exact right temperature and you have to let it properly rest if you want a perfectly cooked, tender, juicy roast. There are so many factors involved including the size of your roast, the prime rib roast’s starting temperature (did you pull it straight from the refrigerator or did you let it rest on the counter for a bit?), the temperature of your oven, and how consistently your oven cooks. I’ve learned all of these things over time through the practice of ruining several large meals. Lessons learned! Now, I won’t cook anything like this without my thermometer. When I make prime rib roast and focus on the prime rib temperature, it turns out perfectly every time.
Selecting Your Cut
“You want to start out with the best quality product before you go to the cooking process,” says Carr. “Number one: You want to specify the grade.” If you already know something about meat, then you know that the United States Department of Agriculture (or USDA) has three levels of quality: Prime, Choice, and Select. Prime is the best, Choice is great, and Select is … pretty good.
Prime rib doesn’t have to be USDA Prime — in fact, Carr doesn’t recommend going Prime for your rib roast, as the marbling (fat content) may be too much. On the other side of the spectrum is Select, which doesn’t have nearly enough flavorful marbling. Carr says Choice is just right — it’s what Goldilocks orders at her favorite steakhouse. Most grocery stores carry Select rib roasts, premium grocery stores have USDA Choice, and specialty butchers should have Prime.
For the sake of simplicity, Carr recommends a boneless, lip-on roast rather than a bone-in 109 roast. In case you don’t know, “109” is the IMPS/NAMP designation for a tasty cut of prime rib. “The thing about a bone-in rib roast is your portioning is going to be determined by the spacing of the bone, which means you’re going to have giant slices,” says Carr. If you’re OK with giant slices, go ahead and go for the bone-in 109 roast. Some say the bone is great for flavor and moisture.
Be sure to get the age of your roast from your butcher. This is important because you want a minimum of 28 days of wet age before you cook your roast. “Wet age is when the product is in the original vacuum-sealed bag from the meat processor,” says Carr.
After 28 days have elapsed, you might move onto a dry-aging process. “If you have the refrigerator space, you can do what we do,” says Beau. “You can season your roast, put it in your refrigerator on a baking pan with a wire rack, and leave it there for three days.” Salting and dry-aging your prime rib (as you can see below) is completely optional, but if you have the time, you’ll find that it adds more flavor to the final product.
Lesser prime rib guides might tell you to tie your rib roast with twine. Carr has something to say on the matter: “We don’t tie our prime rib roast because it’s not really necessary and it’s kind of messy and inconvenient.” Chuck roast and round roast are a different story — these cuts need twine, as they’re comprised of different muscles that would otherwise separate and distort during the cooking process. If your butcher gives you a pre-tied roast, however, there’s no need to remove the twine.
In the Oven (or Convection Oven)
After you’ve successfully endured the aging period, it’s showtime. Let your roast warm up to room temperature, then turn on the oven. “I would go for a high-heat attack at first to caramelize the outside of the prime rib — probably about 450 [degrees Fahrenheit],” says Carr. “If you have a convection oven, you might want to turn the heat down by 25-50 degrees.” Once the oven is heated, put your roast into the oven and bake for about 20 minutes.
After the high-heat attack, open the oven door to let the excess heat out and lower the oven heat to about 250 degrees Fahrenheit. From that point, it’ll take about 1.5 to 2 hours for a 12 to 14-pound roast to reach an internal temperature of 110 to 115 degrees, which is ideal for a mostly medium-rare roast.
“You can’t uncook something,” Carr points out. “You want to start checking your internal temperature after about an hour.” You must stick a high-quality probe thermometer into the thickest part of the roast and keep a close eye on the temperature. Since all ovens and roasts are different, there’s no standard cooking time. As Carr says, “Cook it until it’s done.” And check the temperature often.
Cooking the roast to 115 degrees Fahrenheit on the inside will yield a few rare slices in the middle, mostly medium-rare slices, and a few medium slices on the outside. This should accommodate most refined steak eaters; if anyone wants their slice more done, you can always cook the roast for a few more minutes. However, Carr offers a solemn warning: “If you cook a roast to 135 or 140, then pull it out of the oven, it’s toast.”
Yorkshire pudding and au jus are classic accompaniments to prime rib. Fresh-ground horseradish or horseradish cream sauce is quite nice too. You can’t go wrong with mashed potatoes or a baked potato for the starch, and asparagus or baked spinach for the vegetable.
As for wine, you’ll want a “big” Cabernet or Merlot to keep up with the flavors of your prime rib. However, Carr stresses the importance of drinking whatever appeals to you. “A good wine is one that you like,” he says.
Prime rib occupies a hallowed space in the minds of meat lovers. Still, you shouldn’t let that deter you from attempting it yourself. Learning how to cook prime rib can revolutionize your dinner parties, family dinners, or dinners alone (we don’t know your life).
Once you’ve mastered a prime rib roast, it’s time to try your hand at grilling steak, smoking other meats, or maybe even curing your own prosciutto at home.
Article originally published September 13, 2016. Last updated May 4, 2018.
Prime Rib Primer
What is a prime rib?
First, a prime rib can go by other names—beef rib roast, ribeye roast, or standing rib roast (so called when it is bone-in and can be roasted without the meat touching the pan)—but regardless of what it is called, it comes from the 6th through 12th ribs of a cow, sandwiched between the chuck and the short loin. It is primarily composed of the longissimus dorsi muscle that runs next to the spine. Because of its location high up on the back of the cow, this muscle is not well used. This lack of use means that this muscle develops to be much more tender than, say, the rear-leg muscles (the Round of beef): it is anatomically predisposed to tenderness.
Tenderness is, of course, only one of the attractive characteristics of this cut of meat. Perhaps the most notable feature of this cut is the deep, rich fat marbling. The “eye” of the rib is encircled by a ring of fat and connective tissue, outside of which lies the “lip” of the roast. Much of the whole roast is covered by a fat cap of varying thickness. It is those seams of fat that deliver rich flavor and a velvety texture, as well as keep the meat from drying out easily.
When selecting a rib roast, make your selection based on grade, price, and need
Picking out a rib roast at the store is a big deal. You want the best roast you can get in your price range, but you don’t want to come up short at dinner. So what should you buy and how much of it should you get? Let’s look first at grading and quality.
It’s a little known fact, but the method of grading beef by the USDA is solely based on fat marbling. The more thoroughly marbled the beef, the higher the grade. Higher graded beef will be juicier, more tender, and more flavorful, but it will also cost significantly more.
Buy the highest grade you can on your budget. If you can afford Prime grade, go for it! But Choice is generally a good intersection of quality and affordability.
You may have heard that Prime Rib refers to a prime-grade rib roast. This is not true—at least, not necessarily. The term “prime rib” predates the USDA meat grading system and is a reference only to the fact that it is the best part of the rib section. In fact in the USDA Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book, (pg 154), the USDA clearly states that, “PRIME RIB OF BEEF OR STANDING BEEF RIB ROAST FOR PRIME RIB: These products do not have to be derived from USDA prime grade beef” (emphasis in original).
Prime rib can be graded USDA Prime (it will cost you!), but it can also be USDA Choice or USDA Select. “Ungraded” meat cuts are also available, but if it were my decision, I’d get a little less of the better stuff than more of the ungraded.
So how much of this delicious, pricey beef do you need? That really depends on you and your guests, but as a general rule, figure about 1/2 pound of raw roast per person on a boneless roast, or one bone per two people on a bone-in roast.
Should I buy a boneless or bone-in rib roast?
Having reckoned grade, price, and guest-count, there’s still one more decision you need to make before you buy your roast: whether to go boneless or bone-in.
The debate has gone on for years, with the pro-bones arguing that the bones contribute more flavor, and, if pressed, insisting that the marrow was seeping in from the bones to the meat. This has been shown by J. Kenji López-Alt , a team at Texas A&M’s Meat Science Department, and Meathead Goldwyn to be untrue. The marrow in the ribs is the wrong kind for “seeping” and the bones themselves are pretty impenetrable—even to the gooey, tasty kind of marrow.
There is one way in which leaving the bone in can actually have an effect: as a heat buffer. Having a shield of bone and connective tissue on your meat can help to prevent overcooking. But if you like your roast rare to medium rare, it can actually lead to chewy, undercooked meat right near the bone.
In the end, you’ll have to decide based on your preference. A standing rib roast (which can be as small as two bones or as long as the full seven) is beautiful to behold, but more difficult to carve—you will probably just cut the bones off to serve it anyway. Yes, a bone-in roast will usually be cheaper per pound, but you will be paying for bone weight, which is not directly useful to you.*
On the other hand, boneless prime rib roasts are easy to cook, easy to carve, but cost more per pound. The choice is yours, but in the ThermoWorks kitchen, we most often cook boneless roasts.
* If you choose to get a bone-in roast, we recommend having your butcher prepare it “cut and tied,” with the bones cut off and tied back onto the muscle. This creates an easy carving situation while maintaining presentation and heat-buffering advantages. The bones are fun and tasty to gnaw on after dinner, or you can use them to make a beef stock.
Having considered thermal barriers, enzymatic actions, pre-and post searing, and other factors, we can say that the method of first salting and then partially freezing your prime rib, searing it in cast iron, and then cooking it in a 225°F (107°C) oven until the center reaches 125°F (52°C) and then letting it rest is the path to a perfect prime rib roast. It takes about 1/2 hour longer than the countertop method, and 2.5 hours longer than going straight from the refrigerator, but the difference is the difference between almost perfect and perfect. The slight bit of extra give in each bite, the difference between a 3mm and 1mm ring, the extra tenderness from the enzymatic aging—these differences are what separate a great rib roast from an exceptional prime rib. Thermal knowledge about your food gives you control over its production, and control over the outcome. So take control of your holiday dinner and make a roast your family will still be talking about next year.
Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking
Meathead Goldwyn, Amazingribs.com
J. Kenji López-Alt, SeriousEats.com, The Food Lab
U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book