Prime rib is and perhaps always will be the king of holiday roasts. There is nothing so primal, so celebratory, so downright majestic as a hunk of well-marbled beef, served medium rare on the bone, with a crackling, well-browned exterior.
If you've been following The Food Lab since the beginning, this won't be the first time you've heard about prime rib. Heck, I've been talking about how to reverse-sear a prime rib to maximize the tender, medium-rare interior since the dawn of The Food Lab, way back in 2009. It's a dish that looms large in my family legend. My mother requests it at Christmas each year. I've got a dedicated prime rib–aging fridge in my shed. I'm even hosting a series of prime rib dinners around the country (SF and LA just happened; stay tuned for more cities in 2016). Point is, I know a thing or two about beef and regularly test and retest my techniques.
Here's the good news: Despite years of intervening testing, my recommendations on how to cook the perfect prime rib have not significantly changed.
Here's the better news: You can follow along with this step-by-step guide to guarantee that your holiday centerpiece comes out perfect.
Prime Rib: The Basics
If you want to get straight into the action, there are only a few things you need to know.
Start with bone-in, well-marbled beef. Bones don't add flavor, but they do regulate temperature, increasing the amount of tender, medium-rare beef you'll get in your finished roast. And, of course, you get to gnaw on those bones when you're done. Marbling is intramuscular fat that appears as a white, spiderweb-like pattern within the meat. The more marbling, the richer and tenderer your beef will be. Though most guides recommend a pound per person when you're shopping for prime rib, this is for very hungry eaters: In reality, you'll most likely get away with three-quarters of a pound per person, or about one rib for every three people.
Season it well, and season it early if you've got time. Prime rib has plenty of flavor on its own, so there's no real need to add much more than a good heavy sprinkling of salt and pepper. If you're able to plan ahead, it's best to season your prime rib with salt at least the day before, and up to four days ahead of roasting, letting it sit on a rack in your fridge uncovered. This will allow time for the salt to penetrate and season more deeply while also drying out the surface, which will lead to better browning during roasting.
Start it in a very low oven. Here's where the "reverse sear" part kicks in. Traditional prime rib recipes will have you start your meat in a very hot oven, based on the premise that searing meat can "lock in juices." This has been proven time and again to be false. If you want the juiciest, tenderest prime rib, your best bet is to do the opposite: Start your prime rib in a very low-temperature oven (200 to 275°F), let it reach about 125°F for medium rare, remove it and let it rest while you crank the oven up to its maximum setting, then set the beef back inside for just a few minutes to crisp up the exterior. The result is prime rib that is measurably juicier and tenderer, with a crackling crust and the biggest expanse of rosy interior. Read up more on the science of the reverse sear here.
Try cooking it a little more than you think you should. I strongly believe that well-marbled prime rib is at its best when it's cooked to a minimum of medium rare, and preferably medium. Rare is great for lean cuts like tenderloin, which tend to get dry at higher temperatures, but for fatty, well-marbled cuts, you want to cook them at least to the point where the fat will start to soften and render, delivering flavor and juiciness to your mouth. Indeed, when I did a blindfolded taste test of beef cooked to various temperatures a couple of years back, all but one out of a dozen tasters preferred prime rib cooked to medium rare, even folks who initially claimed that they liked their meat rare. Give it a shot!
If you want to serve it with a sauce, I suggest using oxtails, beef shins, or soup bones (or a combination) to fortify a red wine–based jus that you can cook right alongside your prime rib in a roasting pan in the oven. You can find the exact process for doing this in the recipe and gallery linked at the top of this article.
If you want to dive further into the ins and outs of prime rib, make sure to check out The Food Lab's Definitive Guide to Prime Rib. There are some crisp, succulent morsels of well-browned information to gnaw off the bones of the knowledge beast over there.
For the ultimate experience in prime rib, you'll want to use dry-aged beef. There are no two ways about it: Whether you buy it from a good butcher or supermarket or age it yourself at home, it's an expensive endeavor that's gonna add to the cost of your meat. Commercially dry-aged beef will fetch upwards of $25 to $30 a pound. At home, you'll need some dedicated equipment, while also running the risk (albeit a small one, if you follow my directions) that you'll cut into your beef a few weeks down the line only to find that the controlled rot of dry-aging has turned into full-on, zombie-apocalypse-style decomposition.
But if you have the patience and the funds, nothing beats the flavor and tenderness of a perfectly dry-aged prime rib. The aging process not only improves tenderness through the action of enzymes within the meat, it also adds flavor through controlled bacterial action and the oxidation of fat. Well-aged prime rib will have a dense and meaty texture that's still incredibly tender, with a nutty, sweet aroma. Let it go long enough (28+ days), and you'll start to develop hints of Parmesan or blue cheese.
I've written an extensive guide to aging your own beef at home (all it really requires is a mini fridge, a computer CPU fan, and some patience), but in the two years since I wrote that piece, I've also tested a number of new products on the market intended to help improve the odds of successful aging. Of those, two have stood out.
The SteakAger is a small Plexiglas box that fits inside your normal fridge (I keep it in a large mini fridge, as my normal fridge is usually too full to fit it) and comes fitted with a fan, temperature and humidity monitors, and a UV light to sterilize the air as it circulates around your beef. You won't be able to fit a complete prime rib roast in there, but it's a nifty little product if you plan on aging around three ribs at a time. The product has had a successful Kickstarter campaign and is available through that link for $129 (no word on exact shipping time for new orders).
The other is the Steak Locker, and this one is for serious dry-aged steak lovers only. This dedicated steak-aging refrigerator has a built-in fan and UV light, as well as trays to hold blocks of rock salt intended to help maintain humidity. A monitor in the fridge pairs with your smartphone and gives you alerts any time the temperature or humidity reaches dangerous levels. This is a feature that would have saved me several hundred dollars' worth of prime rib a couple of years ago when my aging fridge shut off over the weekend during a power outage. It's also got an ultra-sleek stainless-steel-and-glass design that's intended to be on display. This is the steak-aging fridge for people who want to communicate to their guests, "I AGE MY OWN BEEF." It's also pricey, at around $1,500—though, to be fair, it'll pay for itself after about 150 pounds of dry-aged beef, or eight to 10 full, untrimmed prime ribs.
Neither gadget is essential, but both are effective.
Let's Start Cooking!
You can jump straight to the recipes below, or check out the step-by-step gallery for a walk-through of the process.