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: I've written a step-by-step guide, which you can find below, that you can use 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.
Important Details About Dry-Aged Beef
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.
Step-by-Step: Perfect Prime Rib With Red Wine Jus
Step 1: Brown Shins or Oxtails
To make a rich red wine jus to serve with our prime rib, we start by browning 3 pounds of oxtails, beef shin, soup bones, or a mixture of any or all of those in a hot Dutch oven with a little bit of canola oil. Deep color is what you're going for here—it's all going to add flavor to the sauce in the end.
Step 2: Brown Mirepoix
After browning and setting aside the bones and meat, in go a large carrot, a couple of stalks of celery, and a large onion, all roughly chopped and cooked until lightly browned.
Step 3: Add Wine
A full bottle of wine goes into the pot. The best wine for a sauce like this is a dry red. I typically cook with Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, a relatively inexpensive Italian DOP red that is also great paired with food.
Step 4: Add Aromatics and Reduce
Bay leaves, parsley, and thyme round out the aromatics. Once they're added, bring the pot to a simmer and cook down the wine until it's reduced by about half. (Check here for some science on why you should reduce your wine before adding your other liquids.)
Step 5: Add Stock
In goes a full quart of chicken stock. If you have good homemade stock, that's the best option. If not, a high-quality store-bought low-sodium stock will do. I use Swanson or Kirkland organic if I need to go with store-bought. Dissolving a couple of packets of gelatin on the surface of the stock before adding it to the pot will improve the finished texture of the sauce if you're using store-bought.
Step 6: Season Prime Rib
Generously season a bone-in standing rib roast (a.k.a. prime rib) with plenty of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. You want to get it on all sides.
Step 7: Prepare the Roasting Pan
Place the seared bones/oxtails/shins in the bottom of a roasting pan. (There's no need for an expensive one—I explain why you don't need an expensive roasting pan here.) Then pour all of the liquid on top of them, along with the vegetables. Set a V-rack directly on top of the vegetables and liquid.
Step 8: Place Beef in Pan
Place the beef in the roasting pan with the bone facing down and the fat cap facing up.
Step 9: Roast
Place the pan in an oven set to 250°F. Slow roasting at a very low temperature is the key to meat that is perfectly evenly cooked from edge to edge, with a very tender interior texture.
Step 10: Use a Thermometer!
At this low temperature, the average prime rib roast will take 4 to 5 hours to reach medium rare (130°F internal temperature). The only way to tell when a prime rib is done is to use a thermometer. A leave-in probe is a good early warning system (set it for about 5 degrees below your target final temperature), but you should always use an accurate instant-read thermometer and test for final doneness in multiple locations to make sure there aren't any especially cool spots hiding out.
Step 11: Rest the Meat and Finish the Jus
Tent the roast lightly with aluminum foil (it may still appear quite pale on the exterior at this point—that's okay), then transfer the oxtails and/or shins to a medium saucepan.
Step 12: Strain the Liquid and Finish the Jus
Strain the liquid through a fine-mesh strainer into the saucepan. Simmer the shins/oxtails in the jus on the stovetop until the meat is tender enough to easily shred off the bones. This should take about 20 to 30 minutes. Remove the meat and bones from the pot (that shredded meat makes for a great appetizer or side dish when spread onto toast), season the jus to taste with salt and pepper, and whisk in 4 tablespoons of butter off-heat.
Step 13: Brown the Beef
When you're about 10 minutes away from serving, return the beef to the cleaned-out roasting pan and blast it in an oven set at the highest possible temperature (that's 500 to 550°F for most home ovens—use convection if you've got it) until the exterior is browned and crisp. This should take between 6 and 10 minutes. Once browned, the beef is ready to carve and serve.
Step 14: Remove Bones
To carve the beef, start by removing the bones with a sharp knife, lifting the beef with one hand and following the contours of the bones with your knife.
Ready to Slice
With the bones removed, the beef should be ready to slice.
Step 15: Slice and Serve
Slice the beef thinly and serve it with the jus. I like to sprinkle each slice with a little coarse sea salt to ensure that it's seasoned throughout.