What do you think of when you hear the words "roast beef"? My mind immediately goes to a sandwich of lean, thinly sliced, rosy meat, piled high on a squishy horseradish-slathered roll, with a ramekin of lost-in-translation "au jus."
But what if we flip the order of those two words? Does "beef roast" evoke the same imagery as "roast beef"? Not for me. When I hear "beef roast," I think of a cold-weather feast in the tradition of a proper British Sunday roast, complete with a standing rib roast, gravy, Yorkshire pudding, mashed potatoes, roasted root vegetables, and, in my dream world, a couple bottles of nice red wine.
A small syntactic switch can make a world of difference. But are beef roasts and roast beef mutually exclusive dishes, or can they be one and the same? Can one cut of beef be a dinner centerpiece on Sunday evening and a cold-cut sandwich star come Monday lunch? We wanted to see if we could have the best of both worlds, and on a budget to boot.
The budget aspect is an important one, since roasting a large hunk of meat can get pricey in a hurry. While I'm all for celebrating a special occasion with a prime rib or roast beef tenderloin, I can't afford to ball out like that on a regular basis, especially in the winter months, when holiday travel and gift-buying wreak havoc on the old bank account. Also, if I'm spending top dollar on meat, I'm generally not looking for a sandwich filler. With that in mind, I set out to find an affordable roast that could do it all.
Choosing the Right Cut
I started by hitting up a number of butcher shops around town, looking to procure a few different cuts of beef to use in a side-by-side roast-off. The first two I picked up were a chuck roast and an eye of round. These two cuts are budget-friendly, but structurally very different.
The chuck is a primal cut from the forequarter of the cow that includes the shoulder, neck, and upper arm muscles. These are heavily worked, weight-bearing muscles that are rich in collagen. As Daniel discussed in his primer on selecting the best cuts for beef stew, collagen is tough and chewy in its raw state, but when cooked gently for a long time, that collagen is transformed into meltingly soft gelatin. This makes beef chuck a great candidate for stews and braises.
Eye of round comes from the primal at the opposite end of the cow—the upper portion of the rear leg, which is known as the round. Unlike chuck, eye of round is a lean cut that has very little collagen and connective tissue, meaning that it can easily dry out when cooked for an extended period of time. Cooked rare, it has good beefy flavor and gives excellent value for your money. Cold-cut roast beef that you find at a deli is often made from eye of round.
I wanted a couple of other cuts besides these for testing, and settled on two that come from the primal adjacent to the round, the sirloin. One was a sizable top sirloin roast, from the (you guessed it) top part of the primal. Much like eye of round, top sirloin is a very lean cut of beef with minimal marbling, which means it's prone to overcooking.
I picked up this roast from a fantastic old-school butcher shop in New York’s West Village. Along with providing customers with high-quality product (including hard-to-find items that grocery store butchers don’t always carry), butchers are great sources of meat information, and should be tapped for advice whenever you pay a visit.
When my butcher started bemoaning the lack of intramuscular fat on the top sirloin he had just cut for me, I asked him what he would do to combat this problem. "Do you trust me?" he said. "I’ll show you." When a butcher says this to you, the answer should always be an enthusiastic "Hell yeah."
He pulled out a football-sized hunk of suet, the dense fat found around the kidneys of cattle (and some other animals), and began slicing it on a deli slicer into one-eighth-inch-thick pieces, which he then shingled out on a piece of parchment paper. He placed the roast on top of the layer of suet, then tightly wrapped the suet around it, like a beef Wellington with fat standing in for puff pastry.
Even though I knew full well that I wouldn’t be able to call for this step in my final recipe, I still fought back tears of joy as I watched my new best friend tie up this meat parcel with butcher’s twine. This is why you should always trust your butcher.
For my final contender in the beef-roast challenge, I settled on a tri-tip roast—a small, triangular muscle from the bottom tip of the sirloin primal. Beef tri-tip is popular in central California, where it's grilled for Santa Maria–style barbecue, but it can be a little bit harder to find in other parts of the country. Part of that is due to anatomy; a tri-tip weighs only around two and a half pounds, and there are only two per cow.
Seeing as it's not a universally prized cut, it's safe to say that tri-tip isn't a big moneymaker for butchers. It may not have the intense, fatty beefiness of ribeye, or the cachet of a beef tenderloin, but it's definitely worth seeking out.
If you can find a tri-tip roast with a fat cap on it, buy it, and make sure nobody tries to trim it off. Tri-tip is on the lean end of the beef-cut spectrum, but it boasts much better marbling than either top sirloin or eye of round, while still having very little connective tissue or collagen. I was hopeful it could serve as a perfect middle ground for texture and flavor between the other three roasts I had purchased for testing.
Put My Roast Down, Flip It, and Reverse-Sear It
Back in the test kitchen, I got to work on the side-by-side testing. I started by salting all four roasts, then refrigerated them, uncovered, overnight. This tried-and-true step allows salt to penetrate the meat, while also drying out the surface of the roast, which ultimately leads to a better crust during searing.
As for cooking, I knew I wanted to use Kenji's reverse-sear method, which is as ideal for cooking roasts as it is for cooking steaks. Slow-roasting meat at a very low temperature ensures that it cooks evenly from edge to edge, and also further reduces surface moisture, making the final searing step a breeze.
My goal was to end up with perfect medium-rare beef, so for the initial slow-and-low roasting step, I cooked each of the four cuts until it reached 120°F (49°C). This would allow a little cushion for carryover cooking during the searing step, producing a final internal temperature of around 130°F (54°C).
As expected, the tri-tip had the shortest cooking time, clocking in at one and a half hours. The eye of round and top sirloin both took two hours, and the whole chuck roast ended up taking two hours and 45 minutes.
I seared the roasts, then sliced them up for tasting, reserving half of each roast so that I could try slicing it thin for cold roast beef sandwiches the next day. As you can see in the cross-section photos above, none of them came out perfectly medium-rare from edge to edge, and I decided that for subsequent tests, I would lower the oven-roasting target temperature to 115°F (46°C).
As for flavor, the consensus favorite was the tri-tip, which had the assertive beef flavor we were looking for, along with a pleasant chew. The chuck roast garnered praise for flavor, but its connective tissue made it overly chewy. Tasters remarked that the eye of round was the closest in flavor and texture to traditional deli-style roast beef, but that didn't make it a favorite. Even with the assistance of the sliced suet, the top sirloin roast ended up being quite dry and bland, and ranked last for everybody.
Roast Beef: A Dish Best Served Cold?
I then moved on to slicing the reserved chilled roasts for roast beef sandwiches. Deli roast beef is all about the thin slice—trying to chew through thick-cut cold roast beef is a workout, and a pretty disturbing sight, as you're forced to rip and tear away at a sandwich like a hyena. Yet getting paper-thin slices of beef at home, without a deli slicer, is a tough ask.
I tried popping the roasts in the freezer to firm them up before attempting to slice them on a sharp mandoline. As you can see, I ended up with shredded meat scraps (the mangled beef pieces at the top of the cutting board) instead of the clean slices that I was able to get with a knife (the beef at the bottom of the cutting board).
A sharp knife was my best bet, but even my thinnest pieces couldn't compare to the work of an electric meat slicer. Nonetheless, I sliced up the four roasts and set up another tasting, with pieces served both on their own and in sandwiches with a creamy horseradish sauce.
When tasted cold, the marbled fat of the tri-tip was unpleasant to eat, and the eye of round emerged as the cold-cut favorite. That said, I don't feel that it's worth it to cook a roast to make deli roast beef when it's almost impossible to slice it to the proper thinness at home. If you're in the market for cold cuts, save yourself some aggravation, and leave it to the professionals behind the deli counter.
But that's not to say you can't turn a beef roast into some kickass sandwiches! You just don't need to serve them cold. I decided to move forward with the tri-tip roast, the favorite from the original tasting.
How to Make Tri-Tip Beef Roast With Shallot Jus
Step 1: Season and Roast the Tri-Tip
The day before cooking the roast, season it generously on all sides with kosher salt, then tie the roast with butcher's twine (if your butcher didn't take care of that for you already). Tri-tip's irregular shape makes it prone to uneven cooking, since the thinner tail end of the muscle will cook faster than the thicker end. Trussing the roast with twine helps minimize this problem.
Refrigerate the roast overnight on a wire rack set inside a rimmed baking sheet. When you're ready to cook the roast, transfer it to an oven set to 225°F (105°C). Then simply slow-roast the tri-tip until it registers 115°F (46°C) at its thickest point. (The thinner end of the roast will be a little more cooked, but will still end up at the medium-rare temperature that we are looking for after the reverse-sear step.) This should take about an hour and a half.
Step 2: Start the Jus
A good roast deserves a tasty sauce to accompany it. I love cutting the richness of beef with a sharp and creamy horseradish sauce, or even just some sinus-clearing mustard, but a Sunday roast needs a jus.
While the tri-tip is roasting in the oven, I start preparing a simple and quick jus. I bring a quart of beef stock (or brown chicken stock) and a cup of red wine to a simmer in a saucepan, and reduce the mixture until it thickens slightly and measures about two cups. While the stock and red wine mixture simmers away, I thinly slice a pound of shallots to add later on.
Step 3: Sear the Roast
Just before the tri-tip comes out of the oven, it's time to start preparing for your sear. Heat two tablespoons of vegetable oil in a cast iron or stainless steel skillet over high heat. When the oil begins smoking, add the roast to the pan and brown it on all sides.
The key to this step is getting even contact between the beef and the hot skillet, while frequently rotating the meat to prevent it from scorching and overcooking around the edges. I like to use a weight to press down on the roast, which ensures an even sear.
A heavy skillet or Dutch oven (with its bottom wrapped in aluminum foil to prevent any unwanted carbon residue from being transferred to the surface of the roast) will do the trick, but I also really love the design of the Chef's Press weights pictured above. They're compact and stackable, and they have a handle, which makes them easy to maneuver during cooking.
While you're searing, pay particular attention to the fat cap on the roast, making sure to brown it evenly. Undercooked, flabby fat is never fun to chew on. If the skillet begins to smoke aggressively, and the roast begins to char rather than brown, reduce the heat slightly, to medium-high.
During this step, you will naturally spend more time browning the thicker end of the roast, thanks to its larger surface area. Doing so will also help even out the internal temperature of the roast. Once the tri-tip is well browned on all sides, transfer it to a cutting board and let it rest for a few minutes.
Step 4: Finish the Jus
While the beef is resting, it's time to add the sliced shallots to the skillet full of roasted beef fat and browned meat bits. Cook them until they're softened and browned, then deglaze the skillet with a quarter cup of red wine, making sure to scrape up any fond from the bottom of the pan.
Finally, transfer the shallot mixture to the saucepan with the reduced stock and red wine, and bring it to a simmer. I like to finish off the jus with a tablespoon of soy sauce to bump up the sauce's beefy umami notes and balance the sweetness of the red wine and shallots.
Step 5: Slice and Serve
This is it: It's time to get your slice on. Start by cutting away the butcher's twine, then find the grain on the roast. You'll notice that the grain on the tri-tip changes direction about halfway through the roast, which means you'll have to reposition the roast while slicing to make sure that you are always cutting against the grain.
If you're serving this as a beef roast, you'll want to cut the tri-tip into quarter-inch-thick slices, which will be perfectly manageable for people to cut up with steak knives at the table. For sandwiches, though, try to cut the meat into thinner, bite-size slices. Serve up the tri-tip with plenty of jus, as part of an affordable Sunday or holiday roast spread, or as a messy and delicious take on the warm French dip sandwich.