The right roast: How to pick and prepare the perfect holiday roast

If you're like me, standing in front of the meat counter with a holiday dinner party in mind is an invitation to frustration. What to pick? What to do with it? The mysterious meaty lumps are silent, and the grocery store salespeople often aren't much more helpful.

Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette photos
Louis Greenwald, owner of Bell's Market in Braddock, shows off a prime holiday roast, a standing rib roast.
Click photo for larger image.

Last year, I knew I wanted a roast -- something nice and beefy to slice for the multitudes -- but that's about all I knew. Not chuck roast, with its flat shape and fatty marbling. Makes a great pot roast, but that was a little too down-home for a Christmas feast. What about that great hunk over there, I thought, with its fatty top? Rump roast in a net. Looked good, and it wasn't too expensive, so I gave it a try.

Disaster. The roast, though rosy in the middle and thinly sliced, was still tough and dry, especially after it had cooled. And this wasn't the first such roast downfall. My roasts, pronounced an exquisitely honest family member who shall remain unnamed, needed some work.

Well, hardly anything is more painful to a cook than an embarrassingly dry roast. So this year, I didn't fool around trying to figure things out on my own. I consulted the big guns, folks who know their roasts and their roasting methods inside and out: Lou Greenwald, owner of Bell's Market in Braddock, and for additional recipes, Barbara Kafka, author of "Roasting: A Simple Art," (William Morrow and Co., price $29.95).

Mr. Greenwald, who has owned the meat market and small grocery since 1967 (although the meat market has been in business there since at least 1881), sells everything from prime rib and pork chops to oxtails and goat meat to area restaurants, grocery stores and the lucky retail customers who know about the prizes inside his unassuming shop on a once-thriving, now-tattered stretch of Braddock Avenue. In short, Mr. Greenwald knows meat.

And told about my holiday dilemma -- how do I pick a good roast for a holiday dinner party, and prepare it so that it's a tender delicacy instead of material suitable only to resole my boots? -- and about my previous ruined roasts, he took pity on me and offered some tips.

To start, consider the size of your party. You'll need to buy about a half-pound of boneless meat or one pound of bone-in meat per person to ensure that everyone gets enough to eat. You can go with a bit less per person if the roast beef is to be served on rolls, as part of a buffet.

Then, consider the occasion and your budget. If it's a fancy, once-a-year holiday party and you can afford it, Mr. Greenwald said, a standing rib roast -- also known as prime rib -- is an impressively large roast resting on massive, meaty rib bones that produces delicious, tender slices of beef for a crowd. It can be carved into slices at the table or laid out on a buffet so that the host or guests can slice off pieces. Standing rib roast is expensive, though, at about $9 a pound, so count on spending about $120 for a 13- to 14-pound rib roast that will feed a group of 15 or so guests. For a prime rib dinner without the bones, the cut is called a boneless ribeye of beef.

Whether choosing a bone-in or boneless roast, a somewhat fatty exterior -- some of which the butcher can cut away -- suggests a well-marbled, and ultimately juicy, interior, he said. As it cooks, the fat also melts and becomes a little crispy, basting the outside of the meat to help keep it moist.

"To be good, it has to have that fat," Mr. Greenwald said.

To prepare a standing rib roast, you can either ask the butcher to get it ready for cooking, or trim it yourself. If doing it yourself, Mr. Greenwald said, use a long, sharp knife to cut between the meat and the rib bones to almost, but not quite, detach the meat.

If you like, scatter large chunks of garlic and sprinkle kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper in that space between the meat and the layer of ribs, then push the meat back onto the ribs and tie it tightly back together with cotton kitchen twine to keep the meat from pulling away from the bones as it cooks. The twine should run between and parallel to the ribs, with each piece tied off about 1 to 1 1/2 inches apart.

A more modestly priced top round roast
Click photo for larger image.
Online Graphic

Roasts 101: A guide to choosing the right cut


This method will allow you or your guests to slice off pieces of meat cleanly after the roast has been brought to the table, instead of struggling to cut the meat from the rib bones beneath. Be sure to cut off the twine before carving and serving.

Now, it might be that prime rib for 15 is a bit beyond your budget. If so, consider buying a sirloin tip or a top round roast, which comes from the upper hind-quarters of the steer, for your dinner or buffet. The boneless top round -- not to be confused with the tougher, drier bottom round (rump roast) and eye of round roasts -- is not as tender as the rib roasts cut from the steer's back -- but it has a rich beefy flavor and produces pretty, firm slices of roast beef for a dinner or buffet, said Mr. Greenwald.

"The secret to something from the round is that it's leaner and might not be as tender as prime rib, but your seasoning of it will add to the flavor," he said.

Cuts from the round are leaner, he said, because the round comes from the hind-quarter muscles, which become tougher from the animal using them to walk around.

Leave the other round cuts -- rump roast and eye of round -- for cooking methods such as stewing, boiling or braising that use liquid, a covered pot and long, slow cooking to tenderize the meat. (As it turns out, my roast issues stemmed from choosing the wrong piece of meat to roast, not in cooking it poorly, Mr. Greenwald said.) If you really want to roast a rump roast, you can cover it with slices of bacon to create enough fat to baste it while cooking, a process known as "barding" the meat.

Regardless of whether you choose a standing rib roast or something more modest, let's say you have a smallish 6-pound roast. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees, rub some olive oil on the outside of the roast and sprinkle with more kosher salt and black pepper. If the butcher hasn't done it already, you can poke holes in the top of the roast and underneath, between the ribs if they're still attached, and push hunks of garlic in the small pockets created by the cuts. (The garlic will flavor the meat but fall away as you carve the meat into slices.)

Then place in a roasting pan (ribs down if it's a bone-in roast) and cook at 500 degrees for 30 minutes to create a crispy, brown crust and drive the heat into the middle of the roast. (Place the pan toward the bottom of the oven to reduce grease splatter on the oven elements, which can cause smoking. If the pan still smokes under the high heat, crack a window and pour away the grease in the bottom of the pan, then return it to the oven.)

Drop the heat to 350 degrees and roast for an additional 45 minutes or so, melting the fat that marbles the meat and basting the meat into juicy pink doneness, until an instant-read thermometer registers about 115 degrees in the middle of the roast for rare meat, or 125 for medium.

Be sure the tip of the thermometer is in the center of the meat and not touching any bones, which will make the temperature spike. After the initial 500-degree blast of heat for 30 minutes, you should count on about 3 minutes per pound at 350 degrees for rare meat, 5 minutes for medium.

Also, remember that the roast will continue to cook after you take it from the oven, its temperature increasing an additional 10 degrees or so, while you let it rest for 10 to 20 minutes to let the juices redistribute themselves so they stay in the muscle fibers instead of spilling onto the carving board. (If you're letting the roast rest for more than 10 minutes, tent it with foil to keep it warm.)

If you got a large roast -- say, a 26-pound behemoth rib roast to feed a houseful -- count on roasting it for an additional hour, for a total of about 2 hours and 15 minutes.

After letting the roast stand, carve it against the grain into 1/4-inch thick slices for prime rib and thinner slices for sirloin tip or round roasts. Serve with a simple vegetable such as asparagus or broccoli, roasted or mashed potatoes -- or if you're a traditionalist, Yorkshire pudding -- and a simple sauce such as Bearnaise or Horseradish Hollandaise.

Prepared in this way, this year's pre-holiday test roast forced even my painfully honest family member, sitting there at the dinner table eating his rosy-pink, meltingly tender prime rib, to absolve me. I had broken my beefy curse, he acknowledged.

At last, I had made a great roast.



  • 1 6-pound rib roast
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped into large chunks
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/8 cup olive oil

Remove roast from refrigerator and let come to room temperature, about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Make a cut between the roast and the rib bones. Place half the garlic and a sprinkling of salt and pepper into the space. Push meat back onto ribs and tie together with kitchen twine. Make slits on top of roast and between ribs on the underside and push additional garlic into cuts. Rub with olive oil and sprinkle with additional salt and black pepper.

Place roast, bone side down, in a roasting pan and roast for 30 minutes at 500 degrees. Reduce heat to 350 and roast an additional 45 minutes, or until internal temperature reaches about 115 for rare or 125 for medium (internal temperature will rise another 10 degrees or so while roast is resting before being served). Let rest 10 minutes, then remove kitchen twine and carve against the grain.

Serves 6.


This version, from roast master Barbara Kafka, also starts with a high cooking temperature but then uses a lower temperature to finish roasting the meat, then a moderately hot oven to crisp up the roast.

  • 4 1/2-pound short (without short ribs) standing rib roast (about 2 ribs) or 26-pound standing rib roast (about 7 ribs)
  • 2 to 6 cloves of garlic, smashed, peeled and slivered, optional
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 to 2 1/2 cups red wine, for deglazing
  • 1 recipe small- or large-quantity Yorkshire pudding (recipe below), optional

Remove roast from refrigerator and let come to room temperature, about 1 hour.

Place oven rack on second level from the bottom. Heat oven to 500 degrees.

Place small roast in a 14-by-12-by-2-inch roasting pan, bone side down. The large roast will need an 18-by-13-by-2-inch roasting pan. Snuggle most of the garlic, if using, under the fat and spread remainder over meat. Season well with salt and pepper. Roast for 45 minutes. With meat in oven, reduce heat to 325 degrees and roast another 12 minutes for the small roast. The large roast will need another 1 hour and 15 minutes. Increase heat to 450 degrees and roast 15 minutes more for both sizes. Meat temperature should read 135 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.

Remove roast from oven. Transfer to a serving platter. Pour or spoon off excess fat, reserving about 1/8 cup fat for the small roast and 1/4 cup fat for the large roast. Put pan over high heat and add wine. Deglaze pan well, scraping with wooden spoon. Let reduce by half. Pour liquid into a small sauceboat and reserve.

Small roast serves 6, large roast serves 20 to 25.

-- "Roasting: A Simple Art," by Barbarba Kafka


  • 1 3- to 4-pound boneless beef roast (such as sirloin tip or top round)
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Let roast stand at room temperature, covered loosely with plastic wrap, for 1 hour.

Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat to 250 degrees. Pat roast dry with paper towels, then season with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Brown roast on all sides, reducing the heat if fat begins to smoke, about 10 minutes.

Transfer roast to wire rack set inside large roasting pan. Roast beef to desired doneness, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Transfer roast to carving board, tent with foil and let rest another 20 minutes before removing twine and slicing.

Serves 6 to 8.

-- "America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook"


For small quantity (to go with smaller rib roast):

  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 1 cup cool milk
  • 1/8 cup fat, reserved from smaller Simple Rib Roast (see recipe above)
For large quantity (to go with larger rib roast):
  • 9 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 3 cups cool milk
  • 1/4 cup fat, reserved from large Simple Rib Roast (see recipe above)

Make batter for pudding at least 5 hours ahead of roasting meat so it has time to chill.

Put eggs in large bowl and beat with electric beater or whisk for 1 minute. Add salt. Alternating the flour and milk, add to the eggs. Beat only until all ingredients are well-combined. If available, pour batter into a pitcher or large measuring cup for ease in pouring later. Cover tightly and refrigerate. Batter may be made up to 2 days ahead.

Pour reserved fat into the hot, deglazed roasting pan and place in the 450 degree oven. Let heat for 3 to 4 minutes. Pour appropriate quantity of cold batter from refrigerator directly into pan. Bake 15 minutes for small quantity and 20 minutes for large quantity. Reverse pan in oven halfway through baking, back to front, so pudding will rise evenly and brown evenly.

Reduce heat to 350 degrees. Continue to bake approximately 15 to 25 minutes for small quantity and 20 to 30 minutes for large quantity, until pudding is crispy and brown. Serve hot.

Serves 6 to 20, depending on quantity used.

-- "Roasting: A Simple Art"


  • 1/2 pound unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup drained, prepared horseradish
  • 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon heavy cream
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Melt butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Keep warm.

Place horseradish, vinegar and cream in blender. Puree until smooth, stopping from time to time to scrape down sides with a rubber spatula. Scrape into bowl and reserve.

Place egg yolks in a nonreactive saucepan. Whisk in the water and the salt. Place over medium-low heat. Slowly pour the warm butter into the egg yolks, whisking constantly. After all the butter has been incorporated, continue whisking approximately 3 to 5 more minutes over low heat, until the sauce is fluffy and has almost doubled in volume. Remove from heat and continue whisking until the sauce is lukewarm.

Whisk in the reserved horseradish puree. Serve immediately.

Makes 1 2/3 cups.

--"Roasting: A Simple Art"

Food editor Amy McConnell Schaarsmith can be reached at or 412-263-1760.


Hot Topic