Roast Beef, the Most Underrated Cut
When most of people think of meat, they think of steak. A juicy, well marbled piece of steak is tender, delicious, and easy to cook, but usually, not cheap.
This is largely a function of supply and demand. Steak cuts represent only 10-20% of the total yield from a cow. The rest of that is going to be ground beef, stew cuts, bones, fat, and the subject of this post - roast cuts.
To make matters worse, steak makes up for the majority of the popular demand at the butcher shop. This dynamic results in high costs. A local, grass-fed steak can easily cost upwards of $35/lb.
If you're looking to put meat on the table without breaking the bank you need to learn how to work with the whole cow. We have discussed how to braise before (tip: use broth), but for now let's talk about how to roast.
First of all, what is roast beef? There are many different roast cuts on a cow. They can come from different parts of the cow, but will all work in a similar way.
It's shockingly easy and delicious when you pay attention to three fundamental criteria:
- Textured and seared crust
- Medium-rare internal temperature
- Tender texture
There are many ways to achieve these, but for now let's talk about the simplest way to get all three.
To achieve a flavorful and textured crust were going to first generously coat the entire piece of meat with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper. You want to do this about an hour before you start cooking and then leave the meat on the counter to absorb the seasoning and let the meat warm a little before we start roasting.
To establish a seared crust you need high heat for about 45 minutes. Many recipes suggest searing the meat first in a hot pan or "reverse-searing" it at the end. These methods work well but add work and complexity to the process and in my experience are not worth the extra effort. Instead, I suggest roasting the meat at a high heat of 400-450 degrees for the duration of the cook time (which will depend on the size of the meat). Exposing the exterior of the meat to that much heat for that long will result in a seared crust.
Achieving a medium-rare internal temperature depends on the balance of time, temperature and size of the cut. Adjust any one of these variables and the others will need to change as well. For example a 2lb cut will reach an internal temp of 125 (medium rare) in a 450 degree oven in about 45-50 minutes. A 1lb cut may take half that time. The best way to know for sure when your roast has reached the right temperature is with a simple meat thermometer. Test by sticking the metal probe into the very center of the meat (ideally the thickest part). You can do this frequently as you get closer to the end of the cook time to make sure you don't overcook it.
If your cut of meat is smaller than 2 pounds you may not be able to cook for 45 minutes to get the combo of seared crust and medium rare interior. For that reason I suggest you always get a minimum of a 2-pound cut of meat. The other benefit to doing this is to make sure you always have leftovers. Unlike steak, roast beef is great served cold or slightly cold out of the refrigerator. It makes for an easy lunch in the days after it was cooked. The next day I take the meat out of the refrigerator about an hour before I want to eat.
If you go bigger than 2 pounds you may find that the exterior is getting too burnt. Best way to tell is with your eyes and nose. In that case just turn down the temperature from 450 to say 200 or 250 and let the meat continue to cook with lower heat to avoid further charring the crust.
Once your roast has reached an internal temp of 125, pull it out of the oven and let it sit on the counter for at least 30 minutes. That will allow the juices which have moved towards the center of the meat to redistribute evenly and to allow the muscle fibers to relax after the intense experience of roasting in a 450 degree oven. It will also continue the cooking process and help the meat go from rare in the center to the ideal medium rare.
Finally, to achieve the third criterion of tenderness we need to cut the meat in a particular way. As with any steak you want to cut the meat against the grain. But with a roast this is even more important. A roast is naturally less tender and firmer than a steak cut. It comes from a part of the cow that gets worked more than where a steak comes from (see diagram: loin vs round).
It is also going to be leaner. If you overcook it, or cut it improperly it will not be pleasant. That is why many of us have a negative association with roasted meat in the first place. To avoid this never cook a roast past medium (medium-rare is best) and always slice it very thinly, against the grain. Sometimes it is hard to tell which direction the grain is going. To find the grain, don't be afraid to pick up the meat and gently pull it in different directions. You will start to see the lines that run across the meat showing the direction of the grain. You want to slice perpendicular to those lines. That action of the knife breaks down the muscle fibers so your teeth don't have to do that work. For the same reason you don't want to slice as thick as you would a steak. To account for the leaner and less tender nature of the meat you want to cut it as thinly as you can. Don't worry if you can't achieve the thinness of a deli slicer (but if you have one, by all means go for it), just do the best you can to get thin slices with a knife (having a sharp knife helps).
Last tip, a mesh wire rack that goes over a regular sheet pan is helpful for roasting beef. It is also useful for baking, but I would get one just for roast beef alone. It helps the meat cook evenly to allow hot air to pass all around the meat. The roast will come out great with or without it, but I do think it's nice to have.
2lb of roast cut of beef (e.g. eye round)
Kosher salt, enough to generously coat
Fresh cracked black pepper, enough to generously coat
- Preheat oven to 450
- Generously coat all sides of beef with salt and pepper and let meat sit out at room temperature for 45 minutes
- Roast meat on wire rack on sheet pan in oven
- Remove from oven once thermometer registers 125 at thickest part of meat
- Let sit for 30 minutes before slicing against the grain, as thinly as you can