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Secrets of the Roast Masters

November 11, 1998|RUSS PARSONS

It's the roasting season again, so let's do it right.

Keep your baked bread. Home, for me, smells like meat in the oven--be it as grand as prime rib or as humble as pork butt.

I love a roast. The way it fills your house with its browned perfume connotes hospitality. And with a big old roast, you know there's always enough for everyone.

Of course, for several months a year, we are forced to do without. Unless you've got turbocharged air conditioning, firing up your stove in summer takes either a powerful case of denial or an even more powerful craving for the hearth.

I have been guilty of both, but for the most part my year is divided into two seasons: grilling and roasting. (I braise all year round.) And now that the weather has cooled, my weekends have been a pageant of roasts: whole chickens, legs of lamb, pork butts and, thanks to the unbelievably low price of beef this year, even standing rib roasts. (I refuse to call them prime rib unless they're truly prime. They almost never are.)

Though we refer to all of these as roasts, it would be a grave mistake to think that all roasts are equal. Take the four examples named above. Because of differences in size and constitution (type and cut of meat), each requires a slightly different method of cooking.

In general, the larger the roast, the lower the recommended oven temperature. This is obvious if you think about it--in most cases, you want the meat to be as evenly cooked as possible (some cuts of beef and lamb excepted). Too high a temperature, and the outer area is dry while the inside is still raw.

Different meats cook differently, too; even different cuts from the same type of meat take different treatments. A good rule of thumb: The more work the muscle does, the more well-done you want it. That's because frequently used cuts develop a lot of connective tissue, both within the muscle and around it. Connective tissue is tough and stringy, but it softens ("gelatinizes" is the technical term) at around 130 degrees.

The amount of fat in the meat is important too, though to a lesser extent. Meat that is extremely lean--pork loin, for instance--will dry out if cooked to too high a temperature. Because interior fat (marbling) keeps cuts such as the butt (or Boston butt, actually the front shoulder) moist, they can be cooked more.

It may seem odd, but the shape of the roast affects how long it takes to cook as well. Because meat roasts from the outside in, shapes that maximize the surface-to-volume ratio will cook fastest. Mathematicians tell us that those shapes are usually slab-like, followed by cylindrical cuts, with the sphere having the lowest surface-to-volume ratio.

In practice, all of this means a chicken should be roasted at 450 degrees (or 500 if you have a hood vent that will suck out the smoke) until its internal temperature reaches 160 to 165 degrees. That will give you a deeply browned exterior and meat that is thoroughly cooked. Food safety concerns aside, it's because of its abundance of connective tissue that we don't eat chicken rare.

Here's where the geometry comes in, though. Though that high roasting temperature is fine for an unstuffed chicken (a hollow sphere), if you stuff the chicken, you're better off cooking it at 350 to allow the heat to penetrate to the center before the outside burns.

A prime rib or a beef sirloin can be started at 450 to brown the outside and then reduced to 325 degrees. You cook it only until the meat is about 120 to 130 degrees. Being little-used muscles (actually, different parts of the same muscle), these two cuts have very little connective tissue, so they can be eaten much more rare.

They can also be roasted at 350 degrees for the entire time to the same internal temperature. The first method will give you a roast that is rare to medium-rare in the center, ranging quite dramatically to a deep brown exterior. The second way cooks much more evenly. It depends on what you like.

A leg of lamb is best roasted at 400 degrees to an internal temperature of about 130 to 140. This higher internal temperature gelatinizes the stringy connective tissue of which the leg--being a heavily worked muscle--has so much. A rack of lamb, on the other hand, being mainly the little-worked loin muscle, has little connective tissue and is very nice at 120 to 130 degrees.

Pork is closer to chicken in terms of roasting. Because of the threat of trichinosis (statistically quite rare), but mostly because of the nature of the flesh, pork needs to be cooked to 160 to 165 degrees. That's the point at which the meat loses its raw, metallic taste, and becomes rounder and fuller in flavor. Because of the size of most pork roasts, it's best to roast pork at a lower temperature--350 works best--to make sure the outer layer of the meat isn't overcooked.

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