Holiday dinners call for something special, and for Christmas or New Year’s Eve dinner, there are few things as dramatic — and delicious — as a prime rib roast. Sometimes called a standing rib roast (to avoid confusion with USDA meat grades, which include a designation of “Prime”), a rib roast manages to be both traditional, with its echoes of 19th century England, and contemporary, as it adapts to an outer rub of pungent spice blends.
Prime rib roasts are generally pricey, because they come from the same section of beef quarter as the rib-eye steak. During the holiday season, most major groceries feature fewer rib-eye steaks and instead sell the beef as a roast at lower prices than usual. This year, prices have ranged from $4 per pound to upward of $10 per pound, depending on USDA grade.
A full prime rib roast has seven rib bones, and will serve 10 to 12 people. Most of the readily available rib roasts are smaller, with two to four rib bones. Even a two-rib roast will stand on end, with the rib bones forming its own roasting rack. Most butchers suggest dividing the number of guests in half to determine the right size of roast: for six guests, a three-pound roast will be enough, while ten guests will require upward of five pounds.
Minimal preparation is required, but there is some time involved. Most recipes call for bringing the roast to room temperature before cooking, which takes about two or three hours. It also takes a while to preheat the oven to high heat before sliding the roast in. Former Galveston butcher Mike Loomis recommended a hands-off cooking process that started with heating the oven to 500 degrees, adding the roast, and cooking for only 5 minutes per pound (for example, a 5-pound roast should cook at high heat for 25 minutes, and an 8-pound roast for 40 minutes) before shutting off the heat and leaving the roast undisturbed for two hours. That undisturbed time of diminishing heat produces a pink, medium-rare roast.
Other cooks swear by the opposite technique of cooking low-and-slow and then turning up the heat to finish off a crispy crust. That method requires more diligence and supervision, as well as a meat thermometer. Since there is a layer of fat on prime rib roasts, they can even be smoked on the pit like a brisket.
One of the benefits of oven roasting, however, is collecting the beef drippings to make popovers. As an alternative to dinner rolls, popovers, also known as Yorkshire pudding, use the hot grease to puff up the batter just as a hot-air balloon uses heat to rise. As Elaine Lemm, author of a cookbook on Yorkshire pudding, explains, “The secret to making Yorkshires is to pour well rested, cold batter into slightly smoking hot fat and put immediately back into a really hot oven. It is as simple as that.”
Popovers can also be made using melted butter or shortening in lieu of beef drippings, for the cardio-conscious or vegetarians at the table. While popovers are best served hot and puffy, leftover ones make handy shells for stuffing with chicken salad, scrambled eggs or leftovers.