A standing rib roast—more commonly known as prime rib—is one of the most magisterial cuts of meat you can put on your holiday table, emblematic of your generosity and unimpeachable good taste. It is also one of the most expensive hunks of protein you’ll likely purchase all year, requiring a substantial cash outlay. (At current prices, figure on at least $50 per bone—much more for prime, dry-aged, or Wagyu.) Needless to say, cooking this precious beef roast less than perfectly could have serious economic and maybe even personal consequences. And the damage to your reputation as a grill master? Incalculable. You’ll definitely want to avoid that. Read on.
What defines a “perfect” prime rib?
Here at barbecuebible.com, we’re unanimous in our preference for prime rib with an exterior bark that is crusty with salty, peppery, and garlicky flavors penetrating the meat. (If your meat is dry-aged, you’ll also notice an umami-rich blue cheese-like funk that many people find very appealing.) The interior should be textbook reddish-pink from edge to edge, including the delectable eye and the rib-eye cap that encircles it (our favorite part), also known as the spinalis dorsi. Oftentimes, this magnificent halo of succulent meat nearest the outside is grey and sadly over-cooked. Finally, the meat should be incredibly juicy, cooked to a temperature high enough to melt the intramuscular fat (about 125 to 130 degrees F).
Our method for producing an impeccable smoke-roasted prime rib roast is a technique called reverse-searing. You gently heat the prime rib to a predetermined temperature, let it rest, then blast the exterior with high heat. It’s an amazing technique to use with thicker cuts of meat. And works astoundingly well with prime rib.
What will you need for Reverse-Searing Prime Rib?
If you have a charcoal- or wood-fired grill, a gas grill, or a pellet smoker, you have nearly everything you need to smoke-roast an amazing prime rib. We would, however, strongly recommend that you invest in a good meat thermometer, preferably a wireless meat thermometer, or at least, a reliable instant-read meat thermometer. This tool could define the difference between success and failure. Stock up on enough oak or apple wood smoking chips (4 to 5 cups) or chunks (about 4) to provide 2 to 3 hours of smoking. Soak the wood chips in water to cover for 30 minutes, then drain before using. There is no need to soak the chunks. If using a pellet grill, have enough pellets on hand to fuel a 3 to 4 hour cook at a temperature of about 250 degrees F. Gas grillers, buy an extra tank of gas to avoid running out of fuel mid-cook.
What to know before buying a standing rib roast
Confusingly, the “prime” in prime rib doesn’t mean the meat conforms to strict USDA standards for premium beef. In fact, most
prime rib roasts sold to consumers—especially through supermarkets—are “choice.” Higher-end butcher shops and some online purveyors sell “prime” prime rib, often dry-aged, as well as American Wagyu.
A whole prime rib roast will consist of seven bones (numbers 6 through 12) and will weigh around 18 pounds. A 3- to 4-bone roast will be more manageable on the grill. Ask for a cut from the loin end. Figure on two generous servings per bone. Your butcher can “french” the bones for you—that is, remove any meat or fat from the bones for a more elegant presentation—but we don’t bother. One of the primal pleasures of prime rib is gnawing on the meaty bones!
Most prime rib roasts sold in North America come with a thick cap of fat on top. Trim it to about 1/4 inch; save some of the fat trimmings, if desired, for oiling your grill grate or making another traditional holiday dish, Yorkshire Pudding.
Unwrap your roast and take a minute or two to admire your investment. Pat the outside dry with paper towels. If desired, use a sharp knife to slice between the bones toward the meat. Use butcher’s twine to tie the roast in several places, running it between the bones, but not cutting into the flesh. (This step, while optional, keeps the spinalis dorsi from separating from the eye of the roast.) Place the roast on a wire rack positioned over a rimmed sheet pan. Season the meat generously on all sides with coarse salt. Refrigerate, uncovered, overnight. The next day, drizzle the meat with extra virgin olive oil. Rub it with your hands to cover the meat. Sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper, and if desired, granulated or powdered garlic.
Getting down to business
You’ll want to allow about 4 to 5 hours to bring your standing rib roast to the table—a bit longer if the meat is cold when you put it on the grill. (You can, of course, take the chill off by allowing the roast to sit on the countertop for 2 to 3 hours before cooking. We don’t do this with thinner cuts of meat.) This estimate includes the smoking, resting, and searing times.
When ready to cook, set up your grill or smoker for indirect grilling and heat to 250 degrees. Place a disposable aluminum drip pan under the grate and put an inch or so of water in it to discourage the drippings from burning. Brush the grill grate clean and oil it with a paper towel (fold into a small rectangle, dip in oil, and clasp in the jaws of long-handled tongs. Or use a chunk of the trimmed beef fat as mentioned above. If using a charcoal grill, place a handful of drained smoking chips—about 3/4 cup—or a wood chunk on each pile of coals. If using a gas grill, place the chips in a smoking box or enclose in a foil packet you puncture in several places with a knife or fork, or place 1 or 2 wood chunks on top of the burners and underneath the grill grate.
If using a wireless thermometer, insert the probe into the thickest part of the meat according to the manufacturer’s directions. Make sure it can “talk” to your smartphone. Place the meat directly on the grill grate, bone side up. Close the grill lid. (Return the wire rack and sheet pan to the kitchen and wash; you’ll need them again.) Smoke-roast the prime rib, turning occasionally with tongs, until it reaches an internal temperature of 110 to 115 degrees for medium-rare, 2 to 3 hours, replenishing the fuel and smoking woods as necessary to maintain the desired temperature. (Keep a close eye on the internal temperature of the meat. If you are relying on an instant-read thermometer, you will have to remove the grill lid to check the temperature, letting precious heat out. This could add a bit of time to your cook.)
Let it rest
This is an important step toward a supremely juicy prime rib. Once again, place the roast on a wire rack positioned over a rimmed sheet pan. Loosely cover with foil, and set aside for up to an hour. This gives you time to prepare any side dishes or accompanying sauces. Remove the temperature probe if it cannot endure the searing step.
Crank up the heat and sear
While the meat rests, set up your grill for direct grilling and heat to high—450 to 500 degrees. (The lid will be off your grill and you’ll no longer need any smoking woods.) If your grill or smoker is incapable of those temperatures, no one would fault you for doing this part under your oven’s broiler. Sear the outside of the prime rib, turning often, until the exterior is well-browned, sizzling, and crusty, 10 to 12 minutes, or as needed. Don’t forget to sear the ends; you’ll need sturdy tongs to hold the meat upright. Check the internal temperature once more to ensure it’s exactly where you want it—again, 125 to 130 for medium-rare. Transfer the meat to a cutting board, preferably one with a channel to catch the juices.
To carve the prime rib, remove the butcher’s twine. Slide a sharp knife down the inside surface of the rib bones to loosen the meaty part of the roast. Lift away the bones (hide them for yourself?) and cut the meat crosswise into 1/2 inch slices. Drizzle with any captured juices. (For a quick jus, we like to mix the cutting board juices with about 3 cups of best quality beef or chicken stock.) Take a bow. You deserve it.
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