Top Of The Food Chain: Prime Rib

PrimeRib

Illustration by Laura Williams

Welcome to the first edition of Top Of The Food Chain, a new column from Eat Me Daily's meatiest columnist, Ryan Adams. Every week we'll attempt to demystify the options available in your supermarket, breaking animals down piece by piece so that the next time you find yourself staring at endless Styrofoam containers, you'll be able to make an informed purchase. This week: Prime Rib.

Let's start this off by going straight to the top, the creme de la creme: the standing rib roast, also known as prime rib. Highly prized, the standing rib roast is synonymous with weddings, all-you-can-eat buffets and holiday dinners. The name "prime rib" actually denotes the USDA grade; "top choice" rib roasts are still excellent quality meat, they merely lack some of the fat marbling found throughout the muscle tissue, and come with a lower price tag. True prime rib roasts can cost upwards of 50% more than choice per pound and usually require a special order from your meat monger.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, let's get you up to speed on your basic beef knowledge.

Beef Specific Terms

cattle

Photograph by Fellowship of the Rich

Aging: A process by which beef is held under controlled temperatures for a period of time.  This allows enzymatic activity to break down complex proteins, enhancing the flavor and tenderness of the meat.  There are two kinds of aging, dry and wet.
Blade meat: The lean meat overlaying the ribeye and rib portion of the rib primal.  Also known as false meat, rib lifter meat, cap meat, or wedge meat.
Chine bone: A part of the backbone that remains after the carcass is split.
Marbling: All of the flecks of fat found within the lean meat.  The amount of marbling factors into the quality of meat:  lots of marbling will enhance juiciness and flavor.

Beef Grades and Quality

The grades assigned to pieces of beef are based off the sex of the bovine, its maturity, the quality of the lean meat and the amount of marbling present.  Interestingly, steers (castrated adult male cattle) and heifers can qualify for all of the below grades while cows can qualify for all grades but Prime. Bullocks (uncastrated young male cattle) can only qualify for Prime, Choice, Select, Standard and Utility.  Bulls (uncastrated adult male cattle) are unable to qualify for any grading whatsoever; bull meat is not harvested as their hormones make the meat tough.

Beef grades, from highest to lowest, are: U.S. Prime, U.S. Choice, U.S. Select, U.S. Standard, U.S. Commercial, U.S. Utility, U.S. Cutter, and U.S. Canner.

Cut: Prime Rib, Standing Rib Roast

ribroast

Photograph by fortinbras

The standing rib roast comes from the rib primal, which is the area behind the shoulder, but before the lower back.  The muscles included are some of the most tender found on the animal.  For example, the Longissimus Dorsi, which runs the length of the cut, is the third tenderest muscle on the animal.  Add in a luxurious amount of tasty fat and it's easy to see why the rib roast is so coveted.

Variations

Oven-Prepared

All meat images from the NAMP Meat Buyer's Guide

Oven-Prepared
This cut is very similar to the primal cut but with the chine bones, blade bones and cartilage removed.

Roast-Ready
Roast-Ready
More bones have been removed, some of the fat and a few muscles (backstrap, latissimus dorsi, infraspinatus, subscapularis, rhomboideus, and trapezius) removed.  It's fairly common to see this cut either tied, or placed in netting.

Roast Ready, Special
Roast-Ready-Special
This cut is basically the same as the Roast-Ready, except the fat layer covering the muscles mentioned above is now put back into place, instead of being removed. This is what you're most likely to find in your local supermarket, and I consider it to be the ideal variation of rib roast.

109D
Roast-Ready, Cover Off, Short Cut (Export Style)
Very similar to the Roast-Ready-Special, except the fat layer I was just crowing about is removed and the roast has been trimmed to be more compact.

110
Roast-Ready, Boneless
Just like the Roast-Ready, except that all of the bones and the intercostal meat have been removed.  While this does make for easier carving, consider buying your roast with the bones in for superior flavor.  These are usually placed in netting, or tied.

What to look for when buying

When buying prime rib, make sure that you buy from the small end of the primal cut, specifically from the twelfth rib up toward the seventh rib, and the very best meat is found at the first three ribs of the short end, the twelfth to the tenth.  A two-rib roast that has been trimmed will weigh roughly five to seven pounds and feed about four people. 

Six or more people will require a three rib roast.  Rib roasts aren't always carried at your local supermarket, though I have seen them popping up during the Christmas holidays.  If it's not December, you should be able to special order one from a good butcher or supermarket with little problem.  The meat itself should be a bright color, a darkish pink with fat speckled throughout.

Storage

Whole bone-in rib roast can be stored in your refrigerator for three to five days, or frozen six to twelve months.

Basic Preparation

Preparing a standing rib roast is thankfully an uncomplicated process. Simply season the meat with salt and pepper, and roast until the center has reached 130°F for a medium-rare roast (125°F for rare; 145°F for medium). That's all you need to do for a wonderful rib roast, though pre-aging the meat to remove moisture and intensify flavor is fairly common.

Recipes

Ryan Adams

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9 Comments

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  1. Than you so much for this fantastic article! I was a vegetarian for a long time and although I can cook just about anything, beef remains in a blackhole of info I just don't have. THat first rib roast looks like it is just waiting for the oven.. and happy eaters!

  2. Well done, Ryan. There's a wealth of information here that a lot of people should know before going into the supermarket blindly.

    Man, now I'm really craving some beef.

  3. Josh Ozersky

    This is an excellent piece! Keep up the good work! A couple of things though: you really don't want to freeze a rib roast for a year, or anything approaching a year. And two, you might want to include some info on the lip or "deckle," technically known as the spinalis dorsi muscle.

    yrs
    Josh Ozersky / Mr. Cutlets

    • Thank you very much! You're right about the freeze time, and the deckle information is now in hand. I'm considering these posts to be living documents. If new info is found, I'm going to come back and add it.

  4. hey dude
    Great stuff! i got a lot of inspiration from this post
    i went through this page four times
    it is very interesting ....
    am learning for social work

    Thanks

  5. Great post, Ryan. I came across you/the post because of my friend Phil (commented above) and really enjoyed this - it's the kind of information about beef that a layman like me doesn't know, and the kind that can be difficult to find. I look forward to your next one!

  6. Thanks for the terrific article and great details. If one is to freeze a rib roast, I would highly recommend using freezer wrap to protect the meat from freezer burn. Makes me want to cook one today!

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