A big beef roast is at once a refined holiday meal and a glutton’s delight—one part Norman Rockwell, one part Henry VIII. Lest you inadvertently stir your guests’ memories of many a gray wedding-banquet meal, however, read on.
The cut you want for your holiday table is the prime-rib roast—the tender hunk of muscle nestled inside the ribs on the upper back of the steer, in front of the loin. (The same cut of pork or lamb, standing on end and curled into a ring, becomes the classic crown-rib roast.) The USDA specifies many grades of beef, but the only two to concern yourself with are “prime” and “choice.” USDA prime is the best out there, and it’s a rare commodity, making up just 2 percent of our national output. It’s the meat with the highest percentage of marbling—those thin veins of fat that melt and infuse the beef as it cooks, keeping it juicy and flavorful—and the most intense flavor. USDA prime is also the most expensive, by far. USDA choice beef, by contrast, is the conventional stuff you get in supermarkets; it’s still high-quality, but not nearly as well-marbled or as tender.
Beef tastes better once it’s aged, ideally for several weeks. Dry-aged beef—meat that’s kept exposed in a cooler for a few weeks before it’s sold—is the gold standard; dry-aging condenses and intensifies meat’s flavor. But few butchers use that method these days, because beef loses up to a third of its weight as it dries, and we buy by the pound. As a result, wet-aging, whereby a butcher keeps vacuum-packed beef in a fridge for two weeks, is much more common. Wet-aged beef tastes good, just not as good as dry-aged.
Environmentally conscious cooks often seek out grass-fed beef (most cattle are partly fattened with corn and grains, which is not part of their natural diet) or free-range beef. Be aware that grass-fed beef, though tasty (some say tastier, because the cow picks up flavors from its varied diet), is typically far chewier and will never be selected as prime (it’s not fatty enough). Also available are “certified organic” (no antibiotics, no hormones, certified organic feed) and “natural” (ditto, but the feed isn’t certified).
When buying prime rib, look for good marbling and milky-white (rather than yellowish) fat, which indicates that the meat is all-natural and fresh. Don’t get a boneless roast—roasting with the bones adds flavor (though it complicates carving). Keep in mind that a whole roast is a lot of food: It contains seven ribs’ worth of meat and weighs about sixteen pounds, enough to serve about fourteen people (figure two people per bone). If your family isn’t Kennedy-size, choose between the relatively lean first cut—that is, the first four ribs, closer to the loin and containing the tender rib-eye muscle—and the relatively fatty end cut, which to some tastes is a little juicier. Either way, ask your butcher to trim and tie it, or brace yourself for a big job.
You’d rather have a Hanukkah brisket? Taken from under the first five ribs, brisket comes from the foreshank of the cow. It’s generally a lean, pleasantly chewy cut of meat with a mild, almost sweet flavor. Butchers offer three different cuts: the flat half, or the first cut, is the leanest and most popular. The point cut, also known as the front cut or nose cut, is a bit fattier (and cheaper) than the flat cut. And the whole brisket comes with the deckle (the fat and lean meat between the bone and the main muscle of the brisket); it’s not only large but also very flavorful. Fresh brisket will always taste better than the vacuum-packed cuts sold in supermarkets. Organic and, of course, kosher briskets are also available. Just as you would when buying a crown roast, look for a brisket that’s graded prime or choice. Because brisket tends to be lean, it’s especially important to look for proper marbling. The meat should be a nice bright-red color and should have a pleasant odor. Figure on buying about one pound per person.
Where to Buy
Lobel’s (1096 Madison Ave.; 212-737-1373 or lobels.com) is expensive but plugged into the best sources. A USDA prime-rib roast, dry-aged for six weeks, is $26.98 per pound there (if you get the whole seven-rib roast, it may top $400). You’ll pay a little less at the well-respected, seven-decade-old Florence Prime Meat Market (5 Jones St..; 212-242-6531), though the price of $6.99 per pound is somewhat misleading because it’s for an untrimmed roast; in the end, it’ll be upward of $200 for all seven ribs. You also might consider mail order. Allen Brothers (800-957-0111) in Chicago offers a twelve-to-fourteen-pound USDA prime, dry-aged rib roast, with the bones in, for $279.95. Lobel’s offers an excellent Wagyu all-natural, hormone-free, antibiotic-free brisket ($18.98 per pound). Fischer Brothers & Leslie, an Upper West Side kosher-meat shop (230 W. 72nd St.; 212-787-1715), sells a good American grain-fed kosher brisket ($14.98 per pound).