You’ll see in a recent video I did here how to make a standing rib roast. And you know what? It’s a great method. It’s a great recipe, I cooked it just right, for the right length of time, and at the right temperature. I seasoned it really well, took it out before it was done, and let it finish on the block. It was great. But then, it should be great! It’s standing rib roast! It costs $4 or more a pound, including the bones! If something that costly isn’t great you might as well cook stew.
Getting your money’s worth out of prime rib isn’t really about how well you cook it. It’s not like a turkey, where skill, effort, and patience are needed for it not to bad. Prime rib will be good unless you go out of your way to screw it up. Put lots of salt on it, don’t overcook it, and don’t cut it up right out of the oven. I added herbs, but they aren’t really necessary, any more than a giant slab of beef is to a salad.
No, the most important things that happen to the rib roast happen before and after cooking. The before is how the animal was fed, and to a less extent, how it was bred. A good beef animal, with a lot of Angus or Hereford stock, will marble well, if the animal is fed good things, and is not jacked up on hormones and antibiotics. “Prime rib” is a marketing term, an undeserved and unregulated claim that usually isn’t true. Do you know how much meat is graded out prime by the USDA, out of our entire beef supply? 3%. What do you think the odds are that the roast beef you ate at the Old Country Buffet was drawn from that? If you’re not in the military or in New York City, chances are you hardly see any truly prime beef at all. But since the standing rib roast is so fatty and tender, in most cases nobody cares. (And why they can charge as much for it as they do.)
That said, the difference between just OK rib roast, and a dinner worthy of a major celebration, is very big. And the single biggest factor is the quality of the meat itself. It’s a little-known fact that, when the USDA inspectors decide if a given steer is prime, choice, select, standard, or worse, they don’t look at the whole animal; they look at the end of the rib – the very roast we are talking about. If it is “abundantly marbled,” which is to say marked by luxurious rivulets of intramuscular fat, than it will be graded out as prime. There should be an extensive, sinuous web of white lines, each one of which will, as it melts, bath the muscle around it. Choice meat has less of this, and Select hardly any at all. The worst meat you see in the supermarket is select. Standard and the lower grades – Cutter, Canner, and TK, are unspeakably gnarly and go into dog food or worse.
There are two exceptions to this rule. One is ungraded or “no roll” meat. The USDA grading is strictly voluntary; a lot of good meat, especially from out of the country, doesn’t get graded at all and some of it is very, very good. (Japanese kobe beef, for example, never comes near a USDA grader.) And there is something called the Certified Angus program, whose meat is merely marked as “choice or better” but which often includes beef that would have graded as prime. (It costs more than regular choice beef but less than prime.)
Don’t let your grocer trick you into buying “prime rib” that is just a choice rib roast; if you buying choice, you should be paying for choice. Look for the purple stamp on the rib; since the rib roast is where the USDA looks, it’s where they stamp, and that purple seal is what will make or break your big meal.