Relish the Roast

This traditional technique has many applications, just in time for the holidays

By Lauren Kramer

As a chill settles into the air and summer salads give way to cauldrons of bubbling soup and the rich orange hues of fall squash, chefs and diners alike turn their culinary fantasies toward comfort foods like large, juicy cuts of meat. It’s the time of year to celebrate roasting and to increase your repertoire with new flavor profiles. Whether you roast for weekly Sunday meals or special occasions like Thanksgiving or Christmas, roasts are a tantalizing way to teach the fundamentals and tempt diners of all types.

It’s hard to go wrong with menuing a roast in the fall and winter, when diners are seeking heartier fare and those large cuts of meat are sought after. “The body craves the warmth and nourishment of these large proteins this time of year as a comfort from the cold weather,” says Chef Robert Velarde, kitchen manager at Chartwells School Dining Services in Minneapolis. 

Chef Wook Kang, program director of culinary arts at Chicago’s Kendall College, agrees. “People love looking at a big roast rib of beef or the quintessential Norman Rockwell picture of that roast turkey,” he says.

Both chefs teach roasting as a classic foundational technique. “Whether we’re teaching high-heat roasting, low-heat roasting, searing first or searing in the oven, this is a technique that allows tender cuts of meat or vegetables to develop a crust and the flavor profiles that allow them to shine while aiding in the presentation,” Chef Kang says. “When we roast turkey, beef or root vegetables, roasting allows the food to be the main highlight rather than anything else.”

One amazing byproduct of roasting is the aroma that wafts through a dining room as the meat is cooking. “When a guest is greeted with that smell as they enter the dining room, it already begins the process of them getting ready to eat,” says Chef Christopher Diehl, an instructor at the online-based Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Roasts also help balance other dishes that might require greater attention to detail for last-minute technique. “Roasts provide value to the menu while easing up the workload on the kitchen, as most of the work of a roast is done in advance and the plate up in service is relatively easy,” he says.

Roasting Techniques

Chef Kang notes more chefs are using sous vide techniques for their roast, cooking it under vacuum and searing in the oven for minimal time. “The advantage of this is it saves you time in the back end, allowing you to do things faster ahead of time,” he says.

Chef Velarde recommends chefs try covering their roasting meat in a layer of rock salt to lock in the juices and flavoring. “At a couple of restaurants I’ve worked at, we would roast whole prime ribs with the fat cap on this way, removing the rock salt for service and brushing off any residue so the meat is not too salty,” he says. “Those were the juiciest prime ribs I’ve ever tasted. We’d do two prime ribs at a time with a large-grain rock salt and use 20 pounds of salt on a pan. You can reuse the salt multiple times.”

Fun with Flavors

North African and Moroccan flavors are trending right now, especially the spice blends baharat and ras el hanout, Chef Velarde says. He uses ras el hanout, an earthy, Moroccan blend of up to 15 spices, to season a leg of goat wrapped in banana leaves and roasted on the grill. He says both baharat and ras el hanout are readily available for purchase but can also be assembled by chefs themselves by combining different spice ingredients, most notably cinnamon, cumin, coriander, allspice, black pepper and ginger.

Both blends also work well on lamb, but he notes that goat meat is exceptionally tasty and one of his favorite cuts of meat to roast as a great alternative to traditional roasting meats. “It’s a much-underutilized meat that tends to be lean and lends itself well to roasting, as long as you don’t overcook it,” he says. Chef Velarde recommends using a larding needle to inject fat, such as bacon, into the meat. “As it roasts, the fat melts and helps create a juicier cut of roast,” he says. “Lamb has been done to death, but chefs don’t do much with goat, especially in the United States.”

Chef Kang recommends that chefs look out for zabuton, a tender, marbled segment of the chuck, and the teres major, a part of the shoulder. Meat cuts like these are hard to find unless you go to a specialty butcher, he says, but they’re worth looking for.

For Chef Diehl, hanger steak, chuck eye and tri-tip are his preferred cuts. “Hanger steak is a relatively small cut as far as roasts go, but it has a very unique, somewhat game-like flavor, especially if you’re getting certified Angus beef,” he says. “I also favor the chuck eye, which is the very end of the rib, as it’s much more economical per pound.”

Tempering the Temperature

One of the mistakes some chefs often make when roasting is not getting the temperature right. “Some chefs put the heat way too high and don’t account for the size of their roast, which means it browns too quickly, or depending on the fat and fiber content, can be brown on the outside but raw in the middle,” Chef Kang says. There’s a ratio of time and cooking temperature to roast weight, he adds, and it’s a good idea to research these numbers until you have the experience to gauge it accurately without reference checks.

Another mistake often made is not giving the meat time to rest once it’s out of the oven. It’s necessary to account for the carry-over cooking from the residual heat that occurs once your roast has left the oven. “Remember that your roast will continue to cook even when out of the oven, for another 25 minutes or so,” Chef Velarde says. “Account for that carry-over cooking time in advance to ensure your roast is not overdone.”

Low and Slow   

For some chefs, ovens just don’t do the trick when it comes to roasting. Chef Matthew Raiford, owner of Gilliard Farms in Brunswick, Georgia, much prefers roasting outside in a pit fire. In his book “Bress ‘n’ Nyam,” he celebrates and pays tribute to Gullah Geechee cuisine, which has  roots in West Africa. Whole-hog roasting is a well-loved Gullah tradition that results in super crisp skin, rendered fat and extremely succulent meat, he says.

“The men dug giant holes, put wood into the holes and built smokehouses or skewers to hold the meat above the fire,” Chef Raiford says. “If the hog was going to be cooked overnight, they would regulate the heat by covering the meat with tin and the hole with soil to create an insulated box in the earth.”

A sixth-generation farmer, Chef Raiford says whole-hog roasting is something that helps him feel connected to nature and to the particular ingredients in his immediate area – rosemary bushes, wild sumac and pecan trees.

“Anyone who tries this technique knows it’s an amazing way to put flavor into your meat and vegetables, and it’s a technique that’s all about low and slow heat,” he says. “Cooking outside allows you to manipulate how much heat that meat or vegetable will get and allows you to see the meat developing. So, even if you’re in a big city, if you have the room to dig a hole and create your own outdoor pit for roasting, I’d recommend giving it a try.”