Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Cheap Delicious: Roast Beef

I was offering some advice to someone on Reddit the other day who was looking for good ways to bring down the family grocery bill (not an uncommon problem, as you'd imagine). One piece of advice I offered was to look at ways to prepare and enjoy some of the cheaper cuts of meat out there: chuck roast, pork shoulder, and (my favorite) top round roast. What is top round roast? So glad you asked.

It's a round/pyramid-shaped bit of meat that sits right above your traditional sirloin steak. Between a little extra connective tissue and the odd shape (take a look), it's often ignored by most people. And, as we know, "ignored" means low demand, and low demand means low price. However, despite the price, it's got a lot of tasty meat flavor, which can be all yours if you know how to prepare it correctly.

The lack of connective tissue and fat means we're going to want to cook this to medium-rare at the center. However, given the size and shape of it, we don't want to grill or sear the outside (well, at least not all the way). See, by the time enough heat managed to travel all the way to cook the inside of the meat to 130 degrees, the outer portions of the meat would be much hotter and far overcooked (though we would get a nice sear on the outside). And given the shape of the meat, only in the thickest part of this triangular cut would we even get to that point--the narrower ends would be overcooked all the way through. So what's the solution? Low, dry heat, which won't overcook the outer parts before the inside is nice and "just done."

I've got two versions of this recipe, let's call them high effort and low effort. If you've got lots of time to plan ahead, take an extra step (and a little extra cleaning), the high effort will deliver some tasty results. However, if you're a little more pressed for time or attention, you'll find the low effort version to still deliver lots of tasty meatiness that everyone will enjoy.

Roast Beef (High Effort version)
1 3-4 lb top round roast
Clove of garlic
Rosemary (fresh or dried) or other herbs
Kosher salt

One day ahead (I mean it) mince garlic and herbs. Combine in a roughly 1 garlic : 2 fresh herb (or 1 dried herb) : 2 salt ratio enough to coat the meat.
I'm not offering specific quantities here, because, well... I don't want this to sound like a cop-out, but it's one of those things you should really give a try yourself. You've got some very tasty ingredients here: give a little thought to how strong they are and just how much you want them to flavor the meat. Between its strength and the fact that it has juice in it, the garlic will impart more flavor to the meat than the herbs. The main purpose of the salt is to draw fluids out of the meat, where it will mix with and dissolve the salt, and then be carried (along with the other flavors) back into the meat. For your first time, start off with a tablespoon of kosher salt and see how it goes from there.
With that complete, remove meat from packaging, remove any string or bands and place on your meat-friendly cutting board (which, of course, will ideally be made of plastic). Pat dry the outside with paper towels and then coat it with the garlic and herb mixture (ideally while wearing disposable rubber gloves, which means you won't get little bits of meat, garlic and herb under your fingernails).
In terms of the coating, I will once again punk out and leave it up to you. Because you're the one eating this. Do you really really love the flavor of meat? Use less. Are you a fanatic when it comes to garlic and herbs? Well, go ahead and use more. Personally, I go a little on the light side, which will end up with some nice flavor on the outside but not a whole lot penetrating deep into the meat (translation: herby-tasting outside, meaty-tasting interior).
Wrap the meat in at least two layers of plastic wrap, put into a bowl or other container, and let sit in the refrigerator overnight.
I've done this several times, and no matter what I do, I can never perfectly seal one of these without some amount of dripping. Not a lot, but enough that it breaks my gait by having to go scrub the refrigerator shelf.
The following day, set your oven to 250 degrees and bring a grill pan or barbecue to high heat before removing the meat from the plastic wrap. Immediately (don't allow it to come to room temperature) sear the outside of the roast, then remove to an oven-safe cooling rack on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. Allow to sit of 15 minutes before continuing with the Low-Effort version. 
Ok, this is the last time I'm going to leave things up to you. Don't worry, though, I have faith in you. By searing the outside of the roast, you are trading some internal cooking for external crust and browning. The browning will add flavor to the outside, but you don't want to overdo it (thus overcooking the meat inside). By having very high heat on the pan and a cold roast (I know a lot of recipes will tell you to let meat come to room temperature before cooking--don't do that in this case), we can hopefully get a lot of color in a short time on the outside, while putting some extra distance between ourselves and over-doneness on the inside. I'm tempted to give some more advice on this point, except for the strange shape of the cut of meat we're working with. Usually I'll just sear the "top" and "bottom"--the two mostly-triangular pieces that will sit steadily on the grill by themselves. The "side" pieces of this cut are usually rounded and a little less stable, which means (a) you need to keep a closer watch on it while it sears, and (b) it's going to tip or lean to a side of meat that you've already seared, which will put more heat into that part of the meat.

Roast Beef (Low Effort version)
1 3-4 lb top round roast
Kosher salt

Set your oven to 250 degrees. 
Remove the roast from packaging, remove any and all twine or bands and pat dry with paper towels. Sprinkle on all sides with kosher salt and place on an oven-safe cooling rack on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. 
Yes, I do have a roasting pan. However, I like the additional convection action you get with just putting it on the cooling rack. Have also found that this is easier to clean.
Place roast and rack into oven until probe thermometer reads 130 degrees in center of meat for medium-rare. If using an instant-read thermometer, start checking every 15-20 minutes after 90 minutes of cook time. 
Remove and let rest for 10 minutes before slicing and serving. 
Boy, that is easy, isn't it? But you know what? There's something even better that you can do with one of these.
Oh yes, yes I did indeed make one of these bad boys with the explicit aim of letting it sit in the fridge overnight for sandwiches. Letting it chill makes for easier handling and cutting. I tried with both a two-pronged fork and tongs, and generally found the tongs to be better at keeping a handle on it (and they don't leave pairs of holes down the middle of the meat). In addition, I have to heartily recommend this 12" Victorinox slicing knife.

I keep it in its original sheath in a drawer, since it's way too big to fit in my knife block (yes, yes, I know, I should get a magnetic wall-mounted strip for my knives--I'm working on it). It is incredibly sharp, incredibly thin, and the little granton edges make it have less friction against the meat, so you'll be able to get nice thin slices out of the meat. It's also good at cutting up some cuts of meat before cooking, though I'll let the Big Man Himself explain that.

I have to admit, these pictures make the meat just the teensiest bit redder than they were in real life, but I don't think that's going to stop anyone from enjoying them.
Personally, I pile some up on a couple of slides of bread on a pan in a 300 degree toaster oven for 8 minutes, then put a couple of slices of american cheese on top for another 2 to melt. The meat came out perfect (warm but without any additional cooking) and the cheese melted very well.

All in all, pretty good for a cut of meat in the same price league as chuck roast.

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