How to Cook Big Cuts of Meat
Food & Wine's Kristin Donnelly interviews meat master Bruce Aidells.
Bruce Aidells, the founder of the eponymous sausage company, is also an avid cook and author of The Complete Meat Cookbook. His favorite type of meat to cook? Any large cut, like bone-in leg of lamb, rack of pork or standing beef rib roast. "Large cuts are a relatively labor-free way to feed groups," he says. "There is nothing nicer than presenting a big roast to a crowd." Here, his five best cooking tips:
1. Get help from your butcher
"Since you're usually serving large cuts of meat for a special occasion, buy the best quality you can afford. I particularly like cuts that are bone-in (I love gnawing on bones). Boneless cuts are easier to carve, but I do believe bone-in cuts cook and taste better. The way the heat travels through the bone helps cook the meat more slowly and develop more flavor. A butcher can help you cut and tie a roast to make it easy to cook and carve. Sometimes, for a cut like a rib roast, I ask the butcher to cut the meat off the bones so I can season the roast all over. Then I tie the meat back onto the bones to give it that extra flavor. Plus, the bones can act as a rack in the roasting pan."
2. Season meat well
"When people wonder why food tastes better at restaurants, I say it's because restaurants know how much salt to put in their food. For braises, it's better to err on the side of under-seasoning at first, because most of the salt will end up in the liquid, and you can always adjust the amount at the end. For roasts, I make sure to rub the whole cut with salt—often as far in advance as the night before—so the seasoning can penetrate the meat's surface. It's a common misconception that salt draws all the moisture out of meat."
3. Braise large, tough cuts
"Cuts like beef brisket or pork shoulder butt, which have a lot of fat, take well to slow cooking. Often with the fattiest cuts, you can overcook them and they still come out really well. To start, you want to use a large, heavy Dutch oven. I prefer an oval shape to round, because large cuts usually fit in them better. Brown the meat on the stovetop to caramelize it and then add vegetables—the most basic braise would include carrots, onions and celery. Then add a flavorful liquid like wine or stock. Cook the meat on low heat, and slowly—you don't want to shock the meat so it seizes up. After it's browned, I like to braise it in the oven, because the heat is more even. One of the most important steps is to skim the fat off the sauce, which floats to the top. If you can, serve the meat a day after it's cooked. That way, you can let the fat solidify in the refrigerator, making it easy to skim off. Plus, most braised meats taste best when done a day ahead."
4. Roast large, tender cuts
"It's best to roast more tender cuts, like whole beef tenderloin or leg of lamb, until they are about medium-rare—otherwise, these cuts can dry out. I recommend getting a heavy, two-handled pan with a rack that fits it well. The rack lifts meat off the pan's surface so that hot air can surround the roast. If possible, bring a large cut of meat to room temperature before roasting because it cooks more evenly. I think basting is a bad idea. Every time you open the oven, you increase the cooking time by about 15 minutes. Basting meat is leftover from the old method of spit roasting, when gravity caused all the juices to drip off. Now, most of the juices stay on the meat. After roasting, you can use the meat's juices and browned bits in the pan to make a flavorful sauce. Set the pan over a burner; add enough wine, stock or fruit juice to cover the bottom of the pan and scrape up the browned bits with a spatula."
5. Use a thermometer and let the meat rest
"While some chefs say they can tell doneness by touch, I find that unreliable when roasting large cuts. For me, a continuous-read thermometer that stays in the meat is an absolute necessity, right up there with a good knife. But take note: If the thermometer comes with preset temperatures for doneness, ignore them! If you follow the USDA recommendation to remove a roast at 145 degrees for medium-rare, you will have an overcooked piece of meat. When meat rests outside of the oven—which it must to redistribute the juices before slicing—the internal temperature can rise anywhere from five to 10 degrees. Since a roast can hold its heat for a long time, there's no need to cover it while it rests."