Monday, December 6, 2010

How to cook a rack of lamb and all the other meat

When Cook's Illustrated published Kenji Alt's recipe for cooking thick cut steaks in 2007, it revolutionized how people cook steak. Ouch, I sound like a dot-com marketing person. "Revolutionize" is a strong word, but I do mean every bit of it. His method ensures the steak is medium-rare (or whatever doneness you like) throughout, instead of rare in the center and well done on the outside. To achieve this, he par-cooks the steaks in the oven at 275F, and finishes with a quick sear. Yes, it's that simple. How is this better than searing first and then finishing in the low oven? Two reasons:

1) The outside of the steak is already at 275F before it hits the hot skillet. This allows you to put a nice sear on it in about a minute per side vs. 2-3 minutes that a raw steak would take. The less time the steak spends in a hot skillet, the less gray (tough and dry) meat you are going to have inside it.

2) By roasting the steak at a very low oven first, you get an evenly cooked inside without sacrificing the outside crust. If the steak is seared first and immediately placed in the oven, its outside is way too hot to give you even doneness inside. Placing it in the oven in the skillet where it was seared adds insult to injury since the skillet is hot. If you let the steak rest after a sear and then finish it in the oven, it releases a lot of juice ruining the beautiful crust you put on it during the sear step.

I wrote about this technique before. I've used it hundreds of times in the past 3 years and still think it's the best way to cook a steak (even after discovering sous-vide). The reason I am writing about it again is that it has a way bigger scope than just steak. The past 3 years have convinced me that it is the best technique to cook any meat thicker than 1 inch medium-rare. Any meat? Yes. A huge rib-roast? A rack of lamb? A leg of lamb? A pork chop? A burger? Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes! If it's a thick tender cut from a land roaming mammal (or ground up tough cut) and you want to eat it medium-rare, this is a fantastic way to cook it. Thickness is important. If you are working with a thin cut of meat, like a skirt steak or individual lamb chops, this method does not apply. You don't need the oven for thin cuts. Get your pan, grill, or broiler as hot as possible, sear till brown and you are done. But if your meat is 1 inch or thicker, Kenji's method rocks.

Here are some tips on how to adopt it to the meat of your choice:

The thicker the meat, the closer you need to bring it to doneness in the oven.
Obviously, thicker pieces of meat will spend more time in the oven than thinner ones. What's not completely obvious is that you want to remove them from the oven when the center reaches a higher temperature than thinner ones. Say you are cooking a 1.5 inch thick steak. To serve it at 120-130F (medium-rare), you need to bring it up to 95F in the oven and then sear. Why 95F? Because internal temperature of the steak keeps going up during the searing and resting steps. But if you are cooking a 3 inch thick tenderloin roast, you might want to remove it from the oven at 110F since it has move volume per surface area and won't go up as much during the sear and rest. For a 5 inch thick rib-roast, you might aim for 120F before searing since it's so bulky. To tell you the truth, I never cook a huge rib-roast. I like to cut it into 2 rib sections. This way, they cook faster, fit into the skillet for a sear, and have more surfaces to brown. Once sliced, they taste just like a rib roast, only better.

Use the broiler to brown hard to reach areas
Take a rack of lamb, for example. It's impossible to brown the part under the bones using a skillet. To achieve even doneness inside and a good sear on the outside, I first brown whatever surfaces I can in the skillet and then pop it under the broiler for 1-2 minutes to brown the bone side. I prefer to put the meat back on a rack that I used for the oven roasting step before putting it under the broiler. This avoids having it sit in a hot skillet longer than necessary.

When to salt
Some proteins, like a fatty rib-eye, are very forgiving.  They'll taste juicy even if you salt them immediately before cooking.  But say you are cooking a pork chop.  Regular supermarket pork chops barely have any marbling, so they need some help in the juiciness department.  If you salt them 24-48 hours before cooking, not only will they be seasoned throughout, the salt will help them retain their juices.  Another benefit to salting in advance is that you can dry the meat very thoroughly after it had a chance to absorb all the salt.  This way it comes out of the oven a little drier on the outside and takes on the sear even better.  If at all possible, I like to salt all meats in advance.  The only exception to that are burgers.  Ground meat becomes more firm (sausage like vs. crumbly) when salted in advance, so I season burgers with salt after they finish pre-roasting in the oven.  

Hope I didn't make it more confusing than it needs to be.  If you just want to make a rack of lamb in the picture and find the above details too technical, here is a detailed recipe.

Special Equipment
  • A meat thermometer
  • A flat roasting rack (also sold as a cooling rack)
Rack of Lamb with Cilantro Garlic Butter

Serves 2

1 rack of lamb (about 1.5 lb)
Salt and pepper
1 Tbsp canola oil
1 garlic clove, mashed into paste or grated on microplane
1 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp minced cilantro or mint (fresh)

  1. Remove the fat cap and trim all visible silver skin from the lamb.  Cut the rack in half.
  2. Preheat the oven to 250F and adjust oven rack to the middle position. Wrap the roasting pan with foil (to make clean up easy). Place a flat rack in the roasting pan.  
  3. When you are ready to cook the lamb, dry it well with paper towels and season very generously with salt and pepper on all sides (or salt 24 hours in advance and then dry before cooking). Immediately, set the roasts on the rack and place in the oven until instant read thermometer inserted into the center registers 95 for rare, 100 for medium-rare, 110 for medium, and 115 for medium-well. How long it takes to get to this temperature depends on the thickness of the lamb. A thermometer is key!  Start checking after the first 20 minutes.  It will take 20 – 35 minutes. 
  4. Turn on the broiler.
  5. Set a 10 inch heavy skillet over high heat until very hot. Add the oil and wait until it's a little smoky. Add the lamb presentation side down and brown for 1 minute.  Turn and brown the other side, then briefly brown the ends (20 seconds or so).  Return the lamb to the pan with the rack bone side up (the part that’s impossible to brown in the skillet). Place under the broiler for 90 seconds.  Remove to a warm plate.  Rub all over with garlic.  Then rub with butter and sprinkle with cilantro or mint.  Let rest 7 minutes.  Slice, sprinkle the cut sides with a little salt, and serve.


Sean Grey Hanson said...

I've never tried making my own, but I'll definitely be trying this soon.

PerennialPlate said...

The cilantro garlic butter sounds amazing.

jess said...

Thanks for your comments on Kenji Alt's method for steak; they gave me the courage to finally try it. Amazing! Can't wait to do it again!

Unknown said...

Would this work with dry aged beef?

Helen said...

Dry aged beef is wonderful. if you have access to it, you can certainly use it for this cooking method. the problem is that lots of stuff sold as dry aged at supermarkets like Whole Foods and Roche Brothers is not dry aged enough.

Unknown said...

I dry aged it myself but I wonder on the cooking time. Would you recommend 250 for 20 min in the oven then sear 1 min per side?

Helen said...

it's not about time. it's about temperature. Get it to 95F internal temp, then sear. How long this takes depends on the shape and size of your meat. This method should not be tried without a thermometer.

Unknown said...

Maybe I'll look into a thermometer but I've always gone by touch and time and had avg results. I tried the med rare burger method from you and that worked beautifully so that's why I decided to try this with dry aged steak. My steaks are about 1.5 inches. I always thought dry aged beef cooked faster that's why I mentioned 20 min then 1 min sear.

Helen said...

burgers have a predictable shape that you have full control over and for burgers I drop the temp to 200 making it more difficult to overcook them. For steaks, I would definitely get a thermometer. I recently blogged about an inexpensive one you can buy from Thermoworks for $25. It's possible that dry aged meat cooks faster, but I haven't heard that. Send me a link about that.