Winter is roasting season. Whether you’re planning a Valentines day rack of lamb for 2 or a simple roast chicken for a family supper, the warmth of the oven and the aromas of roast meat, poultry or vegetables will draw your family and friends together to share a meal and each other’s company. To help you along the way, I’ve summarized my top 5 tips from my cookbook, All About Roasting.
The best roasts start with the best quality meat, fowl, fish or vegetables. By definition, roasting exposes foods to dry oven heat, and this dry heat concentrates their intrinsic flavors and characters. This basic cooking technique allows you to transform raw foods into sumptuous meals with little effort (you merely season something and slide it into the oven), but there is not much room to hide or mask inferior ingredients. The best roasts will always begin with the best available ingredients. Choose the freshest, most carefully raised ingredients that you can find and afford.
Roasting is not a one-size-fits-all cooking technique; you can roast quickly in a super hot oven or slowly in a gentle oven. The best approach is to select the oven temperature to suit the roast. High-heat roasting (400 degrees and up) is best for small, naturally tender cuts of meat, fowl and fish, such as beef tenderloin, small chickens, fish fillets and most fruits and vegetables. High-heat roasting will create wonderfully browned exteriors, but anything over a few pounds will likely char on the outside before cooking though. Choose moderate heat (325 to 395 degrees) for larger cuts, such as turkey and pork loin roasts. Low heat roasting (300 degrees and lower) is the way to go when you’re roasting large, less tender cuts, including large cuts of shoulder, leg and round. And finally, use a 2-step sear-roast technique by cranking up the oven to 425 degrees to start, and then (after 10 to 20 minutes) lower the oven to a more moderate temperature (325 or 350 degrees) to get the advantages of high-heat (a handsomely sizzling exterior) and moderate heat (a juicy interior). In the end, there is no single right way to roast. As James Beard once wisely wrote, “Each is successful in its own way, and it remains for the cook to compare results.”
No matter which oven temperature you use, it’s always a good idea to let the roast sit on a cutting board for a while (30 to 60 minutes) before roasting. This takes the chill off and helps it to brown more readily and cook more evenly. Use this time to fully pre-heat the oven as well.
Roasting operates on the principle of heated oven air circulating around the food, and so it’s important that you allow the air to move freely. This means choosing a pan that will accommodate whatever you’re roasting without crowding or shielding it from the oven heat. You want a pan that will hold the roast without too much empty space around it. If the pan is too large, the drippings will be too spread out and tend to burn. If the pan is too small, the roast won’t brown nicely.
For everyday roasts (things like chicken and pork loin), steer away from traditional high-sided roasting pans that will obscure a good portion of the roast, and instead use lower-sided gratin dishes, skillets or even small baking sheets. For roasting individual pieces of poultry or vegetables, spread these out on a rimmed baking sheet, allowing space between pieces, to get the best exposure to the oven heat. (Lining the baking sheets with parchment paper will mean less sticking and easier clean-up.)
And finally, to give your roast the best advantage, arrange the oven rack so that the top of the roast will line up with top third of the oven. For a super large roast, this means an oven rack near the bottom. For smaller roasts, the rack will be closer to the center.
The single most important roasting tool is a reliable meat thermometer. Use the thermometer to check the internal temperature of the roast before the suggested cooking time is up. Every oven and every roast cooks a little differently, and it is good practice to check the progress of your roast as it cooks. Don’t check incessantly – as each time you open the oven door, you lose a good deal of heat and slow down the progress of the roast, but check often enough that you have a sense of how the roast is progressing. The internal temperature will rise more quickly as it gets closer to doneness, so the last 20 to 30 minutes of any roast is always the most critical. Once you think a roast is done, use the thermometer to check it in a few spots to be sure you’re not hitting a bone or a pocket of fat that may throw off the temperature reading.
You may also set an oven thermometer in your oven to help you judge its accuracy. Many of our ovens (no matter how new or expensive) will run cool or hot. Having an oven thermometer on the shelf can help you adjust your cooking times according to the actual temperature inside your oven.
Carving into a roast the minute it comes out of the oven can ruin even the most perfectly cooked piece of meat or poultry. Every roast needs to rest – to sit undisturbed in a warm spot – for anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes. During roasting, the juices are driven towards the surface of the roast. When you pull a roast from the oven, it takes a moment for the juices to stop moving, but they eventually redistribute and settle to produce a juicier, more evenly cooked roast. Small roasts, like a rack of lamb or pork tenderloin, only need to rest for a few minutes, but large roasts, like prime rib and turkey, are best left to sit for at least 30 minutes. If the kitchen is cool, you can tent the roast with foil, but don’t cover too tightly or it will continue to cook. Yes, the meat or fowl will cool off slightly as it rests, but this is a small price to pay for a juicy, tender roast.
The internal temperature of your roast will climb as it rests – a situation know as carry-over cooking. The larger the roast, the greater the carry-over cooking. In other words, the internal temperature of a standing rib roast can rise as much as 10 degrees as it rests, while a petite rack of lamb may only rise 3 or 4 degrees. Keep this in mind as you use your thermometer to judge doneness.