Unaccountably, we never served prime rib. I can’t explain it. For there is nothing more special for a sumptuous feast.
I would like to tell you that we are making prime rib for this New Year’s Eve. But some time ago it was decided that we would make a “Big Night”-style meal of Italian dishes.
But just because I’m not grilling a prime rib for the holidays this year doesn’t mean you can’t. (Actually, I did, for a pre-Thanksgiving dinner with friends. The meal set the tone for the festivities to come.)
Prime rib is from what’s called the “primal rib,” a section of ribs from the upper section of the cow. When sliced, a prime rib yields rib-eye steaks.
The first question is whether to smoke the meat bone-in or boneless. Bone-in makes for a majestic presentation. And tearing the meat from the bone allows adults to be children again.
I decided to go boneless, though. Three reasons: It cooks evenly, it gets a nice crust all around and it is easier to carve at the table.
It’s a funny thing to say about a big hunk of beef, but prime rib is finicky. Although robust in flavor, it exudes a subtlety. Its texture is silken, its taste complex. As a result, it’s best to practice some delicacy when smoking it.
Unlike a brisket, which takes well to a deep, penetrating smoke over its day-long, low-and-slow roasting, prime rib responds better to a gentle caress. If you over-smoke it, you lose some of the prime rib’s essential character. If you smoke it lightly, you heighten that character. The elemental flavor of the grill elevates prime rib, making it, paradoxically, earthy and elegant at the same time.
Prime rib, remember, is basically a giant steak. While a cooking temperature of 225 degrees or so is optimal for brisket, about 325 degrees is best for prime rib.
It is also unforgiving. While a brisket can be cooked past its perfectly done point and still taste incredible (the main problem will be texture; it will wither to shreds), a prime rib must be cooked with precision. Five or 10 degrees’ variance in internal temperature can make the difference between medium-rare and medium.
In other words, prime rib is not a barbecue meat. You shouldn’t rely on the “touch” method, as a lot of barbecue cooks pride themselves on doing with other meats. With prime rib, the investment is too great and a misstep too costly to wing it. That is where the instant-read meat thermometer comes in.
With a thermometer, you reduce the fretting long enough to walk away from the grill, go inside and make a suitable condiment. Horseradish sauce is one of those unquestioned accompaniments for prime rib, like drawn butter with lobster and pepper-vinegar with barbecued whole hog. Somebody, somewhere, got it right a long time ago, and it would be an affront not only to prime rib but to culinary history to not serve a bit of the creamy, tart white sauce on the side. Besides, making it provides a welcome break from the worrying.
Just when you wonder whether all that fuss was worth it, you sit down to dine. You carve slices of the rosy meat, and, after serving others (very adult of you), serve yourself. You cut a bite-size piece and dip it in a puddle of horseradish sauce on your plate. You taste phenomenal flavor, a truly special and grown-up flavor.
You survey the scene. The holiday table gleams with wine goblets and the good china. The guests are into it.
Sometimes, you think as you take another bite of prime rib, it is okay to spend the holidays like characters in a New Yorker cartoon.
Shahin will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com. Follow him on Twitter: