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Slow Goes It

Slow-roasted Prime Rib Roast of Beef (top) and Boneless Beef Shoulder Roast (bottom).
Slow-roasted Prime Rib Roast of Beef (top) and Boneless Beef Shoulder Roast (bottom). (Julia Ewan - The Washington Post)
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By Steven L. Katz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

If you are fortunate enough to remember the charms of Sunday-dinner-style roast beef -- browned on the outside and tender, juicy and pink throughout -- you probably also can recall that it took considerable effort to make it happen, with no guarantee that you bought the right hunk of meat or could achieve consistently good results.

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But the fact is, you can produce perfectly cooked roast beef while you sleep, even with an array of beefy-tasting cuts, from pricey prime rib to affordable round roast. Slow roasting at a low temperature is the way to go. Butchers, chefs and meat experts agree that it's easy to do in basic home ovens. No fire-breathing, commercial-quality ranges are required.

"Roasting slowly is where all the good stuff happens," says Jim Swenson, who has been executive chef at the National Press Club for 17 years. He prefers the slow-low approach for roasts and vegetables -- where the carrots, celery and onion caramelize along with the meat -- because "the vegetables bloom into richer and more mellow flavors. You really taste it when you use them to make the sauce or gravy."

By primitive, traditional or high-tech methods, slow cooking is a culinary fundamental. "Man has been doing this since there was cooking, whether it was done in a cooking pit covered with banana leaves or in an oven," says Gerard Bertholon, a chef and an executive at Cuisine Solutions in Alexandria. The company uses microprocessor-controlled equipment to produce food by the sous vide technique, in which vacuum-sealed foods are cooked in a low-temperature water bath. The process preserves and intensifies flavor and texture.

Restaurateur and chef Michel Richard, known for his creative and modern approach to cooking, describes the best way to roast in one word: "slowly."

Walk through Richard's kitchens at Citronelle and his bistro, Central, and, as you might expect, you will see chefs and cooks chopping, prepping and checking stovetops. You also will see specialty "combi" ovens that apply the science of slow cooking by combining moist and dry heat. How slow and low does Richard go in his kitchen? Try 72-hour short ribs cooked at 138 degrees.

A combi oven, such as Winston Industries' CVap (short for controlled vapor technology), has a dual system that uses moist vapor heat to control food temperature and dry-air heat to control moisture evaporation. The CVap's inventor, Winston Shelton, has become an expert on cooking and, at age 84, lectures before culinary school faculties without notecards.

Roasts are about 75 percent moisture, Shelton explains, with the water bound up in the cells, waiting for the heat that will release it during cooking. "Too much heat has the effect of squeezing a sponge; or in this case, the sponge is squeezing itself," he says. "As the heat increases, the proteins shrink and the moisture is forced out either into the pan or evaporates completely. The result is a dense and dry roast. However, if we use our knowledge of moisture in meat to manage the heat and evaporation during cooking, we produce a tender and juicy roast."

Home cooks don't have access to combi ovens. But for slow-low roasting, they don't need them. According to Howard Richardson, executive chef at Winston Industries, the significant action occurs when the meat's internal temperature is between 100 and 140 degrees.

"At approximately 100 degrees, the strands of proteins that make up the muscle and connective tissues begin to cook but also unwind," he says. "The water and juices are released at around 120 degrees, and the collagen in the connective tissue in meat begins to melt and gelatinize at around 140 degrees. While our [combi] ovens can target and hold the heat at very specific temperatures in this range, you can use your own oven to create a beneficial combination of low temperature and time and achieve excellent results."

In case you're wondering about the energy efficiency involved, Pepco spokesman Clay Anderson says that despite the longer cooking time, slow-roasting meat to doneness at a low temperature would use less energy than roasting the same meat at high heat. And concerns about bacterial problems in slow-roasting beef are negated by two factors: The exterior is cooking at a temperature high enough to reduce risk of contamination, according to USDA regulations, and the inside of a roast that has not been cut into is inherently sterile.

The late Adelle Davis, a post-World War II pioneer nutritionist and author of "Let's Cook It Right," was ecstatic about slow-low roasting. She understood that it allowed the meat to retain nutrients, vitamins and flavor. Davis's idea was to set the oven at the same temperature as the desired internal doneness: 125 to 130 degrees for rare, 130 to 135 for medium-rare, 140 for medium. Most ovens today cannot be set below 170 degrees, though, and don't need to be, because a perfect roast can be produced at that temperature. More important, remember Davis's mantra: "The person who works at roasting ruins the roast."


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