How to Cook a Roast

Don't be afraid of that roast!

When you buy a centerpiece cut of meat like a whole beef tenderloin, a rack of lamb, a fresh turkey, or a crown pork roast, you have made a sizable investment for you, your family and your guests.  The last thing that you want is a dried up or tough-to-chew piece of meat as the focal point of your meal.  For that reason, cuts like pork shoulder, beef rib roast and lamb leg or shoulder can be intimidating to home cooks.  Expensive, yes, but if you follow some simple preparation and these directions on how to cook a roast, there is no need to panic.  You’ve got this!

Here are some important dos and don’ts that, if followed, will always result in a delicious meal and compliments to the chef.

digital-meat-thermometer-in-pork-tenderloin

A digital meat thermometer in a pork tenderloin

The Meat Thermometer – INDISPENSABLE

Any good recipe will give you the expected cooking time.  The cooking time is a guide designed to give you a good sense of how long your meal will take to cook.  It is NOT meant to be a rigid indicator as to when your meat is ready to come out of the oven or off the grill.  Oven temperatures vary, the amount of fat and bone varies; even altitude effects cook times and, of course, personal tastes matter.  Medium-well can be delightful for one person and taste burnt to another and timing will never be an accurate measure of cooking doneness.

Any time that you cook a roast or steak you have the expectation of a delicious meal and the only way to assure that outcome is to eliminate the biggest cause of ruined meals: not keeping track of the actual temperature. You must use a meat thermometerFor an investment under $20, you can get a digital thermometer at any store selling cooking utensils.  With the thermometer in hand, you will never wreck the roast.

Make Seasoning Your Secret Helper

Try to remember to season your roast the night before you cook it.  Apply a generous amount of coarse salt and cracked pepper to the entire surface of the roast.  This will give the seasoning ample time to permeate beyond the roast's exterior.  Just rub the roast liberally with kosher salt and pepper along with any other spices you'd like to use.  Then set the roast, uncovered, in a roasting pan in your refrigerator.

Don’t Shock Your Roast with Temperature

Never take the meat directly from the refrigerator to the oven. Not only will this slow the cooking process, but it will also heat the roast unevenly.  Give the meat an hour or two at room temperature before roasting it.

Cap Your Roast with a Golden Crust

This is achieved at higher cooking temperatures.  You could sear the meat before roasting it to kick-start the browning process, but most big cuts of meat are too big for a skillet on the stove top.  For larger cuts, start the roast in an oven set to a high (in the 450˚F range) temperature.  Once the meat starts to brown, reduce the heat to something in the 300-325˚F range so the exterior doesn't burn before it's cooked through.  Remember to forget about the time when judging if the meat is finished cooking -- use your thermometer!

Give it a Chance to Catch its Breath…Let it Rest

As meat is cooked, the proteins in the meat heat up and set.  The more cooked the meat, the more ‘set’ the proteins have become.  When the proteins set they push the meat’s juices towards the center of the roast.  Giving the meat a rest allows those juices from the center to be redistributed throughout the piece of meat, making for a much more enjoyable eating experience.  A ten-minute nap for a steak is about right.  When it comes to a big 8 to 10-pound roast, allow thirty minutes for the magic to work.

This resting step allows you to save more of those precious juices.  It will make the job of carving infinitely easier.  We naturally worry that this will result in too much heat dissipating, allowing the roast to cool down too much, but you needn't be concerned.  A large roast will hold heat surprisingly well.  Plus, you can always gently reheat the meat at the table by pouring a pan of warm sauce over the top.

Basic Carving Sense is Important

carving a roast
Carving of beef roast

The primary rule is that you always want to cut against the grain of the muscle, not along the grain.  Don’t let a simple mistake like carving your meat along the muscle be the downfall of your meal.  If you have done everything else according to the book and you still end up with a tough, chewy hunk of meat, the chances are it was carved incorrectly.  Take time before carving, preferably while the roast is resting, to sharpen the blade on your carving knife.  This will make the carving go easier and allows for a more attractive presentation.

Enjoy!