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Roasting Beef And Lamb Just Right Is An Art Form

Wed., Feb. 15, 1995

Browned and meaty, yet pink and tangy. Crusty outside, yet buttery inside. Firm, yet tender. Juicy, but not stringy. The art of roasting is the art of compromise.

It is one of the oldest forms of cookery, and it is one of the grandest. For most cooks, it is also one fraught with concern.

“We can learn to be cooks, but we must be born knowing how to roast,” wrote the French culinary philosopher Brillat-Savarin in “The Physiology of Taste” in 1825.

But that was before the invention of the instant-read thermometer. If it’s a roaster you want to be, there can be no better way to spend $10 than to run down to the grocery store and pluck one off the housewares shelf.

Different from the traditional meat thermometer - those notoriously inaccurate things that stay in the meat throughout the cooking process - an instant-read thermometer gives you a quick and exact reading.

Just plunge it into the roast at its thickest part (being careful to stay away from the bone), and within a minute you know where you are.

In roasting, temperature is all.

In a study called “Flavor, Color, and Other Characteristics of Beef Longissimus Muscle Heated to Seven Internal Temperatures,” agricultural scientists at Kansas State University found that “beef flavor components and juiciness change most from 130 degrees to 150 degrees, then little change takes place until meat is heated to temperatures between 175 and 185 degrees, when browned and mouth-filling blend components increase and juiciness decreases.”

In other words, these guys roasted beef loin from very rare to very well-done.

What they found was that the peak temperature for flavor and juiciness was between very rare and medium-rare (on the USDA scale).

A group from the University of Missouri college of agriculture did the same thing with pork. Their findings? “The optimum endpoint temperature for fresh pork roasts should be at least 160 degrees and should not exceed 170 degrees.”

Though studies on lamb are harder to come by (it’s not as big a market and hence affords less research), one 35-year-old study found that legs of lamb “have an odour and taste more characteristic of lamb” if cooked to 150 degrees than to 165 degrees (135 for rare lamb).

In the Los Angeles Times test kitchen, we experimented with three different means of roasting.

First, we cooked a rack of lamb and a leg of lamb at high heat - 450 degrees - until they reached 135 degrees. Then we cooked the same cuts - as nearly identical in weight as possible - at a slow 325 degrees.

Looking at them side by side, the biggest difference was the color of the exterior. In the high-heat versions, the meat was nice and crusty brown. At low heat, the roasts were paler.

The differences on the inside were not as great. The high-heat roasts tended to be a little stringier or more fibrous at the center; the ones cooked at lower heat were more uniformly buttery in texture.

To get the best of both, we figured we’d compromise. Since beef and lamb cook to a relatively low internal temperature, it’s important to start them in a very hot oven - 450 to 500 degrees - to bring the surface to a high heat faster and start the browning process. (With smaller cuts of meat, you can accomplish this also by browning the meat in a saute pan on top of the stove.) After 15 to 20 minutes, reduce the heat to around 325 to 350 degrees and let the roast cook slowly and evenly to the proper temperatures.

With pork, the situation is a little different. Since it cooks to a higher interior temperature, the initial browning is optional; by the time the center of the roast hits 160 degrees, the exterior will already have begun to brown, but perhaps not enough for you if you’re not using a spice coating on the meat.

And by starting in a hot oven, you run the risk of overcooking a greater portion of the meat, resulting in dry, gray pork. We prefer to cook pork low and slow.

Remember, in all cases, the meat continues to cook after it is removed from the oven because of heat retained within the roast itself (the bigger the piece of meat, the more “push” you get). So subtract five degrees from smaller cuts and 10 or more from larger cuts in order to achieve the perfect compromise.

As for recipes, once you get past taking its temperature, there’s really not that much to cooking a roast.

Salt and pepper the outside, maybe rub in a little garlic - when we tested the effects of various cooking temperatures, that’s all we did and the results were delicious.

Obviously, you can’t go far wrong. But here are a few ideas you can use for more festive preparations.

You can make a quick lamb stock for this dish simply by boiling bones and trimmings from lamb in canned chicken broth while the rack is roasting.

Rack Of Lamb With Red Wine Sauce

1 (3-pound) rack of lamb

1 clove garlic, cut in half


Freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary


1 cup red wine

1 cup lamb stock or chicken broth

2 tablespoons butter

Have butcher prepare rack of lamb by removing “aitch” and feather bones and “Frenching” ribs.

If preferred, French ribs at home. Cut away 1 1/2 to 2 inches of meat from between ribs. With point of knife, make cut through membrane along length of trimmed part of rib. Scrape meat, fat and membrane away from ribs. Wrap ribs in foil to prevent scorching.

Rub meat all over with cut cloves of garlic. Sprinkle liberally to taste with salt, pepper and rosemary. Rub with bit of oil, no more than 1 tablespoon, massaging herbs into meat. Lightly oil roasting rack and bottom of roasting pan. Set meat, bone-side down, on rack in pan.

Roast at 500 degrees 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 325 degrees and cook another 1/2 hour. Continue cooking afterward, checking temperature every 10 minutes by plunging instant-read thermometer horizontally into meat. Cook to interior temperature of 130 to 140 degrees, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove from pan and place on platter, covering with foil to keep warm (remember temperature will increase at least 5 degrees while resting).

Pour excess fat from roasting pan, leaving no more than 1 tablespoon in bottom. Place roasting pan over high heat and cook until brown bits begin to sizzle. Add red wine and cook, scraping bottom of pan with wooden spoon to free all browned bits. Continue cooking until wine is reduced to 1 to 2 tablespoons, about 5 minutes. Add stock and continue cooking until reduced by half, another 3 to 5 minutes. With pan still over heat, add butter and whisk, thickening sauce very slightly. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Carve lamb and serve with sauce alongside.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Nutrition information per serving:

854 calories, 435 milligrams sodium, 157 milligrams cholesterol, 77 grams fat, 1 gram carbohydrate, 29 grams protein.

In central Italy they have a passion for porchetta, a whole roast pig liberally crusted with black pepper and fennel seeds. Once, while attending a conference at a fancy hotel in the tiny Umbrian town of Torgiano, I noticed the little grocery store had a handprinted sign in the window: “Porchetta Oggi” (“Porchetta Today”). They sold it in sandwiches. For an entire week, after the lavish formal conference lunches, I would walk up the street for porchetta. As the week wore on, I noticed more and more attendees joining me. Taste this and you’ll understand why.

Umbrian-Style Pork Roast

1 tablespoon whole black pepper

2 teaspoons fennel seeds

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 (3-pound) pork loin

2 tablespoons olive oil

Grind pepper, fennel seeds and salt in spice grinder or coffee mill until fine. Set pork loin on plate to catch excess and rub powder over meat, covering all sides thickly. Pour olive oil over spiced meat and massage to work in spices and coat evenly. Set aside to marinate at room temperature 2 hours.

Place roast on rack in roasting pan in 325-degree oven. Roast, undisturbed, until interior temperature reaches 155 degrees, about 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Check roast in several places with instant-read thermometer, being careful not to touch bone.

When done, remove from oven. Let stand in warm, draft-free spot 20 to 30 minutes to let juices set before slicing thinly.

Yield: 6 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: fat, 1 gram carbohydrate, 33 grams protein.

Prime Rib With Horseradish Jus

1 (8- to 10-pound) beef standing rib roast

4 cloves garlic, minced


Freshly ground pepper


1/2 cup brandy

2 teaspoons horseradish

Have butcher French rib bones. Rub roast all over with garlic and salt and pepper to taste. Lightly oil roasting pan, place roast in pan, and roast at 350 degrees about 1 1/2 hours, or when instant-read meat thermometer inserted in center of roast registers 130 degrees. Remove roast from oven. Place on warm serving platter. Let stand at least 15 and as much as 30 minutes.

Pour off fat from roasting juices and reserve juices. Over high heat, add brandy to roasting pan and ignite brandy, swirling juices in pan while scraping up any dark bits. When flames die down, liquid should be sufficiently reduced to about 1 to 2 tablespoons. Add reduced brandy to reserved roasting juices. Stir in horseradish. Carve roast at table. Pour spoonful of horseradish jus over each serving.

Yield: 16 to 20 servings.

Nutrition information per serving:

211 calories, 107 milligrams sodium, 80 milligrams cholesterol, 10 grams fat, no carbohydrate, 27 grams protein.

Port Wine-Glazed Pork Crown Roast

1 large clove garlic, cut in half

1 (7- to 8-pound) pork crown roast

1/2 teaspoon minced thyme

1/2 teaspoon minced rosemary

1/2 teaspoon minced marjoram


Freshly ground pepper

Olive oil

Port Wine Glaze

1/4 cup brandy

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 teaspoon water

Rub cut side of garlic halves over all surfaces of roast. Sprinkle thyme, rosemary, marjoram and salt and pepper to taste over meat and rub over all. Lightly brush roasting pan with olive oil. Place roast in pan crown side up. Cover tips of bones with foil to prevent burning.

Roast at 325 degrees until meat thermometer reaches 155 degrees, 15 to 20 minutes per pound. Brush with Port Wine Glaze during last 15 minutes of roasting. Remove roast to carving board. Let stand about 15 minutes before carving.

Pour off juices from pan, about 1/2 cup. Add brandy to roasting pan stirring to loosen browned bits from bottom of pan and flame. Pour into small pan along with juices from roasting. Stir in 2 tablespoons Port Wine Glaze. Heat to simmering. Combine cornstarch and water until blended. Stir into sauce. Bring to boil. Boil and stir until slightly thickened and clear.

Serve tablespoon of sauce along with each serving of roast.

Yield: 12 to 14 servings.

Nutrition information per serving:

613 calories, 136 milligrams sodium, 139 milligrams cholesterol, 43 grams fat, 3 grams carbohydrate, 37 grams protein.

Port Wine Glaze

1 cup red Port wine

1/2 cup red currant jelly

Combine wine and currant jelly in small saucepan. Heat to simmer. Reduce to cup. Reserve 2 tablespoons glaze for sauce.

Yield: cup.

MEMO: This is a sidebar which appeared with story: Ideal internal temperatures for roasts Beef: 130 to 140 degrees. Lamb: 135 to 145 degrees. Pork: 155 to 165 degrees.

This is a sidebar which appeared with story: Ideal internal temperatures for roasts Beef: 130 to 140 degrees. Lamb: 135 to 145 degrees. Pork: 155 to 165 degrees.

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