The ribs are the most desirable part of the beef and are either roasted or braised...choose from a tender, well mortified piece of meat — Charles Ranhofer, chef of Delmonico's, 1894
And yet there is no dish more in need of culinary redemption than prime rib. Racks of lamb or veal, which are essentially the same dish using a less flavorful protein, are held in high regard, but prime rib is often treated like a bum steer. There are legions of carnivores who devour with reckless abandon ribeye and rib steaks (which are fabricated from the same cut) but eschew prime rib, deeming it second rate. This has a lot to do with many people's first exposure to the dish at weddings or other catered events where dull, grey, overcooked slabs of beef languish for hours under heat lamps. Or perhaps at buffets or all you can eat restaurants within casinos — where the commodity is quantity not quality. It also doesn't help that what is sometimes passed off as prime rib is often an impostor such as a cut of top or bottom round masquerading as rib meat.
Prime rib is not a cut of beef. It is a dish made by roasting meat from the primal rib — technically only the center cuts. All prime rib is roast beef but not all roast beef is prime rib. The primal rib can also yield rib and ribeye steaks if individual chops are cut from it. The difference between steaks from the rib and a prime rib is that the former are seared quickly as individual chops while latter is roasted whole and then portioned.
The Primal Rib
The primal rib contains seven bones, labelled ribs six through 12, and it weighs upwards of 50 pounds. It is often referred to as a 103, the number assigned to the primal by the Agricultural Marketing Service, a division of the USDA. The primal rib lies between the chuck and the short loin and contains some of the most prized meat on the carcass. The principle muscle of the cut is the longissimus dorsi which extends through the entire primal forming what is commonly called the eye. The other significant muscle in the primal rib is the spinalis dorsi which surrounds the longissimus and is popularly called the cap or the deckle. The spinalis tapers off as it progresses towards the posterior of the primal, disappearing almost completely by the 12th rib. The eye and cap yield some of the most tender meat available, because the muscles contain sedentary tissue, used only when the animal turns. The fibers in sedentary muscles are finer than those found on the motion muscles used to support the animal's weight, such as the pectoral muscles that make up the potentially tough brisket. The finer the muscle fiber, the more tender the beef.
There are also lesser muscles located in the backstrap, which caps the entire cut of prime rib. Those muscles include the ilcostalis, trapezius, rhomboideus and the latissimus dorsi, collectively called rib cap meat. Rib cap meat is not as tender as the primary muscles of the cut and is thus not served in prime rib (it's also generally excluded when fabricating rib and ribeye steaks). The rib bones on a 103 are long, extending twice the length of longissimus muscle. Cut these away at the edge of the muscle and you are left with short ribs. In addition to the rib bones, the entire primal rib also contains a portion of the scapula, or blade bone, and the thoracic vertebrae, also known as the chine bones.
Trimming the rib bones down to the longissimus and excluding the blade and chine bones results in a 107 rib. Trimming this further by removing the rib cap meat but leaving the belt of fat from backstrap is called a 109, which is wrapped in a netting to secure it. The 109 is also referred to as roast ready rib and weighs between 15 to 20 pounds. It is, as its name implies, ready to cook at this point. The 109 is what most steakhouses and high volume prime rib restaurants roast.
The extra cap of fat in a 109 renders down during cooking, helping to protect the eye from over-cooking and keeping it moist. Removing the whole backstrap and cutting away the remaining feather bones leaves an "export rib" which is also ready to roast. Cutting away the rib bones entirely yields a 110 or boneless roast ready rib. The rib bones, if cut away as an entire rack, give us beef back ribs, which are the equivalent of pork baby back ribs. The last two cuts are what you will usually see in supermarkets. A dedicated butcher shop will be able to provide larger cuts.
Beef is primarily aged to tenderize it. Completely fresh meat needs several days to relax, allowing the fat to cool and solidify completely before it becomes tender enough to eat. The longer it is allowed to rest, the more tender it will become as natural enzymes within the meat itself begin to break down the muscle fibers. Most beef is wet aged — it is stored in plastic bags for two to three weeks. This tenderizes it effectively but doesn't do much to enhance its flavor. Dry aging is the old way of aging beef. Dry aged beef is stored, usually in the form of large primals like a 109, uncovered in special rooms that are kept just above freezing with humidity levels as high as 85 percent. This allows a controlled form of decay to occur which both tenderizes and enhances the flavor of the beef, giving it a nutty, funky flavor similar to blue cheese. Roasting dry aged meat intensifies these flavors.
Prime rib does not necessarily equate to prime grade beef. In fact any rib roast, no matter what the grading, qualifies as prime rib. It is important to note that the USDA does not regulate menu nomenclature and also that the term prime rib predates the USDA grading program by several decades. The term for the dish was in common usages by the end of the 19th century, and the USDA started grading beef in 1923. But at least part of the reason for prime rib's tarnished reputation stems from the use of low-grade meat and over-cooked beef. The results are inevitably poor. But take prime grade, dry aged beef and cook it to medium rare — the temperature at which the intrasmuscular fat will have completely melted — and the results will be ethereally tender. This is because prime beef has a high degree of marbling — this is the common name for intramuscular fat, the fat actually contained within the muscle tissue, rather than surrounding it. The more intramuscular fat, the more tender the meat. Prime grade beef has what is called abundant marbling. In fact, the USDA inspectors grade beef based on the marbling present in the longissimus at the split between 12th rib and the short loin.
Any one of the above listed cuts roasted whole, or with as few as two bones (or the equivalent meat on a boneless product), qualifies as prime rib these days. Traditionally, however, only ribs seven through 12 were considered true prime rib — Charles Ranhofer wrote that "the sixth rib is also part of the rib section and can be used as a rib roast, but not a prime rib." A whole prime rib will yield cuts that vary in shape and muscle composition. At the sixth rib, which lies at the chuck or shoulder end of the primal, the eye will be quite round and relatively small, as it is severely tapered towards the anterior. This end cut contains almost as much spinalis as longissimus, as well as a portion of the less desirable complexus muscle. This is the reason the first cut was traditionally excluded from prime rib.
Moving towards the posterior of the primal, the eye gets larger and more rectangular in shape while the cap tapers off, disappearing almost entirely by the last rib. There is a large seam of fat between these two muscles that also tapers off towards the posterior. The cuts from the center of the primal are considered the prime parts of the rib primal.
While the eye of the cut tends to be the most prized by casual diners, beef aficionados know that the spinalis muscle is the crown jewel of the steer. It has a fibrous structure with deep striations of fat, and is wonderfully tender, with a hearty, concentrated flavor. The spinalis, like skirt steak, is one of the few cuts of beef that is still toothsome when cooked to medium. This will often happen with prime rib that is cooked relatively quickly — four or so hours for a whole rack, rather than the six or more required to bring the center to temperature and still insure a pink cap. Contrary to what cookbooks may tell you, selecting a chop from closer to the shoulder will give you a more complex and varied experience, especially if the beef is dry aged.
Prime rib's origins lie in Great Britain, in the medieval feast, the Christmas dinner, and the Sunday roast. Traditionally beef or other meats were cooked for long hours, left in the oven while the family attended church services. Poor families without the necessary facilities would drop off their joints of meat at the local baker, who would cook the meat for them while they listened to how the meek would inherit the earth. Roast beef in Britain is served with Yorkshire pudding (a popover cooked in pan drippings), lashings of gravy, and a wide assortment of vegetables. Rules, London's oldest restaurant, was famous for the roast beef cart that trundled through the dining room stocked with beef ribs and all the trimmings. The practice has now been abandoned at Rules, although it has been adopted in America by, for example, the Lawry's chain of restaurants.
Roast beef, like many things in America, became more stripped down and elemental, and at the same time super-sized as it made its way across the ocean. The traditional accompaniments of Yorkshire pudding and the wealth of vegetables have largely been abandoned in favor of a simple side of creamed spinach and mashed potatoes, and the pan gravy has been replaced by a simpler au jus. In terms of portioning, serving a whole bone per person, as is common in America, displays both an appetite and a prosperity that eludes the British, who generally serve delicate slices of roast beef. Indeed, thinly sliced roast beef is called "English cut" in the states.
Slow roasting is the traditional and ideal way of cooking prime rib. The lower and slower it's done, the more tender and evenly cooked the beef will be. But similar results can be achieved with either a sous-vide machine or C-vap, finishing the meat in the oven or even a flat top griddle to develop a crisp crust. A 107 is the ideal choice for roasting whole because the extra cap both protects and helps to baste the meat. Because of cooking times, prime rib is always roasted ahead and also tends to sell out in many places. If you really have your heart set on the dish (and you should have if you have read this far), many restaurants will honor requests to hold a slice or two.
For the purposes of presentation, the rib bones on prime rib will often be Frenched prior to roasting.
Broadly speaking, prime rib is served in two distinct ways: a la carte or as a composed plate with side items, and sometimes with Yorkshire pudding. The latter draws on the tradition of English roasts and also American banquet dining and tends to feature cheaper grades of wet aged beef. Al la carte prime rib is almost exclusively the purview of high-end steakhouses, and is usually dry aged.
While there are no standardized names for the various portion sizes of prime rib, a bone-in chop is often referred to as the King cut, while a boneless version is called the Queen cut, and thin slices are known as English cut (as mentioned above). But in most steakhouses, unless it is a lunchtime portion, expect that an order of prime rib will contain a rib bone and weigh at least 24 oz. and as much as 32 oz.
Prime rib is served either in a pool of au jus or dry. Don't be afraid to ask for au jus on the side — it is, after all, part of the dish. The traditional accompaniments to prime rib (and roast beef in general) are either freshly grated horseradish whipped into sour cream, or English mustard, a distant echo of John Bull. Most steakhouses will cook prime rib to rare which allows them to satisfy any order. They simply bring the chops to the requested temperature at service. But you may be out of luck at other places that tend to cook prime rib to medium rare and often beyond. Again, calling ahead is not the worst idea.
Prime Rib in NYC
Prime rib in New York City finds high expression both in an elite group of steakhouses that have been serving the dish for decades, and in the hands of a few sentimental and inspired chefs who are taking the dish to new heights. Keens, The Old Homestead, Gallaghers, The Palm and Smith & Wollensky feature the dish as a menu staple (though note that The Palm now only serves it on weekends). Smith & Wollensky, which opened in 1977, struggled to gain traction until they dispatched waiters to hand out samples of prime rib in the street. To this day it sells an average of 15 whole ribs a day. But prime rib seems to have been largely forgotten in the contemporary steakhouse vernacular. While most new steakhouse ventures disappointingly refrain from serving the dish, both Ben & Jack's and Empire Steakhouse (which are owned by the same company) serve prime rib on a menu that otherwise mimics Peter Luger (which only serves prime rib at lunch). Steakhouses offer some of the best examples of prime rib available.
But more contemporary establishments are also getting in on the game. Chef Josh Capon offers a special order, $75 per person (four person minimum) prime rib feast at Burger and Barrel. It includes a wide assortment of sides and dessert. At Cherche Midi chefs Shane McBride and Daniel Parilla took a bold step in offering prime rib as the main beef entree on the menu. Most places would have just gone with a NY strip or ribeye. The Cherche Midi prime rib is a masterful rendition of the dish using 45 day dry aged beef. But the most luxurious prime rib in the history of prime rib is the one served by special order at chef Michael Lomonaco's Porter House New York. $155 per person (four person minimum) gets you a 120 day dry aged prime rib presented table side on a classic antique prime rib cart, plus salad, sides, and dessert. Note that most beef is aged for around 28 days.
Further down the quality and price scale we find prime rib costing between between $16 and $35. These are often weekly specials, such as the one on Tuesday night at Pete's Tavern or the Thursday night one at the various locations of The Smith. Prime rib is also available at outposts of various national chains operating in NYC such as the Outback Steakhouse, Hillstone and Shula's Steakhouse.