The Ultimate Guide to Perfectly Cooked Prime Rib

There is nothing more impressive than a slow-roasted, deeply crusted, perfectly cooked prime rib landing squarely in the center of a full dinner table. Prime rib is the ultimate cut of beef, offering a little something for everyone. It satisfies the fat-is-flavor enthusiasts with its intense well-marbled fat, appeals to filet/tenderloin fans with its supple, rosy tender parts, and provides savory beefiness for the ribeye-is-king crowd. Moreover, prime rib boasts a deep dark crust that adds complexity and flavor to any conversation about beef.

prime rib

Understanding Prime Rib

Let’s start with the basics. Prime rib is a large cut of beef that you can easily buy as a home cook. It consists of a full rack of 7 ribs, typically referred to as ribs #6-#12. Picture a super high-quality tomahawk or bone-in ribeye stretched out to a foot thick. In essence, the meat from a prime rib roast is the same as what you would use to make ribeye steaks or tomahawks.

Cooking the Best Prime Rib

When it comes to cooking prime rib, using a meat thermometer is crucial for achieving the best results. While there are formulas and techniques you can follow, investing in a good meat thermometer is essential, considering you’ll be cooking a premium piece of meat. A leave-in meat probe or your oven’s built-in probe are great options. However, even an instant-read thermometer will suffice.

Exploring the Parts of Prime Rib

Despite its appearance as one solid piece, prime rib is actually composed of three distinct parts, each offering unique taste and tenderness:

  1. Spinalis dorsi (rib cap): Considered a well-kept secret among chefs, the rib cap is the finest cut of steak, combining the complexity of flank steak, the fatty marbling of a ribeye, and the tenderness of a filet. It is separated from the main body of the prime rib by a layer of fat.
  2. Ribeye: This is the main body of the prime rib, and it’s essentially the same as a ribeye steak—well-marbled, tender, and boasting complex flavors.
  3. Iliocostalis: Often likened to a long, thin tenderloin, the iliocostalis sits right next to the bone. Though it may have a less favorable reputation due to being smaller and fattier, it offers intense beefy flavor and tenderness. It used to be removed from the prime rib before serving, but most butchers now leave it on for you to decide.
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parts of a prime rib

The Pleasures of Cooking Prime Rib

Why go through the effort of cooking prime rib instead of individual steaks? The answer lies in its taste, value, and versatility. Prime rib delivers an incredibly delicious dining experience, offering the flavor profile of a bone-in ribeye at a more affordable price. It’s also forgiving to cook and leaves you with satisfying leftovers that can be reheated as some of the best steaks you’ll ever have.

Cooking Time for Prime Rib

If you’re cooking for a hungry crowd and want to time a large roast perfectly for dinner, follow this simple formula:

  • Allow 2 hours for tempering.
  • Sear for 30 minutes.
  • Cook for 15-30 minutes per pound (in 5 minute increments, with 20 minutes per pound for medium rare).
  • Rest for 30 minutes.

For example, a 6 lb prime rib would require a total cooking time of approximately 5 hours, including prep and resting.

prime rib

Prime Rib vs. Steaks

While steaks offer the advantage of catering to individual doneness preferences, prime rib provides a more cost-effective and impressive option. It is cheaper than buying multiple steaks, easier to cook, and makes a grand statement when served as a whole roast. Additionally, you can always cut down a prime rib into steaks before or after cooking, but you can’t transform individual steaks into a prime rib roast. In summary, prime rib reigns supreme, provided you can justify the initial investment.

Considering a Smaller Prime Rib

Even if you’re cooking for two or dining solo, it’s worth considering a smaller prime rib. Ask your butcher to cut 2-3 ribs’ worth. It’s a cost-effective alternative to bone-in ribeye, and you can even have two bone-in ribeyes stuck together. At a high-quality butcher shop, you may have the option to choose between different rib bones, each offering unique tenderness and marbling.

tempering prime rib

Prime Rib Roast Delights

A prime rib roast can be anything from 2 to 24 inches thick. While you can opt for a full rack, it’s also possible to request a custom thickness from your butcher. Choosing the full rack offers excellent value, as it’s more affordable than buying individual steaks of the same quality. However, if you prefer a roast experience, selecting a 2-4 rib segment ensures a deep dark crust and tender, rosy pink insides. It’s an impressive and delicious alternative to cooking multiple steaks.

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Bone-In, Boneless, or Tied Back

When purchasing prime rib, you may be presented with three options: bone-in, boneless, or the bones cut off but tied back on. Each option has its pros and cons:

  • Bone-In: This option offers the most flavor, but it can be more challenging to handle. Slicing is limited to the spaces between the bones. Additionally, bone-in prime rib tends to be more expensive, considering that you pay for the bones even if they’re not consumed.
  • Boneless: Boneless prime rib is the easiest to handle and cook, but it may be less visually impressive. However, it allows for maximum crust development without any bones getting in the way. You can also slice it to your desired thickness.
  • Bones Cut Off and Tied Back On: This is a common option, particularly in certain regions. Some claim that seasoning the meat is easier with the bones cut off, as you can easily get underneath.

Where to Buy Prime Rib

Finding prime rib outside of major holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving can be challenging due to its popularity and cost. However, your best option is your local butcher. Not only do they often have prime rib in stock because they work with whole cows, but they can also customize your order to meet your specific needs. Alternatively, you can inquire about special orders from the meat department of your local grocery store. Online meat purveyors like Snake River Farms and Costco also offer high-quality prime ribs, although they tend to come with a higher price tag.

tempering prime rib

Choosing the Perfect Prime Rib

Prime rib may not always be USDA Prime, as the cut predates the USDA’s grading system. However, you can choose between USDA Prime and USDA Choice, with the former being more expensive. Beyond the grading, your butcher may offer additional options like organic, dry-aged, grass-fed, or wagyu prime rib. Look for decent marbling, which often indicates a tasty cut of meat. The choice between grass-fed and corn-fed beef is a matter of personal preference, but tender, well-marbled beef is universally appealing.

Cooking Prime Rib to Perfection

Follow these steps to cook prime rib to perfection every time:

  1. Preheat your oven to 450ºF.
  2. Optionally, brown the two sides in a cast-iron pan for added flavor and crust.
  3. Brush the prime rib with butter or oil, then sear in the oven at 450ºF for 15 minutes.
  4. Reduce the oven temperature to 200ºF and open the oven door for 15 minutes, allowing the temperature to drop. If you have an oven thermometer, monitor it until it reaches 200ºF.
  5. Cook for approximately 20 minutes per pound for medium rare (adjust according to your preferred doneness), or until your meat thermometer reaches the desired internal temperature.
  6. Let the prime rib rest for 30 minutes, then slice and enjoy!
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Trimming and Tempering

The amount of fat you trim from the prime rib depends on your personal preference. While trimming the fat from the edges enhances the sear, keep in mind that this fat is incredibly flavorful and tender—nothing like the tough, chewy fat commonly found in lesser cuts. Your butcher may leave the fat cap on the spinalis, which you can remove and save. However, consider leaving the fat on the iliocostalis for extra flavor.

Tempering the meat is essential, as it equalizes the temperature and ensures even cooking. For smaller 2-3 bone roasts, temper for at least 2 hours. For a full rack, aim for a minimum of 4 hours. Tempering also offers an opportunity to briefly dry-brine the meat by lightly sprinkling it with salt and refrigerating it until ready to use.

Reheating Prime Rib

If you have leftover prime rib, avoid reheating it in a low oven. Instead, transform the remaining pieces into 2″ thick steaks if possible. Season the cut sides generously and sear each side in a cast-iron pan for approximately 2 minutes. This method guarantees amazing steaks that will surpass your expectations.

Smoke Alarms

During the browning stages, be prepared for your smoke detector to go off, depending on factors such as the proximity of the smoke alarm to your kitchen, the cleanliness of your oven, and the strength of your hood fan. Consider checking if your smoke detector has a hush button or have an assistant nearby with a towel ready to fan away any excess smoke.

And that’s it—a perfect prime rib, every time. I hope you’ve enjoyed this guide and feel inspired to embark on the journey of creating a giant, super satisfying chunk of meaty goodness soon!

-Mike