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Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), was a French politician and lawyer, but is most remembered as a fervent epicure. His 1825 work “The Physiology of Taste” remains a timeless classic. Savarin was known for his aphorisms, not the least of which was “We can learn to be cooks, but we must be born knowing how to roast.” Without intending any disrespect to a revered gastronome……… that just aint so. One can indeed learn how to roast properly. In fact, let’s proceed with that endeavor forthwith.
Roasting is a dry-heat cooking method originally performed over an open fire with the target food impaled on a spit. Nowadays it is inevitably accomplished in an oven. Although there are a myriad of nuances and considerations, quite simply it involves placing the food in a hot oven until it is done. But of course nothing is that simple and that’s where erudition comes in. Thus, let’s delve into the nuances that Savarin would have you believe are genetic.
Let’s begin with a traditional query: What’s the difference between roasting and baking? Technically nothing. In each case the food is placed in a hot oven and cooked. Nevertheless, and generally speaking, the culinary world reserves the term “baking” for pastries and items based on a dough or batter, as well as small items, such as a single potato. Larger pieces of meat or poultry are usually referred to as “roasted” but semantically, there’s a gray area. There’s “roast” beef but “baked” ham. While you might “bake” a single potato, chop a few potatoes and place them in a “baking” dish and you are now making “roasted” potatoes. And then there’s pot roast which isn’t roasted or baked.
With this loose definition and quirky exceptions in mind, what foods then are appropriate for roasting? For many cooks, roasting is inextricably linked with large pieces of meat, and I use the term “meat” as loosely as the definition between roasting and baking. By meat I mean all red meats, (of which I include pork), and all types of fowl and fish, particularly in their whole state. There is a caveat for the red meats however. The cuts amenable to roasting are cuts that are naturally tender and require a dry, as opposed to a wet-heat cooking method, (such as braising or stewing). When naturally tender cuts are cooked with wet-heat methods, or when naturally tough cuts are cooked with dry-heat methods, the result is the same: shoe leather.
Thus, the cuts appropriate for roasting, regardless of the quadruped in question, come from the loin, tenderloin, and rib. (Roast beef is made by roasting the round, a tougher cut, but the tenderness is facilitated by cutting the meat very thin).
OK, you have a suitable chunk of cow or some kind of bird to roast. Do we need to do something to it before cooking? The answer is always yes. At the very least you should liberally season your roast with salt and pepper. The salt in particular is crucial. Meat salted prior to cooking will taste better than afterward. I also like to treat my roast to a light brushing of olive oil first. The oil will 1) increase the adherence of the seasoning, 2) facilitate the browning of the roast’s exterior, and 3) add another level of flavor.
Oil, salt and pepper however, are only the beginning of a world of possibilities for pre-roasting flavor/texture enhancement. Roasts can be brined, barded, buttered, stuffed, marinated, or coated with a plethora of spice/herb combinations. Brining is the process whereby food is immersed in a salt-water solution causing it to absorb some of the fluid and thus increase its juiciness. Shrimp, fowl, and pork are especially amenable to brining. Barding is the process of wrapping a roast with strips of fat to increase its succulence. While slices of bacon may suffice for the home cook, professional chefs sometimes employ caul fat. Caul fat is a lace-like net of fat taken from the abdominal cavities of pigs or sheep. Roasts can be buttered prior to cooking for the same aforementioned reasons as using olive oil. Or in the case of poultry, butter can be worked under the skin. Buttering along with brining are the only surefire ways to prevent the inevitably dry Thanksgiving turkey. Stuffing, as everyone knows, is filling a bird’s cavity or a pocket in your meat with some form of tasty appareil. Marinating is simply resting food in a seasoned liquid to accentuate flavor. Many people think that marinades tenderize but in reality they only tenderize a shallow surface area of the food. Finally, roasts can be covered with a dry rub, which is nothing more than an assortment of spices and/or herbs.
There is one other pre-cooking consideration for roasts, one that has nothing to do with flavor enhancement, and that’s trimming. Tenderloins may need the silver skin removed. Silver skin is not fat, but a tough membrane that remains after cooking. You may also wish to remove excess fat from your roast. A rack of lamb for example may come with a noteworthy layer of fat over the meat. Don’t get carried away with fat removal though. Fat adds flavor and unctuousness as the meat bastes in its own juices. The drippings are also required for making gravy. Finally, you may wish to wash your fowl prior to roasting, even though it’s heat that kills germs and not H2O. I also find it interesting that washing fowl made its way into the American food neurosis mindset but not beef, pork or lamb. Regardless of the incongruous reasoning, if you must give your bird a shower, make sure you dry it well. Oil or butter will not adhere as well to water, nor will it roast properly if it is damp. Some chefs truss their birds and some do not as there are arguments for and against. Trussing may be necessary however to keep a stuffed cavity closed during cooking.
In the next edition of “Food for Thought” we’ll discuss roasting equipment, the roasting process, and what to do with all those leftover yummies at the bottom of the pan.