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Roasting is a dry-heat cooking method whereby food is cooked in a hot oven. In the previous edition of “Food for Thought” we referenced Brillat-Savarin, the famed gastronome who proclaimed one needed to be born knowing how to roast. We also delved into the definition of roasting, reviewed roasting-appropriate foods, and discussed pre-roasting procedures.
OK, so our roast is ready to be cooked. What do we put it on? A good roasting pan naturally. It is absolutely imperative to have a high quality roasting pan. Spend the money now or rue every roast for the rest of your life. Good pans are made of heavy gauge metal, stainless steel being the material of choice. Flimsy pans will warp and also create hot spots where the thin plating fails to insulate the intense heat, thus burning or irregularly cooking your food. Thin pans will also burn your drippings, ruining any sauce you planned to make from them. Choose a pan no deeper than three inches or the sides can inhibit even roasting. Finally, a handle on each side is quite convenient.
Some chefs employ a rack which sits inside the roasting pan upon which the food will rest. Some are V-shaped and some are straight. The rationale for racks is that they create more uniform cooking since air can circulate beneath the elevated food. Racks also raise the food above the sides of the pan, further facilitating air flow. There is some disagreement about whether racks are absolutely necessary. Another alternative is resting the food on a bed of mirepoix, (carrots, onion and celery). On one hand this can add flavor to the final drippings but on the other, it inhibits the development of a fond, (the caramelized, and intensely flavored bits on the pan bottom), from which the sauce or gravy is made. Rotating the pan during cooking is another suggestion for furthering even roasting.
Some recipes dictate that you add stock to the roasting pan. The rationale is twofold: it prevents the drippings from burning, and it adds fluid/flavor to the sauce that will eventuate from them. I am generally opposed to adding stock to a roasting pan. First of all, it will generate steam. I don’t want to steam the meat, I want to roast it. Adding fluid is inimical to the dry-heat cooking process. This is why I also don’t baste, (not to mention the fact that the basting fluid pours off the meat and doesn’t penetrate it anyway). Stock can be added at the end when making the pan sauce or gravy. Finally, a quality pan and proper cooking should prevent burning of the drippings. Next, ensure your oven is preheated and never trust your oven’s dial. Procure an oven thermometer so you’ll know your oven’s true temperature.
One of the goals in roasting is to brown the surface of the food, otherwise known as searing it. This is not done to seal in the juices as the common myth suggests but to intensify flavor. For smaller roasts you have the option of first searing them in a very hot skillet and then finishing them in the oven. This method produces the most intense sear. But of course, you can accomplish the entire process in the oven. Some chefs start the food on a very high temperature to create the sear and then lower it. Other chefs do the reverse. And of course some leave it at the same temperature the entire time. I’m generally monogamous when it comes to roasting temperature but when I do step out; I prefer the high-heat-later approach. Too much at the onset risks burning the surface before the center is cooked, particularly with larger roasts. Speaking of the latter, even at lower temperatures, very large items, (like a turkey that requires extended cooking time) can over-brown on the surface. This is why some cooks cover the breast with foil during part of the cooking.
Do not cook your roast based on a predetermined time. There are multifarious variables that can alter the cooking time in any recipe. Always cook by temperature. Time, as well as visual markers, are imprecise. Every degree you overcook your roast means drier, tougher meat. At the very least, use a hand held thermometer. But the problem with such a thermometer is every time you open the oven you drop the temperature and extend cooking time. Worse yet, each time you impale the food with the thermometer you create a little canal that leaks juice and renders your finished product drier. The answer is a programmable thermometer. If you wish to leave no room for error, and be unshackled from the guesswork of checking your food, a programmable thermometer is the ticket. It consists of a main unit upon which you preset the desired temperature. A wire extends from this unit into a probe. Insert the probe into the center of your food, close the oven door, and get this: an alarm will sound when you have reached the target temperature. To make this device even handier, the increasing temperature is constantly displayed on the unit. Now you can more accurately judge when to start the side dishes so they can be done simultaneously.
All roasts must rest after cooking so their juices will be reabsorbed. If cut open straight from the oven juices will run out and the roast will be drier. Moreover, while they are resting, carry-over cooking takes place. This is the additional cooking that occurs post oven due to the heat built up inside the food. Thus, you should remove your roasts prior to the target temperature. The larger the roast, the greater the carry over cooking. I remove roasts 5-10 degrees for smaller ones and 10-15 for larger. Thus, if you had a large rib roast and wanted it medium rare, (130 degrees), remove it around 115.
While the roast is resting you can make a sauce or gravy. A gravy is a thickened sauce; the most common thickener being roux, (a cooked mixture of equal parts fat and flour). For gravy, don’t discard the leftover drippings. Place the roasting pan on your stovetop, straddling two burners if necessary, and add an equal amount of flour. Cook on medium heat, stirring constantly to incorporate the flour and cook out the floury taste. After a few minutes incrementally add stock, constantly whisking, and scraping up the fond, until the desired consistency is achieved. Season with herbs, salt and pepper, strain and serve. For a pan sauce, remove some of the excess drippings if you like, place the pan on the stovetop, and sauté some aromatics such as shallots and/or garlic. Then deglaze with wine, sherry, brandy, etc., again scraping off the fond, and reduce the alcohol by at least half. Then add stock and any number of additional flavoring elements: herbs, spices, citrus zest, a splash of vinegar, etc. Reduce to the desired consistency, finish with some cold butter, strain and serve. This is a basic template for a pan sauce but there are many variations depending on the recipe.
In closing, while I admire Brillat-Savarin’s knowledge and passion, I maintain my rebuttal that proficient roasting is not a function of inborn propensities, but erudition and experience. Successful roasting is ultimately born out of these progenitors.