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Turn heat down and odds go up for cooking tasty roast beef


Sometimes only roast beef will do.

You know the kind of roast we're talking about - seasoned crust, big beefy flavor and juicy center. Not a fancy steak you can cut with a butter knife, or a pot roast braised until it's falling apart, but an honest piece of meat with flavor and texture.

The problem is how to achieve this ideal roast. All too often, roast beef turns out as tough, dry, stringy and flavorless as the proverbial shoe leather. In fact, I'm convinced that's why roast beef seems to turn up on a lot fewer tables these days.

But after some experimentation (and several failures), I'm here to tell you delicious roast beef can be done, and the secret is quite simple:

Turn the heat down, way down, and cook it for a long time. Roasting beef at 225 degrees, about 100 degrees lower than most recipes call for, produces a much better roast than one cooked at higher temperatures.

Of course, roasting beef at a low temperature isn't a secret to everyone. Lori Linenberger, former food editor at the Wichita Eagle, told me her mother has always done it this way, with her usual fantastic results.

But it's difficult to find a published recipe that takes this approach. Nowhere in the stacks of new cookbooks that are always threatening to collapse on my desk is there one. The closest thing to it was a recipe in a cookbook from the editors of Cook's Illustrated magazine, one of my favorite sources of information, that called for starting the roast at 250 degrees and then jacking up the heat to 500 degrees for the final stage of cooking.

The roast I cooked following this recipe came out of the oven with a tough exterior and virtually raw interior.

The National Cattlemen's Association, which regularly supplies food editors around the country with recipes from its test kitchen in Chicago, calls for cooking roast beef at a steady 325 degrees. The roast I made following this recipe was better but still far from the ideal I had in mind.

Finally, I talked to a restaurant owner whose prime rib is some of the best I've tasted. He told me that he cooks his prime rib roasts, which can weigh up to 8 pounds, at 200 to 225 degrees for six to eight hours.

Prime rib roasts are, of course, a premium cut of meat costing about 10 bucks a pound. But I wondered whether the same approach would work with less expensive cuts suitable for roasting, such as eye of round (about $5 a pound), top round roast (about $4 a pound) and chuck roast (about $3.50 a pound).

The answer, with all of these cuts, was an emphatic yes.

So why isn't this slow-roasting more widespread?

When I talked to Michelle Muscle of the Cattlemen's Association's test kitchen, she said safety is the main concern. Standard food-handling safety guidelines call for food not to be kept in the "danger zone" where bacteria can multiply - between 40 and 140 degrees - for more than two hours. The interior of roasts cooked at 225 degrees could spend longer than that in the danger zone.

"To be quite honest, we haven't done any testing with that kind of method," Muscle said. "We haven't had a huge request for it."

Collette Baptista, former head of the culinary program at Wichita Area Technical College, agreed that "you can't stress safety enough" but also said those concerns could be overblown in this instance.

Baptista noted that most bacteria is on the outside of the meat, where the temperature would be higher than the danger zone.

She said it's no secret why slow roasting renders such a tender final product.

"The tough connective tissue [in meat] breaks down with the application of long, low heat," she said.

Based on my experience, I'm convinced the approach is safe, and I know it's delicious. I've made three roasts this way in the past two weeks, fed them to numerous people and can report no ill effects. The only precautions I'd take are the usual sanitary ones (such as washing your hands before handling food), making sure your oven temperatures are accurate and choosing roasts no bigger than 3 pounds.

As a bonus, the best-tasting roast of all turned out to be the cheapest - chuck top roast, a cut streaked with fat that melts away and flavors the meat as it's cooking.

It's as simple as generously seasoning this cut of meat with salt and pepper, searing it on the stovetop and then letting it cook away in a 225-degree oven for a couple of hours while you do something else. Try it and I'll bet roast beef shows up on your table more often.

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