How to Buy a Roast

Use these crib notes during your next visit the supermarket meat counter.
How to Buy a Roast

Before grilling season begins, roasting is a guy’s go-to cooking technique. What’s not to love about a slab of meat or a whole bird slowly tenderized in a large roasting pan, browning to perfection and becoming succulent? Plus, roasting is so easy: Your oven does the work, and you get the credit.

That is, if you know what cuts of meat to look for. Here’s what you need to know to get your roasting game up to snuff.

The perfect roast
What’s the best cut of meat for roasting? Here’s what you should be looking for:

A large hunk of meat or bird...
Nothing under 1¼ pounds roasts very well. The oven’s heat is less likely to dry out and toughen up a substantial piece of meat before it has a chance to develop a tasty, brown, caramelized crust. Avoid cuts labeled with words like “steak,” “chop,” or “cutlet.” These are designed for quick cooking, usually in a skillet or on the grill.

Most often with a bone...
With few exceptions, bones add lots of flavor, changing beef, pork or chicken from a flat, fairly neutral protein palette to the more complex, sophisticated flavors of the meat itself. Think of the difference between a boneless, skinless, chicken breast and a bone-in chicken breast: the former is likely to be bland, a bit dull; the latter, more flavorful, with more persistent sweet, bitter and umami notes. In the end, roasting is a fairly slow process: Plan for 15 to 25 minutes per pound in the oven. You want to create as much flavor as possible for all your trouble. What’s more, bones make for more even roasting. They heat up quickly, cooking the meat from the inside while the oven works on the outside.

And not too lean...
Basically, you want the cut to self-baste as it roasts in the blast furnace of your oven.

Beef for roasting
We can divide the bovine candidates into three categories, head to tail:
1. those from the rib section
2. those from the loin
3. those from the round (with important caveats)

1. Beef rib roasts
The standing rib roast, sometimes called the "prime rib," is the gold standard for roasting: a large eye of lean meat cradled by the cow’s ribs.

Know the lingo. Butchers number a cow’s ribs from the back forward, from the leaner back meat to the fattier chest. In general, a rib roast from bones one through four (called the "first cut") is best; the lean round of meat is intact, no fatty globs breaking it up.

Ask the butcher to trim the fat from between the rib bones, a procedure called “frenching" the roast.

Rib roasts can be cut into smaller one- or two-bone roasts. These are best for impressing a date on a weekend night because they’re often sized for two people to share.

2. Loin roasts
Loin roasts tend to be leaner than chunks from the rib section. The three roasting hunks from the loin are the tenderloin, the sirloin roast and the tri-tip roast (which comes from the so-called “bottom sirloin”).

Of course, the tenderloin and sirloin can be cut into individual steaks, suitable for the grill, but they can also be left as large hunks — and are then perfect for roasting.

One warning: the tri-tip can be tough unless sliced very thin after roasting.

3. Round roasts
Here, you’ll find the eye round roast, the top round roast and the bottom round roast.

Although often cut into smaller bits for stews, all three can indeed be roasted as a large chunk — with this caveat: They are exceptionally lean, usually without a bone for flavor, and with very little interstitial fat or collagen to keep them moist while they roast. So they benefit from marinades and rubs more than any other beef roast. They also dry out quickly in the oven — and must be carved into paper-thin strips to be tender after cooking.

For roasting, these five porcine roasts are best:

1. Pork tenderloin
It’s a lean, tender meal for two to three. Consider this your go-to roast for date night — it’s small and it roasts quickly.

2. Pork loin
The classic pork roast, a pork loin can serve at least six. Leave the strip of fat on the meat while it roasts to protect the pork. Then carve it off afterward before slicing the loin into rounds.

3. Pork rib roast
This roast is actually a lineup of the pork chops before they’re cut apart. Or, in more accurate butcher lingo, it’s the pork loin with the rib bones attached. It’s the “prime rib” of pork.

4. Pork sirloin roast
From farther back on the pig, this inexpensive roast contains bits of the hip — and usually some bones — for lots of flavor. However, it’s also quite lean, so it’s easy to overcook. Be careful and go by internal temperature.

5. Ham
What we call a ham is most often actually a “half ham,” the whole back leg cut into two parts: the butt end (that is, at the hip) and the shank end (from down the leg). The shank end is the classic ham, the meat spiraling around a center bone. It’s also the leaner of the two, easier to carve, and an all-around tastier choice.

Lamb is young and tender enough that it can be roasted to perfection, provided you get it in a big, bone-in chunk. That said, what you’re likely to find at the grocery store are these cuts:

1. Lamb leg roast
Here’s the classic, often rubbed with herbs. As always, go for bone-in for the most flavor.

2. Rack of lamb
Just like a rib roast from a cow, this is an eye of lamb meat on the rib bones — that is, a lineup of lamb chops, not yet cut apart.

3.Lamb shoulder roast
You’ll find bone-in roasts with better flavor and bone-out roasts that have been rolled and tied for easier carving.

Birds of all varieties
There are only two ways to think about birds in the oven:

1. Roasting the whole thing intact
Make sure to remove the packet of giblets as well as the neck from any cavities where they may be lurking on larger birds.

2. Roasting big chunks of birds with the bones
A boneless, skinless, chicken breast is a bad choice for roasting — it will toughen before it browns. A whole chicken breast on the bone, or leg quarters (the leg and thigh joined together), have enough heft to stand up to roasting.

As a general rule, leave the skin on birds for roasting, but remove it before serving. The skin will protect and baste the meat as it roasts. Plus, you’ll save lots of PointsPlus® values by removing the skin.

You’ll then need to salt and pepper the meat after roasting, once the skin has been removed. If you want to add flavorings to birds before they roast — herbs, marinades or rubs — slip your fingers under the skin, thereby creating pockets between the skin and meat to hold the various concoctions. They’ll flavor the meat and also remain mostly intact when you remove the skin.

Once you know the drill for picking out a great roast, all you need are fail-safe recipes like these:
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