Jim Coleman: Prime rib vs. rib-eye? Beef cousins differ in cut & cooking

Posted: October 02, 2008

Q: Is prime rib the same thing as a rib-eye steak? If so (or if not), would I prepare them the same way? I enjoy listening to your NPR radio show. Your expertise is greatly appreciated.

- Thomas C.

A: Thomas, you have brought up an issue most people do not have a clear understanding of that is the subject of much debate. Wars have been waged over less.

I'm not talking about the difference between prime rib and rib-eye, I'm talking about my expertise. That being said, and since I have your vote of confidence, let's get down to the bare bones here.

The simple answer to your question is . . . sort of. As with most things, there is no simple answer, but I've got a lot of information that might help sort things out.

Like prime rib, rib-eye is a cut of beef from the rib section. Although they come from the same part of the animal, they are cut differently and cooked differently.

A rib-eye is a steak, a piece of meat that is cut across the muscle into a thick or thin slice, with or without the bone, which should usually be cooked quickly. You will also find the rib-eye labeled with many aliases - Delmonico, rib and cowboy steak.

By the way, the word steak can refer to other meats such as lamb or venison and does not have to mean beef. (Unless you're from Texas, like I am, where talk like that can land you in the sheriff's office.)

Prime rib or rib roast is a roast - a larger piece of meat that will serve more than one person and should be cooked whole, normally in the oven.

The cut known as rib roast comes in two styles: the standing rib roast, which includes the entire roast with three to seven rib bones; and the rolled rib roast, which is boneless and tied into a tight package.

The name standing rib roast comes from the fact that it was often roasted in a standing position with the ribs sticking up. These days, most cooks prefer to cook this roast with the ribs on the bottom, which creates a natural roasting rack.

Since you asked for my expertise, Thomas, I advise buying this cut with the bones intact, because they not only act as a rack, they also add more flavor.

When cooked that way, obviously, it's not a standing rib roast anymore. Maybe that's how it got the name prime rib, although that term can be confusing.

The word "prime" in the term "prime rib" does not indicate that the piece of meat is USDA Prime grade beef.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture uses eight classifications to grade beef. Of these, three are the most common, and prime rib could be from any of these three grades:

_ USDA Prime: This is the highest quality of beef. Rarely seen in grocery stores, it's what's normally served in expensive steak houses.

_ USDA Choice: This grade ranges from good to very high quality and can be found in high-end grocery stores. It's used a lot in the food service business.

_ USDA Select: A grade of acceptable quality commonly found in grocery stores. When a store has its own private label brand, it usually is USDA Select.

Regardless of their USDA grade, the rib-eye and prime rib are in a very small group of the most popular and expensive steaks available. These cuts are prized because they have more fat, which in the business is called marbling, and this makes them more tender and flavorful.

Thomas, I hope you enjoy these recipes. After consuming all this information, I am confident that you'll have developed a high level of expertise that your family and friends will appreciate.

THOMAS' PRIME RIB

For roast:

One 7- to 8-pound prime rib roast

(aka, standing rib roast) with 3 or 4 ribs

1 1/2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns

1 tablespoon whole coriander

1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt

5 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary

1 tablespoon olive oil

For jus:

2 cups beef broth

1 small fresh rosemary sprig

1 small fresh thyme sprig

1 garlic clove, peeled and smashed

1/2 tablespoon cornstarch mixed

with 2 tablespoons water

Trim all but a thin layer of fat from roast. Grind peppercorns and coriander with salt to a powder in an electric coffee/spice grinder. Place the garlic, thyme and rosemary in a bowl and add the peppercorn mixture. Stir in oil and combine to form a paste. Rub paste all over roast.

Transfer roast to a rack set in a small flameproof roasting pan. Marinate, covered and chilled, at least 8 hours. When ready to roast, remove prime rib from the refrigerator for 30 minutes to an hour, allowing it to get close to room temperature. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Place roast in the oven for 20 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees and continue cooking for 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 hours, or until an internal temperature with a thermometer reaches 110 to 115 degrees for rare to medium-rare.

While the roast is in the oven, combine the broth, rosemary and thyme sprigs and smashed garlic in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and reduce the liquid in the pan by half.

Remove the herbs and garlic from the pan and reduce the heat to low. Whisk in as much cornstarch mixture as needed to achieve the desired consistency.

When the roast is done, remove from the oven. Allow to rest 15 minutes before carving.

Serve slices drizzled with jus, and provide more jus in a gravy boat at the table. Serves 6 to 8.

THOMAS' HERB-RUBBED RIB-EYE STEAKS

6 rib-eye steaks (about 10 ounces each and about 1 1/4 inches thick)

1 tablespoon chopped

fresh rosemary leaves

1 tablespoon chopped

fresh sage leaves

1 tablespoon chopped

fresh thyme leaves

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic

2 tablespoons best-quality

extra-virgin olive oil

Prepare a charcoal fire or preheat the grill to medium-high heat.

Pat the steak dry. In a small bowl, combine the rosemary, sage, thyme, garlic, black pepper and kosher salt until well blended. Coat the steaks with the spice mix and brush with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil.

Place on the grill and cook until well-charred, about 7 minutes on the first side and about 5 minutes on the second side. Let stand 5 minutes before serving. Serves 6.

Chef Jim Coleman, corporate chef at Normandy Farm and Blue Bell Country Club, is the author of three cookbooks and hosts two nationally syndicated shows: "A Chef's Table," noon Saturdays on WHYY (91-FM); and "Flavors of America," 1 p.m. Saturdays on Channel 12, and 4:30 p.m. weekdays on CN8. He and his wife, writer Candace Hagan, will answer questions.

E-mail ChefColeman@aol.com.

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