In a lot of ways, I’m still learning how to cook red meat (and I include pork in that category). This is in part because I was a vegetarian until a few years ago, but the real issue is that there are a lot of cuts of meat out there. A lot. Some that only exist in certain parts of the US. Some that only exist outside the US. Some that have more than one name. It all gets very confusing.
In my attempts to learn how to cook larger cuts of meat, I’ve also learned that there is no uniformity among animals when it comes to naming cuts of meat. The shoulder in lamb or beef is the butt in pork. Sirloin is actually a part of the loin of a cow, a connection I only made recently. Large cuts are not created equal either – some have lots of connective tissue and require extremely long cooking times to tenderize while others are fairly lean and long cooking times leave you with inedibly dry meat. This may be why many American’s love chicken so much – chicken is pretty straightforward and there are only so many pieces. Larger animals do not fall so neatly into four or five separate pieces.
But a few weeks ago, I saw Ryan Farr speak; he’s the butcher at 4505 Meats out here in Bay Area and just published a book on butchering large cuts of meat. He talked a lot about cooking meat and what he said really changed the way I look at cooking large cuts, so let me pass it on to you. Cook it low and slow until it’s almost done and only then do you brown the outside. It’s a pretty genius theory, especially when you think about how meat cooks.
Ok, I’m going to try to limit the science here, but when protein is introduced to heat, it contracts. You know this if you’ve ever fried an egg and watched the edges of the white retract as it cooks. When you cook meat, there is also a lot of liquid in the cells which is good because that’s what makes it taste delicious and juicy. The problem lies in heating the protein too quickly – if it gets too hot then the cells squeeze out too much liquid and you’re left with something that feels dry in the mouth. And after that it’s too late to save it. But if the end temperature is lower, the cells contract less overall and the final meal is much better.
Of course you can control this precisely if you keep a close eye on the meat, take it out of the oven early, and keep in mind carryover cooking (the meat stays hot even after it’s out of the oven so it’s still cooking), you can take care of this. Or you can take the easier way and turn the oven temperature way down which requires a longer cooking time but it’s easier to cook it the way you want. Then, after letting it rest, you stick it back under the broiler to get a nice golden brown exterior without heating it too much.
I wouldn’t call this a quick dish – slow cooking meat takes several hours – but it is easy since there is very little active time and the end result is pretty complete meal. Just throw together a salad and you’re done. Fancy dinner without the complicated cooking, but you don’t have to admit that.
Roast Leg of Lamb (or Beef)
1 – 2 lbs roasting vegetables and/or aromatics, cut into thin slices (carrots, onions, garlic, turnips, parsnips, herbs)
2 tsp plus 3 tbs kosher salt
3-4 lb boned leg of lamb or beef*
½ lb frozen vegetables (peas, corn, broccoli, green beans, whatever your preference is)
Preheat the oven to 250 F. Place the sliced vegetables at the bottom of a dutch oven or roasting pan. Add 1-2 tsp of salt, depending on how many vegetables you are using, and toss with your hands to distribute it evenly.
Pat the raw meat dry and sprinkle evenly with 3 tbs kosher salt. Rub the salt into the meat well and make sure it is evenly coated. You can use more salt if needed. Place the salted roast on top of the vegetables. Cover the dish with a lid or using foil.
Bake for about 2 hours or until the meat reaches 130-135 in the center, depending on your preference for medium-rare or medium. While the meat is baking prepare a sheet pan by lining it with foil and placing a rack on top of it.
When the roast is done, remove it from the oven and the dutch oven or pan and place it on the rack. Let it rest for 10-15 minutes. While the meat is resting, add your frozen vegetables to the roasting pan or dutch oven, stir them around, and then recover with the lid or foil. The residual heat of the pan will melt the frozen vegetables.
Once the meat has rested, put the oven rack in the second highest position in the oven. Broil the meat for 6-10 minutes, turning it every three minutes to ensure that the outside browns evenly. Remove from the oven and allow the meat to rest an additional five minutes.
When carving, it’s better to slice the meat against the grain since it results in a more tender piece of meat. Serve with the roasting vegetables and perhaps a salad or mashed potatoes. Or both.
*Lamb and beef can be used interchangeably here since in both animals the cut called the leg is the same and because they cook to the same end temperature.