How to Cook the Perfect Prime Rib

The Sunday Roast. A very Anglo tradition with its roots in the Industrial Revolution. And yet variants exist across many cultures.

A special time during the week to come together with family, share a lovingly (or at least, tolerantly!) prepared meal with all the trimmings, and to fill bodies with warm, delicious, comfort food before starting the grind all over again.

In Britain and Ireland, the roast dinner was usually served with mashed or baked potatoes, stuffing, vegetables, and gravy. These days, this kind of meal is associated with the holidays, not (for most of us) as standard weekly fare.

A prime rib, with its golden-brown crispy crust and juicy pink interior, is special. But special does not need to be reserved for just a few days of the year.

Maybe it’s time to consider how to bring back the Sunday Roast, or at least how to carve out time every week for a special meal. Carving up a prime rib might be the perfect way to start.

The Basics

A prime rib is also sometimes called a standing rib roast. It is cut from the “rib primal” of the cattle, which is located under the front section of its backbone. 

A full rib primal encompasses 7 of the cow’s 13 ribs and spans from the last rib of the chuck section through all 6 ribs of the rib section. The 13th rib (not considered part of the rib primal) is part of the loin section.

Unless you are planning to have your kid’s basketball team over for Sunday Roast, (or consider yourself a devoted “leftovers person”), you probably don’t need to get all 7 ribs. A good estimate is about 2 people per rib, but you know your crew’s appetites best.

Prime ribs are, by definition, fully complicit in their support of meat’s hierarchical power structures. They are often separated into “first cuts” and “second cuts”.

The first and generally more desirable cut – due to its reputation for tenderness – consists of ribs 10-12, the ones located closer to the loin. The second cut is made up of ribs 6-9, closer to the chuck end. 

The second cut may be slightly less tender than the first, but it has some beautiful marbled fat content.  

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The Prep

You’ve unwrapped the parchment paper and now there’s a caveperson-esque hunk of USDA prime-grade meat sitting on your kitchen counter. You don’t want to screw this up – prime ribs aren’t cheap.

There is a variety of tips and tricks out there to help you cook the ideal prime rib, but ultimately they’re all guideposts leading to the same desired results: a crispy fatty crust encasing tender slabs of carved pink meat that are uniform in color from edge to edge and that you can tease apart with a fork.

Depending on who you ask, the ribs themselves are not mandatory. If you’re going for a certain grand centerpiece aesthetic, you should cook your prime rib bone-in. But some insist that the bones just take up surface area that could be better spent on a less bone-y (and more edible) seared crust.

If you do decide to keep the bones, ask the butcher if they can tie up those ribs for you so you don’t have to do it yourself at home. Tying the ribs ensures that the roast will hold its attractive shape and cook evenly.

So, first trick that will really make you feel like you know what you’re doing: use your knife to score the fatty upper layer of the beef. The criss-crossed cuts will help the meat absorb that fat and any seasonings you rub into it. If your particular cut does not have a nice layer of fat on top, coat it with butter or olive oil.

Salt and pepper are the primary seasonings for prime rib, and it’s a good idea to not go too experimental with other spices, herbs, and marinades until you’ve figured out the salt layer. Don’t be stingy – the salt isn’t just for flavor but also to help you achieve a crispy seared crust. 

On the other hand, some chefs say that salt sucks out all the moisture from the beef. But, well, you’re just going to ignore that for now. It’s a big confusing world out there.

There isn’t firm consensus regarding pre-resting, either. After you’ve salted, you can leave in the fridge for 24 hours or 1 hour, or on the counter for 1-2 hours. Or, even skip the pre-rest completely. I know, this is not helpful at all.

After trying out different methods, Martin Earl at the ThermoBlog recommends actually putting your prime rib in the freezer until it reaches 30°F and then going straight to a sear.  

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The End Game

Most methods and recipes are going to advise going for a medium-rare roast. But this is your Sunday Roast party and you can (over?)-cook if you want to!

A meat thermometer is highly recommended to gauge internal temperature results because you’ll want to avoid “un-sealing” the roast by cutting into the beef to check where it’s at.

However, if you’re someone who sees roasting as an art rather than a science, here’s a guide to doneness levels that includes a nod to using one of your own five senses.  

RareMed. RareMediumMed. WellWell Done
Internal Temperature120-130 °F130-135 °F  135-145 °F145-155 °F 155-165 °F 
Visual cuesBright red at center, pink at edgesBright pink at center, pinkish-brown at edgesLight pink at center, brown at edgesHint of pink but mostly brownBrown

Remember that you can always carve off the ends for anyone who likes their prime rib a little more well done, and towards the middle for those who do not.

Also, it’s important to keep in mind that you should be removing the roast from the heat and letting it rest for about 15-30 minutes (tented in foil). It’s recommended to start resting when the meat is about 10°F cooler than where you ultimately want it to end up (rest closer to 15 minutes for a small temperature increase and closer to 30 for a larger one).

Roasts are not just for warm indoor kitchens on cold nights. Here are some basic instructions for how to cook a prime rib roast using a gas grill, a pellet smoker, or yes, the classic, an oven.

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The Cook

Gas Grill

  1. Place a drip pan underneath the grill to catch all those primal prime rib juices. Add water to this pan throughout the cook to make a gravy from the drippings.
  2. Heat grill to around 375°F.
  3. Oil the grates.
  4. Grill the prime rib over indirect heat – about 12 to 14 minutes per pound.
  5. For medium rare, remove meat from the grill when it hits 120°F.
  6. Let rest.

Pellet Smoker

  1. Set smoker to 225°F.
  2. Smoke for 35 to 40 minutes per pound.
  3. For medium rare, remove meat from the smoker when it hits 125°F.
  4. Let rest (with tented foil) for 20 minutes.
  5. Increase temperature of smoker to 400°F.
  6. Return meat to grill and sear until desired internal temperature.
  7. Let rest.

Oven

  1. Preheat oven to 450°F.
  2. Place prime rib on a metal rack (if boneless) or directly on its ribs (if bone-in) in a deep roasting pan.
  3. Sear the roast in over for about 20 minutes.
  4. Decrease the oven’s temperature to 325°F.
  5. Roast for about 13 to 15 minutes per pound.
  6. Remove when desired internal temperature is reached.
  7. Let rest.

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Sunday Roast

The primary rule of Sunday Roast is thus: do not aim for perfection in family togetherness time, nor in the perfect pinkness of your prime rib roast. I made up that rule but it sounds about right.

The guidelines above can be tweaked and trimmed until you achieve close-to-perfect. Start with 2 or 3 ribs, not the whole 7, so you can practice without breaking the bank.

And you can’t screw it up too badly. At worst, if you’ve overcooked the roast, carve it into thin slices and use for sandwiches.

The important bit is getting everyone around the table and declaring it sacred time. Even if it’s not the holidays, or even a Sunday.

But let’s be honest: if you ace the prime rib roast, it’ll be that much easier to get them to come back next week with the appropriate levels of reverence.

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By Alison Van Ginkel

Alison is a freelance writer who especially loves writing about all things related to travel and food. At three years old she decided to become a carnivore because her dad didn’t eat meat and she was exploring different forms of delicious rebellion.