Before I get started: Everything below talks about grilling with a rotisserie, because it’s my favorite way to roast meat. If you don’t have a rotisserie, keep reading - the results apply to grill roasting and oven roasting. I feel like I should apologize for the rotisserie slant - but I’m not sorry. It just works too well for me.
I use my gas grill rotisserie for “set it and forget it” grilling. For a big prime rib, I set the grill up for indirect medium-high heat, around 400°F, start the rotisserie spinning, and cook until the roast is done (120°F internal temperature).
But…I get better results from my charcoal grill rotisserie, even though I use the same basic technique. Why? Because charcoal is the opposite of “set it and forget it”. Charcoal may start at high heat, but it as it burns, it cools off. The result is high-low cooking: a blast of high heat to brown the meat at the start, then a gradual burn-down to low heat to finish the roast.
All the food scientists say this is a good thing - I should cook my roasts low and slow. Low and slow results in medium-rare meat from edge to edge; high heat gives a bulls-eye of doneness, with medium rare in the center, surrounded by rings of medium, medium-well, and well done meat before you get to the surface. Only some of the roast is cooked the way you want it.
When I say all the food scientists, I mean ALL the food scientists. Everyone I trust...Cook’s Illustrated, Shirley Corriher, Alton Brown, Kenji Alt, Helen Rennie, Meathead Goldwyn…they all agree on the technique.
Now, low heat is great for an evenly cooked roast, but it leaves the outside of the meat pale and flabby. To get a browned, crisp crust on the meat, we need high heat. That’s where the reverse sear comes in. Most modern roast recipes recommend cooking low and slow (somewhere between 200°F and 250°F) until the roast is almost done, then finishing with a blast of heat, or a sear in a hot pan to caramelize the outside of the roast.
Why reverse sear? Why not duplicate charcoal’s high-low approach? High-low is better than constant high heat, with the advantage of low and slow for most of the cooking time. But the high heat blast at the beginning starts overcooking the outside of the roast, and that heat carries over. Reverse searing saves that blast of heat for the very end, so we can get the meat away from the high heat quickly. In other words, a reverse seared roast is more evenly cooked on the inside.
So, that’s the theory behind a reverse sear. But, is it really worth the extra effort? Let’s find out.
Time to Test
I bought two 4 bone prime rib roasts for testing.
Special thanks to my butcher, Sherman Provision, for providing the beautiful roasts you see here.
|Constant heat roast|
One roast was cooked on the rotisserie with constant high heat. The grill is set for indirect medium high heat (400°F) for the entire cooking time; the roast is done when it reaches 115°F to 120°F internal temperature. (Carry over heat will bring it up to about 130°F, medium-rare). This took roughly 1 hour 45 minutes for a 10 pound roast.
|Reverse seared roast|
The other roast was cooked on the rotisserie with a reverse sear. The roast cooks at indirect low heat (250°F) until it reaches 110°F internal temperature, which took about 2 ½ hours. Then the grill is cranked up to indirect high heat (rotisserie burner to high, outer burners to high) and the roast sears until it gets a nice, browned crust and reaches 120°F to 125°F internal temperature, about 15 minutes.
I want you to know what I went through to bring you this information. Here I use my trusty Thermapen to check the outdoor temperature. 18.5°F! It’s a heat wave!
First, I have to let you know - I screwed up, and overcooked the constant heat roast. Internal temperature readings:
- 1 hour (77°F)
- 1 hour 30 minutes (108°F)…getting close
- 1 hour 35 minutes (114°F)…maybe five more degrees…give it five more minutes…
- 1 hour 40 minutes (129°F)
Gaah! Too much! The constant heat roast came out medium, not medium-rare like I was aiming for. Which leads to my first finding:
Reverse sear has more room for error
High heat rotisserie doesn’t leave much margin for error - when the roast is getting close, check it often. (Overcooking the Christmas roast is so sad.) Low and slow has more wiggle room. Now don’t get complacent, and leave your roast alone. But…an extra five minutes at 250°F will push the roast’s internal temperature up a few degrees. Not a big deal. An extra five minutes at 400°F? As I showed above, the roast can go from medium-rare to medium. Advantage, reverse sear.
Edge to edge medium-rare? Well…
Well, I didn’t exactly get edge to edge medium-rare on the reverse seared roast…I was a little disappointed at the half inch gray ring around the outside of the roast; I wanted pink right to the crusty edge. But when compared to the constant heat roast? The reverse sear is much more evenly cooked. Advantage, reverse sear.
|Crust on constant heat roast|
Rotisserie is a pain - trussing and spitting the roast, wrangling the motor and cord - but the browned crust on the outside of the roast makes it all worthwhile. The high heat rotisserie roast has a better crust, crisp and flavorful. But I was surprised how good the reverse sear crust was. I thought fifteen minutes of heat wouldn’t be enough. I was wrong - the outside of the meat was dry from the low and slow cooking, and the blast of high heat quickly browns the roast. Advantage: slight edge for constant heat rotisserie.
|Low and slow after two and a half hours|
The downside to low and slow? The “slow” part. You’re adding an extra hour of cooking time with the low and slow approach. Now, it’s not like a rib roast is a thirty minute meal, but that extra hour can be the difference between a smashing success of a meal, and having your guests hovering over your shoulder asking “is it done yet?”. Advantage: constant heat rotisserie.
|Gotta love the pink|
Reverse sear wins…barely.
In the end, like most cooking questions, there is no absolute right answer. Tastes differ. What do you want in a prime rib roast? Questions to ask yourself:
Reverse sear if…
You want perfectly pink meat in your roast. Do you send a steak back if it’s medium-rare and you asked for rare? Definitely reverse sear your roast. Are you nervous, worried about overcooking your roast? (Because, say, one of your guests sends back a steak if it’s medium-rare, and they asked for rare?) Reverse sear is the way to go.
Constant medium-high heat if…
Are you in a hurry? Guests arriving any minute? Go with constant heat, it’s quicker. Do you lust after the ends of the roast, where the browned, caramelized, crispy crust is? Don’t care about the bullseye of doneness inside if the crust is perfect? Constant heat, no question. Do you buy a well marbled rib roast…then destroy it cook it well done all the way through? Constant heat; you might as well ruin it finish faster.
- No rotisserie? Reverse sear is even easier. Set the grill up for indirect low heat. Put the roast over the middle of the grill, with the heat on the sides, and insert a probe thermometer with the alarm set to 110°F. When the alarm goes off, sear the roast over what’s left of the coals. Easy. (But, the rotisserie will give you a better seared crust, by basting the meat in its own juices while it constantly turns.)
- Sous vide cooking is reverse searing taken to the extreme - you put the meat in water set to the exact temperature you want - say, 125°F for medium rare. It can’t overcook the meat. You wait for the temperature to equalize between the meat and the water bath, and your steak is perfectly medium-rare. But…good luck fitting a ten pound rib roast in a vacuum seal bag without industrial sized equipment.
- I really do need to compare a high-low charcoal grilled roast with a reverse seared gas grilled roast. But, I’ve already paid for two rib roasts this year, and I need a third one for Christmas. My wallet says I have to wait for next year to do that comparison. Stay tuned!
What do you think?
Questions? Are you a hot and fast, or low and slow kind of roaster? Talk about it in the comments section below.
|Check out my cookbook, Rotisserie Grilling.|
Everything you could ask about the rotisserie,
plus 50 (mostly) new recipes to get you cooking.
It's a Kindle e-book, so you can download it and start reading immediately!
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