Ramblings, Rotisserie
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Testing Reverse Sear on the Rotisserie

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 RennieMeathead 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 1/2 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!

Results

Whoops

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:

Nooooo!

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.

Reverse sear – more evenly cooked
Constant heat – gray to pink to red

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

Browned crust

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

Slowwwwly

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

Summary

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.

Notes

  • 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.

Related Posts:

[Coming Thursday] Rotisserie Prime Rib, Reverse Seared
Constant heat recipe: Rotisserie Prime Rib Roast
Click here for my other rotisserie recipes.


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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12 Comments

  1. Terry Hoey says

    Thanks for the info. I have a 5 pound roast in the fridge now for the holiday. Don’t have a rotisserie for my grill (yet), but will probably do the low / slow / reverse sear in the oven…

  2. Adam b says

    Mike. Your site is the best!
    Question. I have a double IR burner w 4 across the bottom.
    Typically I’ll offset the spit to hit the IR burners but my outer burners (indirect heat) overheat my drip pan.
    For thanksgiving I centered the bird as I didn’t need the IR.
    ok, here’s the question…think I can do reverse sear by starting in the center for cook, and then “slide” the roast down to the IR?
    I really want dripping and don’t want them to burn.
    Thanks,
    Adam

  3. Yes, I think it can be done, if you have heatproof gloves and some tongs. Cook it low and slow, then loosen the spit forks on both sides (with the heatproof gloves), slide the roast and spit forks over the IR burner, then tighten down the spit forks and crank the IR burner to high.

    (Or, if all your burners are IR burners…leave the ones under the roast off for the low and slow part, then remove the drip pan and crank the IR burners under the roast to high. Keep an eye on it – dripping fat may cause flareups – but it might work for you.)

  4. Adam b says

    Thanks again!
    I will try it. I want it all. Haha.
    (My bottom burners are typ cast iron). Basically 2 sets of IR burners centered over 2 typ cast iron burners.

    I had thought about totally offset indirect with both left burners on and meat centered on right IR but that would seem too offset and meat may not cook evenly.

    Merry Christmas!

  5. Chris Lukowski says

    Awesome post. What would also be a good test (once your wallet recovers) is pitting high-low searing vs low-high. Alton Brown was a proponent of the former as of a few years ago, be it with roasts or turkeys, but in recent years I’ve seen a lot of interest in the reverse method.

  6. Adam b says

    Reverse sear is the best. Super worried about overlooking.
    Got a 3 bone roast. PRIME. On sale at 9.99/#.

    Question. Have you rigged up a probe type thermometer/alarm on your rotisserie s? I haven’t seen it done in any of your recipes.

    Thanks.

  7. No, I can’t figure out how to use a probe type thermometer with a rotisserie – don’t think it’s possible until they make one that’s got a wireless and heat safe probe. I use a Thermapen instant read thermometer and check it every so often. The closer it gets to done, the more often I check it.

  8. Seattleats says

    I read your book on rotisserie a whole fillet. If using an infrared rotisserie, do I still need to cut it half as you recommend? Can I get good results not cutting it and using the reverse sear method?

    • I haven’t had a chance to try reverse sear with the rotisserie yet, but…yes, i would still cut it in half to increase the thickness of the roast, slowing down the cooking time, and giving the reverse sear more time to work.

  9. Larry M says

    Mike – wondering if you have tried the high-low rotisserie method over charcoal against the gas grill reverse sear? If so, what were the results?

    I have done a reverse sear with charcoal for the past 3 years (first year was by accident). They have turned out great. However, I really want to try the rotisserie method this year. I am in a cold climate area so the method will be dependent upon on how the weather turns out that day.

    Thanks!

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