I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with roast beef. The truth is, that taken as roast beef, I don’t really like it that much — although I feel like I should. I love roast beef sandwiches, such as the life-altering one at Eataly in New York, but roast beef itself is always a big “meh”
The reason is clear: except in the case of a standing rib roast, it’s almost always made from the toughest, leanest parts of the beef carcass. Have you ever had a top round steak? No? There’s a reason. Beyond roast beef’s anatomical problems, though, there is a larger issue relating to what I think is the single biggest issue relating to meat: the relationship between the brown parts and the pink parts. The brown parts taste different: the proteins in them have been transformed by high heat via a process called the Maillard reaction, which has the effect of changing not only the color but also the taste of the meat, via a whole circus of biochemical reactions. Almost as importantly, the surface tastes great because that’s where all the salt, pepper, dried herbs, garlic, olive oil, and etc. are. The inside? A big pink lump at best, unseasoned and bland. You can slice the meat thin, dip it in juice, or even make a “board dressing” like Adam Perry Lang, which is probably the best bet of all. But that doesn’t really change the basic problem: there is too much pink compared to brown. And to make matters even worse, that pink meat tends to be tough and chewy.
I took my final shot at roast beef this past weekend, when I acquired a chuck roll from Dickson’s Farmstand Meats in Chelsea Market. Dicksons is probably one of the best retail butchers on the Eastern seaboard, and while they carry too much local, grass-fed beef for my taste, once in a while you see a beautifully marbled piece there. I grab it when I do, as the combination of fat and the grassy, herbaceous taste really is something special. And chuck roll, the inner heart of the beef shoulder, is a surprisingly flavorful piece of meat — one reason it makes such good hamburger. It’s tough, yes, but I thought I could obviate that with some slow, gentle cookery.
Not so. The beef was not just tough, but it was marked by multiple weird muscle groups, streas of tendon and sinew, and a generally unattractive appearance that made my wife want to go back to veganism. I wasn’t happy with it, either. It tasted good enough, but I had to cut it into a million odd shaped little pieces. And again, only a small portion of the whole had any of the precious brown in it. So this seems to be the deal: yo you can have a whole muscle, like a rump roast, that carves easily but is too lean; or you can have a rich, marbled cut like a chuck roll that has fat and flavor, but is too weird shaped to carve and is tough besides.
I don’t know if there is a solution to his, frankly. Actually no, I take that back. There is a solution. Take big steak cuts, like flank or top sirloin, have them cut thick, and cook them in the oven after a quick sear. You’ll still get nice slices, the price will be right, and you’ll have a lot better tasting meat, owing to our friend the maillard effect. And who knows? You might even be able to make a sandwich with them.
Top Sirloin Roast: the Anti-Roast Beef
A big, boned top sirloin roast, sometimes called a “spoon roast” by butchers
4 smashed garlic cloves
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2 or 3 tbsp dried herb mix
Onions, carrots, or other vegetables to throw in there.
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Oil the roast up as you would a child at the beach. Season liberally on all sides, and the ends, with herbs, salt, and pepper. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
Add enough oil to a dutch oven or heavy roasting pan to cover the bottom. Put it on top of the stove at high heat, and sear one side for a good 5 to 10 minutes. It will smoke a little, but so what? Open a window or turn on an exhaust vent if you are fortunate enough to have one.
Flip the roast and cook, uncovered, for 45 minutes to one hour, depending on how done you prefer it. You may want to surround it with some oiled and salted vegetables and garlic cloves, but be careful not to crowd the roast or for that matter even the vegetables; the last thing you want to do is steam them.
Remove the roast; let sit for fifteen minutes and then carve against the grain. There will be a lot of juice and grease on the cutting board; make sure to bathe each slice in it and then layer them on an oval platter, surrounded by the vegetables. Sprinkle some fancy finishing salt, like fleur de sel or Malden salt, over the top and serve. You’ll never make “roast beef” again.