Graduation Day From Grilling U: Grilled Prime Rib for Labor Day

The last gasp of summer is upon us: three days of enforced jollity, beers that warm too fast in the summer sun, and parties where you only know four people. We’ve all been there. But there is one good place to be at any warm-weather holiday party, and that is at command center, right in front of the grill. I think a lot about grilling in terms of meat, or my obsession with live fires, or in terms of how to cook things nobody pays attention to or cares about exactly right. But everyone agrees that, whatever you think of grilling, people tend to gravitate toward the fire, drawn like moths to their salty doom. So you are at the helm. What do you make?

It’s not an easy choice. Burgers are too hard, too humble, and require far too much attention. Steak, or at least the kind of steak that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to feed people, is outrageously expensive. If you have more than four or five people coming over, there’s no way to pull it off. You might as well just chopper in lobster from Maine. Chicken has a tendency to flare and blister, and god forbid if anyone ever gets a piece that’s underdone. Run for the hills. A whole suckling pig is probably the most mind-blowing of home grilling dishes, but it takes special ordering and advanced skills.

What you really want for your Labor Day barbecue is a whole, bone-on prime rib. A good one will be over $100, and even in more in terms of expectations. It’s one thing to cook a great pork blade chop; nobody expects that to be good. But prime rib is another story. The funny thing is that, for all the roast’s unwieldiness, it’s actually far more forgiving than any number of cheaper cuts. Prime rib on the grill isn’t an easy cook; it’s a ridiculously easy cook.

Here’s how to make it.

The Prep

Get a Prime rib roast. Don’t assume that “prime rib” is actually USDA prime; it almost certainly isn’t unless they tell you otherwise. It doesn’t need to be dry-aged or anything like that. They will likely want to sell you the full 8-bone roast. That is too much. Get a three or four bone roast – five at the very most. Three bones will feed 3 gluttons, four hearty eaters or five regular people; figure accordingly.

Finely mince fresh rosemary, thyme, oregano, parsley, and whatever else you feel like. Rub the roast with olive oil. Rub the herbs into it (except on the bones, obviously.) Salt liberally on all sides with kosher salt. Pepper is optional.

The Fire

Build a two-zone fire – that is to say, one with hot coals on one side and no coals on the other. Coaling is really the most challenging part of this cook, but it’s not really so much challenging as awkward and aggravating. Every 45 minutes to an hour you will need to add fresh hot coals in. That means taking the roast off, setting it on a cutting board or platter, removing the grill – which is way hot – and dumping a chimney full of coal, and then replacing. This will slow down the cooking, but there is no way around it. If at all possible, try to get some wood chunks; they will add to the flavor of the beef immeasurably.

Since the roast will be periodically exposed to the air, naked as the day it was born, for this purpose, you should take advantage of its indecency to slather it with some kind of liquid. It doesn’t really need it; its generous fat cap will keep it plenty juicy, almost frying it as it cooks; but that’s no reason not to paint on a glaze. Cut your favorite barbecue sauce 50/50 with beer or apple cider, and have at it.

The Cook

Brown the roast nicely on all sides over the coals. Move it to the cold side; the bones should face the fire; they are a kind of heat shield for the meat.

Set it on the cold side. Close the lid and open the vents.

Go away until it’s time to add coals. Depending on the size of your roast, it should take anywhere from two to three hours. You won’t know for sure how it’s doing without taking its temperature, so have a meat thermometer handy. I pull the roast when the center is at 130 degrees. That means a deep pink in the center, even after sitting, with plenty of pale pink meat on both sides; something for everyone.

Set the roast aside for twenty minutes or so. Show it to everybody at the table; then go back and carve it up.

The Carve

The rib bones are barely attached, if the butcher knew his business. Cut them right away. You now have a boneless cylinder of crusty, fragrant, juicy prime beef. For an easy, simple service, just slice it up into thickish (1″) pieces, and be sure to wipe them in the cutting board juices. Sprinkle with any leftover herbs, and a goodly pinch of kosher salt. Serve. Accept the homage of all present.

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