The Truth About Roasting

Look up the word “roast" in any dictionary and you will most likely find a definition such as "to cook foods using dry heat in a contained oven or near an open flame."

Sounds simple, right? As with anything though, a roast can be made as uncomplicated or elaborate as one decides. I personally like to keep things simple. Once, while taking a course on French Cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, I witnessed a chef roasting three capon. As simple as it sounds it was one of the most beautiful yet laborious roasts I had ever seen. First he slid the thinnest slivers of black truffle under the birds’ skin, and then lathered them with a mixture of butter whipped with lemon, fresh thyme and sel gris (gray sea salt).

After trussing the capon he told the class that while it is the norm to roast a bird on a wire rack, he prefers to do so directly in the roasting pan -- sans rack -- and turn them every 10 minutes. I felt as if he were telling us his deepest culinary secrets. After roasting and turning the birds for a mere 50 minutes he removed them from the pan and made a sauce with the drippings using vermouth and cream. The capon were crispy on the outside and tender as butter throughout. They were the most succulent birds I shall ever taste, but through the entire cooking process I couldn't help but think how not only was this roast taken to an extreme level of culinary refinement, it was also made overly complicated.

Roasting is one of the more fundamental and satisfying methods in which to cook -- it's almost primal. Though with today's food media and countless chefs promoting the "thrill of the grill," roasting is often overlooked. In truth, not only is roasting a healthy cooking method, it is also one of the oldest and quite possibly the original way to cook. When humans first began to cook foods, intentionally or accidentally, they did so by resting it next to or in hot coals.

The word roast can be used as a verb or a noun; it can refer to the actual act of cooking and also the food that is cooked, i.e. a roast. Not surprisingly, the words roast and bake are often used interchangeably. The main difference between the meaning of these two words lies in the context in which they are used.

A chicken, for example, is roasted whereas a pie is baked; bread is baked and beef is roasted. Though it does sometimes get a little confusing -- while whole-unpeeled potatoes are baked, diced (and sometimes peeled) potatoes are roasted. To make matters even more complicated the influence from restaurants and food media have actually shifted some of the cooking terminology; it is now en vogue to "roast" certain foods which only a decade ago were called baked -- fish and vegetables mostly.

Both of these cooking methods though -- baking and roasting -- do exactly the same thing, they cook foods by surrounding them with dry heat. And there are actually two ways in which one can achieve this: with an open flame (spit roasting) or in an oven. While cooking foods next to an open flame sounds romantic and is considered superior by the professional cook, the average person roasts food using the contained radiant heat of a household oven.

Before you begin to roast there are a few guidelines to consider. First, remember that roasting is not a tenderizing cooking method -- a tough cut of meat will still be tough after it is roasted. In such an instance braising would be appropriate. Food that is roasted should be done so on a wire rack or trivet, which elevates it slightly off the roasting pan, lest it sit in it's own rendered fat or juices and begin to fry or boil. Although, often a small amount of liquid can be added under the roasting rack, which will alleviate the rendered fat in the pan from smoking and also facilitate in making a sauce or gravy. And the pan that is used as the roasting vessel should have short sides as not to block the direct heat of the oven; it is this direct heat contact that produces a crisp skin or crust.

Temperature is also a major factor -- the oven should be preheated and the initial cooking temperature is often started at a high temperature (450-500F) to sear the meat, and then lowered to a moderate temperature (325-375F) to finish the cooking process. This method is especially effective when cooking sturdy types of meat such as beef, pork or lamb. And too low of a temperature should be avoided, the USDA recommends an oven temperature of no lower than 325F.

Lastly, food needs to rest before it is cut into or carved; it will actually continue to cook for five-10 minutes after being removed from the oven. This is referred to as "carry over cooking." This is a naturally occurring process wherein the juices are slowly forced to the center of the food as it cooks, then as it rests you are enabling these juices to disperse back into the meat, fish or poultry, thus creating a more tender and juicy meal.

On roasting chicken: Many instruct to truss the bird while others do not; I prefer a chicken trussed -- not only does the chicken hold its shape, it also makes a tight compact unit, which promotes even roasting. The problem that you may run into is overcooking the breast meat, but with a meat thermometer the temperature can easily be monitored. (The USDA recommends cooking a bird until its thickest area, the inner thigh, registers 165F.) Two more areas of speculation as previously mentioned are temperature and whether or not to turn a bird during cooking. Again, I like to keep it simple and have had excellent results: roast the bird breast-side-up and do not turn it; season and butter the outside of the chicken prior to roasting, keep the oven temperature at an even 375F and baste it during cooking.

On roasting vegetables: When it comes to vegetables the cooking methods that most often come to mind are likely steaming and boiling, when actually roasting -- particularly root vegetables -- may be more appropriate. Roasting caramelizes the natural sugars which are present in vegetables and enhances their flavor; often thought of as a boring winter vegetable, root vegetables become something special simply by roasting them. The addition of a liquid such as stock, wine or fruit juice will enhance their natural flavor even further (even though this method is often labeled as roasting it is technically a form of braising).

One of the trendiest vegetables of today has got to be the roast red pepper. These may be prepared over a direct flame of a gas burner, outdoor grill or in a very hot oven. The skin is actually blackened, or charred, which creates a mild smoke flavor, and then left to steam in a paper bag using its own heat. Once the seeds and skin are peeled away the remaining silken flesh of the pepper is ready to be consumed as is, on a sandwich or salad, or puréed into a sauce -- it's enough to remind one of warmer days even in the dead of winter.

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