Three ways to get the most from your roast: salt, heat and time

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It’s really enjoyable to read a good cook writing about cooking, as though he or she is hanging out with you in the kitchen, anticipating questions, walking you through recipes, giving you some of the science behind the dishes. 

All About Roasting: A New Approach to a Classic Art is this kind of book. It’s the product of cooking teacher and writer Molly Stevens, and the source for her recipe Ginger Roast Chicken and Elbow Macaroni with Tomatoes and Pan Sauce.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Molly, why did you write 573 pages on roasting?

Molly Stevens: I think we tend to take roasting for granted. It’s something we all do; it’s such a basic method of cooking. You take some food, you season it, you heat up the oven, slide the food in and you’re roasting. I wanted to step back and think about what’s really happening. You can turn your oven to 350, or maybe to 400, but what’s the difference? 

LRK: You write that the first decision you make is whether to use high heat or low heat. How do you decide that?


Molly Stevens. Photo by Quentin Bacon.

MS: It’s not a one-size-fits-all method. I think James Beard said there are four or five different attacks to roasting beef. It’s true about roasting just about anything: There are a lot of ways to go about it.

High heat is great for certain things because it’s the most aggressive and exciting way to roast. You crank up your oven to 450, 475, 500, so it happens very quickly. You get these great seared exteriors, so it’s best for things that you want to leave rare or medium-rare, or when you want a really crisp skin.

Sometimes, you want to be a little gentler. A pork roast or a Thanksgiving turkey might cook unevenly if you have the heat too high, so you want to use a more moderate heat.

Then there’s low heat, which does amazing things. It’s almost like a form of barbecue, because things just tenderize as they cook very, very slowly. All of the juices stay in when you roast at low heat. The deli roast beef that we love is pink all the way to the outside, but you only get that if you use low heat.

LRK: Would you suggest low heat if it’s a leaner, tougher piece of meat?

MS: Yes, because the fat in a rib roast or something is going to insulate and help keep it juicy; the high heat is not going to dry it out. But for something that’s prone to drying out, you want to use a low or moderate heat.

LRK:  Which direction do you go when roasting vegetables?

MS: You mostly want high heat for vegetables. For example, I love blasted broccoli. I just take olive oil, salt and pepper, and put it in at high heat until it gets almost burnt on the edges. The inside stays nice and tender.

But there are a few instances when lower heat is useful, such as slow-roasted tomatoes or slow-roasted onions. One of my favorites is slow-roasted grapes, and I mean slow like 2 hours. It’s almost like an ice wine grape in that a little bit of the juices have evaporated but the sugars are concentrated.

LRK: Once you decide on the temperature, the next step is preparing the meat for the oven. You have a technique for salting that is really unusual.

MS: I’ve become a complete convert to salting. It just makes such a difference. (With roast beef, if you want to keep it rare or medium-rare, it’s not going to make such an impact.)

When you’re talking about poultry or pork, which are cooked to a point where they’re still juicy, there’s not a real red center there, so we salt it ahead of time. I’m talking about a day or two ahead for a whole chicken; if it’s something smaller, salting can be done maybe 6 hours ahead. You need a certain amount of time for that salt to migrate all the way to the center of the meat.

The salt will just transform. It’s amazing what it does in terms of enhancing flavor, texture, and making the meat more tender and juicy.

The question I get all the time is, "Won’t it taste salty?" Not if you do it right. We’re not koshering it or making prosciutto here. We’re adding as much as a regular seasoning, but we're letting it sit.

LR: Can you explain exactly how you do this?

MS: Let’s go with the roast chicken. Take the chicken, pull it out of the bag, take out the giblets, then season it pretty generously with kosher salt. I use a formula of about a half-teaspoon per pound.

The use of kosher salt is an important distinction, because there’s less kosher salt per teaspoon than table salt.

Put it on a tray to catch the drips, slide it in the refrigerator and leave it uncovered for a day or two. When you come back, the salt will have disappeared and the skin will be taut and dry. What that taut, dry skin will do in the oven when it’s roasting is turn unbelievably crisp and brown, which is the goal of a good roast chicken.

LRK: One of the things you always hear about salting ahead is it’s going to draw the juices out of the meat. Does it?

MS: This is why the lead time is so important. At first, the salt will draw all the juices out, but then the juices will be drawn back in along with the salt. So what you have is a piece of protein that is seasoned from the inside-out, if you will.

The salt is hygroscopic, meaning it hugs water. The salt is going to hug the juices that are already in that chicken and make it stay juicier as you roast it. It maintains the natural juices, so it’s going to taste more like the good chicken that it is.

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