Roasting is a slow method of cooking meat that is well-suited to larger cuts where the heat needs time to reach through to the middle without charring the outsides.
Roasting can be done in pans in ovens, or on spits over open-fires; it can also be done by surrounding a food with hot coals or ashes, as is done when roasting potatoes in a campfire.
The difference between roasting and baking is very hard to discern now that both are done in an oven at similar temperatures. Both are done with dry heat. At first, it might seem that the word “roasting” is used when it concerns meat or vegetables, and that baking is applied when it’s a matter of fruit or goods made with flour. But then, ham, which is meat, is said to be “baked”, not roasted.
True, actual roasting is over a fire, and gives different results from “oven roasting.” With oven roasting, only the top and part of the sides of a piece of meat are crackly and crisp; the bottom is not, as it has been sitting in a pan. With fire roasting, where the meat is turned over a fire, the whole surface is crackly and crisp. Fire roasting can also dry a piece of meat out more; thus larding meat was more popular. With oven roasting, the surfaces can even be somewhat soggy occasionally, as more moisture is retained in the meat. And, of course, with oven roasting, there is no smoke flavour on the meat.
The term “roasting” is also applied to coffee beans.
The strategy behind roasting:
There two challenges to balance in roasting:
- Connective tissue in the meat requires long cooking at high temperatures to soften;
- Heat causes the protein in meat to reform and coagulate, which is part of the cooking process. But past a certain temperature, the protein begins to coagulate to the point where it starts to squeeze out moisture and juices, and the meat starts to consequently shrink, dry out and get tough.
Bony roasts will cook faster than boneless ones because bone is a good conductor of heat.
If you cover your roasting pan, or add stock or water to it, or do both, you are in effect braising (or “pot roasting”) rather than roasting. These techniques came about because it was thought they would lead to a moister roast. This is wrong. The moisture in a roast comes from the roast itself. The trick is to roast the meat enough so that the proteins release juices, without roasting it so much that the over-heated proteins go past that point and start to break down and give up every last drop of moisture. Pot roasting can also speed the cooking process, because the steam conducts heat more efficiently than air.
When you remove your roast from a heat, it will continue to cook inside for a while because the outside layers of the meat continue to transfer heat to the centre. So, remove it when it is about 5 degrees shy of the internal temperature you want it at. Let the roast sit for about 15 minutes before carving it. As the temperature evens and moderates in the roast, the proteins in it recover a bit their juice-holding properties and draw juices back in, allowing you to give your guests juicer cuts of meat than if you carved it right away, while the proteins were still in full juice-shed mode. A sharp knife is good to carve with, as a dull knife will press moisture out of the slices of meat.
We think of roasting as being done in ovens, but the widespread use of ovens is a relatively modern thing. Some better-off Romans had ovens that they used for roasting, but from the fall of Rome on up to the late 1800s, ovens were usually mostly for baking.
During the long time period in between, roasting went back to being done as it had been by primitive man, on a spit over an open fire. Consequently, only the very wealthy would roast meat regularly, because spit roasting over a fire meant that all the meat’s “goodness”, the juices and the dripping, would be lost into the fire, as they are now with our barbequing/grilling. While we now aim to lose fat in our cooking process, there was a time when ordinary people like us had very few sources of dietary fat, which our bodies do need some of. Yorkshire pudding was originally a single, large flat pudding meant to be put under a roast on a spit to catch these juices so that they wouldn’t be wasted.
What ordinary people like us did instead of roasting was simmer meat in a pot so that all the juices went into the dish being made. Writers often say that meat was “boiled”, implying a bland hunk of meat boiled in plain water, but in fact the meat was simmered in sauces to which the meat’s juices contributed.