Prime rib: Hail to the king

With its robust flavor and silken texture, this royal cut deserves care

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Prime rib is a kingly meat, made all the more glorious when smoked. You not only get the glistening crust; you also get the magnificent aroma of wood-smoked beef. And gasps of admiration from around the table.

Catch that? Table.

You can't stand around while eating prime rib. You must sit. That sitting is essential to adulthood because it signals that you choose to take your time, and the time you choose to take is for an appreciation of those things that age teaches us to truly cherish: family, friends and really expensive cuts of meat.

By taking the step to place the prime rib on the grill, where it will bathe in smoke, rather than simply shove it in the oven, you honor both it and your guests.

It isn't solely that grilling beef does something wondrous to it; grilling prime rib adds an element of risk that demonstrates you are willing to take a chance … for love.

See, if you overcook a burger on the grill, so what? It's a burger, for cryin' out loud. Overcook prime rib on the grill, and you've ruined an occasion.

You want to handle this undertaking with care. That means an instant-read meat thermometer.

It's that simple. All the fear-mongering of the last couple of paragraphs was intended to get your attention, so you treat the process with a little more respect than is customarily accorded the grill.

Generally, cooking outdoors is a pretty carefree endeavor. It's so breezy that you can drink beer the whole time and still get it right. Prime rib requires a bit more seriousness.

Prime rib is from what's called the "primal rib," a section of ribs from the upper section of the cow. When sliced, a prime rib yields rib-eye steaks.

The first question is whether to smoke the meat bone-in or boneless. Bone-in makes for a majestic presentation. And tearing the meat from the bone allows adults to be children again.

Go boneless, though, for three reasons: It cooks evenly, it gets a nice crust all around and it is easier to carve at the table.

It's a funny thing to say about a big hunk of beef, but prime rib is finicky. Although robust in flavor, it exudes a subtlety. Its texture is silken, and its taste complex. So it's best to practice some delicacy when smoking it.

Unlike a brisket, which takes well to a deep, penetrating smoke over its daylong, low-and-slow roasting, prime rib responds better to a gentle caress. If you oversmoke it, you lose some of the prime rib's essential character. If you smoke it lightly, you heighten that character. The elemental flavor of the grill elevates prime rib, making it, paradoxically, earthy and elegant at the same time.

Prime rib is basically a giant steak. While 225 F or so is optimal for brisket, about 325 F is best for prime rib.

It is also unforgiving. While a brisket can be cooked past its perfectly done point and still taste incredible (the main problem will be texture; it will wither to shreds), a prime rib must be cooked with precision. Five or 10 degrees' variance in internal temperature can make the difference between medium-rare and medium.

That is where the instant-read meat thermometer comes in.

With a thermometer, you reduce the fretting long enough to walk away from the grill, go inside and make a suitable condiment. Horseradish sauce is one of those unquestioned accompaniments for prime rib, like drawn butter with lobster and pepper-vinegar with barbecued whole hog. Somebody somewhere got it right a long time ago, and it would be an affront not only to prime rib but to culinary history to not serve a bit of the creamy, tart white sauce on the side.

Wood-Smoked Prime Rib

6 to 8 servings

While other smoked foods, such as pork shoulder and brisket, are forgiving, prime rib is not. Watch your fire and mind your meat thermometer. If you miss your target, the meat will still have its majesty — it is prime rib, after all — but perhaps a little less of it.

This recipe uses a boneless prime rib for even cooking and easy carving. The beef is encrusted with herbs and lightly smoked. The result is culinary royalty at your winter table.

You’ll need kitchen twine.

You’ll need 2½ cups of hardwood chips, preferably an equal mix of applewood and cherrywood, soaked in water for 1 hour.

The herb mixture can be made a few hours in advance. Keep it covered.

One 6-pound boneless rib roast

2 tablespoons minced rosemary

2 tablespoons minced thyme

2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley

2 tablespoons minced ­tarragon

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon coarse sea salt

¾ tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

3 tablespoons olive oil, preferably extra virgin

Trim excess fat from the meat and let it come to room temperature, about 1 hour.

Combine the rosemary, thyme, parsley, tarragon, garlic, salt, black pepper, crushed red pepper and oil in a bowl, mixing well. Smear the herb mixture all over the meat.

Prepare the grill for indirect heat: If using a charcoal kettle grill, light the coals in a charcoal chimney. Once they turn ashen, pour half of the coals on one side of the grill and half on the other side. Place a drip pan between the two piles. Drain the wood chips and scatter them evenly over both piles of coals. Return the grate to the grill and place the meat over the drip pan. Close the lid. An hour into cooking, to keep the fire temperature steady, add about a dozen fresh coals, six on each pile.

If using a gas grill, preheat for about 15 minutes. Start the fire on one side, setting the temperature to 325 F. Drain the wood chips and place them in a smoker box or in a foil pouch with holes punctured with a fork on top to allow smoke to escape. Place the pouch or box on the flavorizer bars. Set the meat on the side away from the fire. Close the lid.

Cook for 12 to 14 minutes per pound; a roast of this size should take 1 to 1½ hours. That said, fire is unpredictable, so use an instant-read thermometer to make sure the meat is at a safe temperature. For medium-rare, the meat should register 130 F. Transfer the roast to a cutting board and allow it to rest for 15 to 20 minutes. Cut into slices 1 to 1½ inches thick.

Per serving (based on 8): 550 calories, 68 g protein, 1 g carbohydrates, 29 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 200 mg cholesterol, 1080 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

Horseradish Sauce

Makes about 1½ cups

Not only do prime rib and horseradish sauce go together, but the pairing is royal. Something about the beef’s dark, rich flavor demands the bright tang of horseradish. But a little goes a long way. The sauce should be made at least 4 hours before serving. It can be refrigerated in an airtight container for as much as 2 weeks.

1 cup sour cream

¼ cup prepared (white) horseradish

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon white wine vinegar

½ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon ground white pepper

Dash Worcestershire sauce

Dash Tabasco sauce

Stir together the sour cream, horseradish, mustard, vinegar, salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco sauce in a medium-size airtight container until well incorporated. Cover tightly and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to overnight to allow the flavors to blend.

Per tablespoon (using low-fat sour cream): 15 calories, 0 g protein, 1 g carbohydrates, 1 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 65 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar