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Complete Christmas dinner menu

How to cook roast beef

By Liz Ransome-Croker

Article 3 of 7

All you need to know about buying the right cut of beef and cooking it to perfection for Christmas

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Want something different to traditional turkey for your Christmas dinner? Why not consider a joint of beef? 

Find out how to cook beef, including cooking tips and flavoursome recipes from Delia Smith, Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsey.

If you're still deciding what drinks to have with your Christmas dinner, take a look at our taste test results to find out which is the best Champagne, red wine and prosecco.

In this article

How long does roast beef take to cook? 

Most recipes suggest cooking the beef for around 45 minutes to one hour at 190°C/375°F/gas mark 5 or 200°C/4005°F/gas mark 6, this very much depends on the weight of meat and what else you're cooking it with, so check the meat packaging or recipe you're following.

Roughly speaking, it should be about 15-20 minutes per 500g for rare beef, 20-25 minutes for medium-rare and 25-30 for well done.

Both of Delia's traditional beef recipes (see below) recommend having the oven at a higher temperature to start, 240C/475F/gas mark 9, then after 20 minutes turning it down to 190C, 375F/gas mark 5. 

Remember you will need to baste the meat throughout the cooking time – some recipes only require this to be done once, like with Jamie's 'perfect roast beef', and others more frequently, like with Delia's traditional roast sirloin beef, which requires you to do it at least three times. 

To make sure the meat is cooked, use a thermometer to check the temperature. Putting it into the thickest part, the meat should be:

  • 55ºC-60ºC for rare
  • 65-70ºC for medium
  • 75ºC for well done

These temperatures are a guide, and can also vary depending on the weight and cut of meat. Make sure you double check the cooking instructions on the meat packaging or ask your butcher when you buy.

You'll need to factor in time for resting the meat once it's cooked, between 15 minutes to an hour, depending on the recipe and weight of the meat. This is so that the juices with soak back into the meat, making sure the meat remains moist when served.

Also remember that the oven you have can make a difference to how long your meat takes to cook and whether it's cooked evenly. When we've tested ovens, we've found some that heat up to 30ºC more than they should. That would certainly play havoc with your cooking schedule.

Find the best built-in oven, freestanding cooker and range cooker for you so you don't have to work around your appliances. 

Which beef cut is most tender and best for roasting? 

Ideally, look for beef that has streaks of fat running through it, giving a slight marbling effect, as this is a good sign that it will be packed with flavour. Also, fat around the outside will keep it moist and be great for basting. If you want to be healthier, you don't have to eat it, but it will help it remain succulent.

So which cut is best? According to the National Beef Association, the following four are best for roasting:

Fore rib

This is a third of the way down the back around the ribs (see diagram below). These cuts have a good amount of fat on the outside and running through them, making them particularly moist. 

They are sold 'boned and rolled' (where the bones are removed and it's made into a roll shape), 'French trimmed' (where the bones are left in the meat and stick out from it) or 'on the bone'. 

Sirloin

Sometimes called top loin, this meat is from a little further down the back of the cow, an area that won't get worked hard, so is more tender. As a joint, these cuts are usually sold boned and rolled, but they can be cut in a number of ways, such as for T-bone, tenderloin and fillet steaks.

For roasting, the sirloin is best kept whole as a joint. It's very tender and contains less fat than the rib, so a little leaner. These are also often the most expensive cuts.

Silverside and topside

These cuts are at the back of the cow. They're very lean and require basting regularly during the cooking process, so they don't dry out. As there isn't a lot of fat on them, they're sometimes sold with added fat wrapped around.

This meat is also good for having as steaks instead of cooked as a joint.

Thick flank

This is the belly of the cow. This meat is particularly good for slow roasting as a joint or braised in pieces. It's also sold as strips for stir frying.

Delia Smith recommends going for a sirloin cut if it's a very special occasion – such as Christmas dinner – and rib if it's a Sunday roast. Most chefs, such as Delia and Nigella Lawson, agree that beef still on the bone is more tasty.

If you want a more traditional Christmas dinner, head over to our guide on how to cook a turkey crown.

What to look out for when buying beef 

Beef should be pink, deep red or burgundy and fat on the outside should be cream, not yellow – if it's this colour, it's more likely to be off. Also look for beef that has been neatly trimmed. Generally, beef joints in supermarkets are sold pre-prepared. 

The longer the beef has been hung for, the more flavoursome it will be. Around 10 to 14 days should be a good amount of time, although some premium beef brands hang their meat for a lot longer – up to six weeks. 

Supermarket meat is often packaged as soon as it is slaughtered, so won't have had time to mature. Look out for darker the meat – this means it likely to have been hung for longer.

Beef hung for longer, ideally 10 to 14 days, will be tastier.

If you're keen to know more about the beef you buy, such as where it came from, how it was reared and slaughtered, a butcher or local farmer's market is the best place to shop.

Organic beef and beef from rare breeds will be a lot more expensive, but will have had to adhere to stringent standards throughout the animal's life. Some say that the less stressed the cow has been, the better the taste will be.

If beef has come from abroad, it's likely to have been frozen, and therefore unlikely to taste as good. According to the National Beef Association, 81% of beef sold in the UK is under the British logo, but only Aldi, Budgens, Co-op, Lidl, M&S, Morrison’s and Waitrose use 100% British beef. 

If you're buying a lot of your food for Christmas from the supermarket, you might want to take a look at which customers rated as the best and worst supermarkets before you head out. 

What size beef joint for 4, 6, 8 and 10? 

If you're buying meat on the bone, allow around 400g per person, and for a boneless joint, 200g to 250g per person.

According to Delia Smith, if you want to feed six to eight people with ribbed beef and have a little left over, you'll need a piece of beef weighing 2.25-2.75kg.

Can roast beef be cooked in a slow cooker? 

Yes, you can cook beef in a slow cooker. You might want to consider using less expensive meat, such as brisket, as this is less tender, but should be made so by the slow-roasting process. 

Brisket is usually sold ‘boned and rolled’ and sometimes salted. It's also often used for lean mince.

A lot of the slow-cooker recipes we have seen are for beef stews and casseroles, but you can cook the entire joint. Depending on the size, it will take around six to eight hours on a low heat, or three to four on a high heat.

You can cook beef stews, casseroles or whole joints in a slow cooker.

If you're keen to try roasting a beef joint in a slow cooker, make sure you get a slow cooker that is big enough. They range in size from 1.5 to 6.5 litres, which is big enough to cook for five or more people.

Visit our slow cooker reviews to find out which models are easy to use and clean, and will reliably roast your food to perfection.

How long will roast beef keep in the fridge?  

Vacuum-packed beef can last around two to four days in the fridge, but you'll need to check the use-by date on the packaging. If you've bought it from a butcher or local farmer's market and it's loose, check with the seller when you buy it.

Either way, it should be stored in the bottom of the fridge and shouldn't touch anything that's cooked or will be eaten raw.

Can a beef joint be frozen? 

Yes, you can freeze a beef joint before of after it's been cooked. If it's uncooked, freeze it as soon as possible and not after the use-by date. 

The larger it is, the longer it will take to freeze. Freezing food quickly will preserve nutrients and be safer, so consider cutting it before placing it in the freezer. 

Once it's cooked, make sure it's cool before it goes into the freezer. Ideally, slice it so will cool down and then freeze quicker. Whether it's cooked or uncooked, wrap the meat tightly so air won't get to it, as this could cause freezer burn.

How well your food keeps can be massively affected by how good your fridge and freezer are. We have found models that are slow to cool and where the internal temperature thermometers can't be relied upon. Read our fridge freezer reviews to avoid one of these models.

Roast beef recipes from top chefs 

Jamie's 'perfect roast beef' recipe uses the topside of the cow and is roasted with onions, carrots garlic, celery and herbs.

He recommends removing the beef from the fridge 30 minutes before cooking, to allow it to get to room temperature. 

With this recipe, the vegetables can be roughly chopped and all added to the same pan, so it should be easy on Christmas Day. You also only need to baste the beef halfway through the cooking time or if the veg look dry. 

He also has a couple of recipes using the fore rib – one pairs beef with rosemary and garlic and another with horseradish and beetroot.

You could also opt to do a beef Wellington. Jamie's recipe uses a fillet of beef, with an onion, garlic, rosemary and mushroom paste wrapped around the beef between it and the pastry.

Read Jamie's beef Wellington recipe to find out more about how to create this dish.

Delia has a number of roast beef recipes on her website, but there are two standout traditional ones, one using sirloin and the other cooking with a rib joint.

Both suggest layering the fat with English mustard powder and plain flour to make it nice and crunchy.

The rib joint recipe involves adding onions to the roasting tin to help flavour the meat juices so they can be used for the gravy. This recipe also includes details on how to make your own horseradish to go alongside it. 

What about considering making Boeufs en Croute? This is basically beef in smaller pastry pieces, as opposed to a long piece, like with a Wellington. 

Delia's recipe also uses a mushroom pâté to encase the beef, but uses nutmeg instead of garlic and rosemary. 

Visit Delia Smith's website to read her traditional roast sirloin beef, roast of rib with horseradish and gravy and Boeufs en Croute recipes.

Gordon's roast beef recipe involves marinating the beef with thyme and garlic for one or two days before cooking, and includes instructions on making caramelised onion gravy. 

He says you should get the beef out of the fridge an hour before cooking – much longer than Jamie's suggestion. He also recommends warming a dry pan until it's very hot and searing the beef on all sides before roasting.

Another of his recipes uses beef ribs stuffed with an onion, mushroom, spinach, tarragon and thyme. His beef Wellington recipe adds an additional meat element - he layers Parma ham between the mushroom pâté, beef and pastry.

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