Like sauté, "roast" is defined by what instructors in culinary schools call dry heat—that is, cooking without the cooling, moderating effects of water. It can be divided into two sub-techniques: high-heat roasting and low-heat roasting.
Terminology about roasting is erratic given that there’s no difference between roasting and baking. A roast recipe may once have referred solely to meats cooked over an open flame, whereas baking referred to anything cooked in an enclosed oven. Today we typically say we roast meats and we bake doughs and batters. That will be the distinction here (even though we do bake ham, we don’t roast meat loaf, and we both bake and roast potatoes).
High heat is used to develop flavour. Browning the skin of fowl and the exterior of meats makes it taste delicious. We use low heat for cooking larger items uniformly. Thus, we roast a chicken in a very hot oven to develop flavour, and we roast a big prime rib in a low oven to cook the center before the exterior is overcooked.
Because roasting does not involve water, and water is required for dissolving the connective tissue that makes meats tough, we usually don’t roast tough cuts of meat. You would not roast a pot roast because it would go from tough to dry. I do roast a leg of lamb, on the other hand, for flavour; after being cooked, the tough collection of muscles is tenderized by being cut into thin slices.
What to consider before roasting
That’s really all there is to know about roasting. It’s one of the simplest, most common, and best methods of cooking. It also fills up the kitchen with irresistible aromas. When you are determining how to roast something, think about its qualities:
- Is it naturally tender?
- How big is it?
- Does it have skin (which is mostly water that needs to cook off before browning happens)?
- Is your goal to make the exterior tasty or to have the item cook uniformly all the way through?
Lead image courtesy of Williams-Sonoma.