A well-roasted cut of beef or lamb, or a golden-brown chicken or turkey, can make any evening into a special occasion. The savory roasted meat, and a sauce or gravy made from the drippings, go well with side dishes ranging from simple to elaborate. Many recipes for roasted meats or birds assume you're going to use a roaster with a rack. If your roaster doesn't have one, you can improvise a substitute.
Why a Rack
If you've never used a roaster with a rack, you might wonder what the fuss is about. A rack serves several purposes. With fatty meats, such as pork shoulder or duck, the rack creates a space for the drippings to collect underneath. That means your meal isn't soaked in grease. For less-fatty meals, it keeps your roast above the cooking juices. Your roast will roast evenly, rather than resulting in a soft and overcooked area at the bottom where it stewed in its own juices.
The most direct replacement for the built-in rack that comes with most roasters is a heavy-duty wire cooling rack, or trivet. If you don't have one that fits your favorite roaster, spend some time trolling the kitchenware areas of department stores and thrift stores until you find one that works. Thrift stores sometimes have them in odd sizes and shapes that aren't readily available in other stores. Just check they're not rusted, which can taint your roast. If the feet on your substitute rack don't raise it far enough from the bottom of the roaster, elevate it with a few balls of crumpled aluminum foil.
Chopsticks can also make a serviceable substitute for a rack in your roaster. Packages containing four, six or 12 pairs of chopsticks are often sold in Asian stores or in the ethnic-foods section of the supermarket. Arrange three or four chopsticks in parallel at the bottom of your roaster, then cross them with another three or four chopsticks. Add at least a third layer and preferably a fourth, spacing them widely enough to accommodate your roast. Position the roast on top of the stack, and roast it as you normally would. Choose plain, unlacquered wood or bamboo chopsticks with a square end to keep them from rolling.
Professional cooks often roast a vegetable mixture called "mirepoix" with their meats. This is a combination of 2 parts onion with 1 part each of celery and carrots, coarsely chopped to the same size. To use mirepoix as your oven rack, cut the vegetables to approximately 1 1/2-inch pieces. Mound them in the bottom of the roaster to form a cushion, then rest your roast or turkey on top. As you roast your meat, the vegetables will add flavor to the drippings, as an added bonus. Strain them out before you make sauce or gravy.