Save your pennies, impress the family
Pot roast isn't just one of the ultimate comfort foods, it's a serious budget stretcher as well. Summertime grilling calls for the best and tenderest cuts, but pot roast is the exact opposite: The cheaper and tougher the cut, the likelier it is to make a good pot roast. A nice piece of chuck is the classic choice, but you can make a memorable pot roast with a few other cuts too.
The Tougher the Cut, the Better the Pot Roast
The simple rule of beef cuts is that the more a muscle is used, the tougher and more flavorful it becomes. Those muscles are clustered around the steer's shoulder, chest, belly and hip, and include cuts such as the chuck, brisket and round. Oddly, it's the tough connective tissues in these cuts that make them ideal for pot roast. After cooking for a long time at low temperature, the connective tissue breaks down into natural gelatin, moistening the meat and leaving it meltingly tender. All three cuts make excellent pot roast, though each has its own strengths:
Chuck: Slightly fattier than brisket or round, so it's richer tasting but higher in saturated fats. Difficult to slice neatly, because the shoulder muscles run in different directions.
Brisket: A wide, flat cut, with its fat almost entirely on the outside. It makes large, rectangular slices that fall apart easily when hot, while leftovers can be sliced neatly for sandwiches.
Round: The leanest of the three most common pot roast cuts. Its leanness and fine grain makes it excellent for slicing, but it lacks the big, beefy flavor of the other two cuts.
The Basic Technique, Explained
Pot roast is made using a technique chefs call "braising:"
- Start by browning the outsides of your cut to deepen its flavor, because the low-temperature cooking method won't give you those crisped edges and savory flavors.
- Next, put the beef in a roasting pan or Dutch oven that's just slightly larger than the cut itself.
- Add aromatic vegetables such as onions, celery, carrots and garlic, and flavoring ingredients such as salt, pepper, bay leaf or wine, according to your favorite recipe.
- Pour in enough water or broth to come at least halfway up the roast, and then cover the pan.
- Slide the pan into your oven, heated to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, and cook it slowly for about 2 hours.
- Turn the meat top to bottom, so the top half has its turn in the cooking liquid, and put it back for another 1 to 2 hours. Your actual cooking time will vary with the size and shape of your roast – flat cuts cook faster than round ones – but it's done when you can easily slide a fork into it and twist off a tender mouthful.
The Slow Cooker Is Your Friend
If you're too busy to tie yourself to the oven all afternoon, there's good news: Your slow cooker makes pot roast just as well as the oven, and perhaps even better. Assemble the dish the same way in your slow cooker's insert, and then leave it on its low setting for 6 to 8 hours, or up to 10 if you're facing a long day. A slow cooker allows less moisture to evaporate than a roasting pan or Dutch oven, so you'll have lots of juices for making sauce or gravy.
Preparing the Sauce and Serving the Pot Roast
When your pot roast is done, transfer it carefully – it will try to fall apart on you – to a plate or cutting board, and strain the cooking juices into a large measuring cup. Let them sit for a few minutes until the surplus fat rises to the top, and then skim it off with a spoon. You can make a concentrated sauce by simply simmering the juices until they're thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, which is often how chefs do it. For a traditional gravy, measure the cooking juices. For each cup of juices, measure 1 tablespoon of the fat from your roast into a saucepan, and add 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons of flour. Cook them together over medium heat until the flour is well incorporated, and then whisk the cooking juices into the flour mixture in a slow, thin stream to make gravy. Simmer the gravy for about 10 minutes, until it doesn't taste floury any more. Then slice or shred the pot roast, and serve them together.
A Few Points of Interest
You can simplify your meal prep even further, if you wish, by adding carrots, potatoes and other vegetables to the dish about halfway through your cooking time. They'll absorb flavors from the pot roast as they cook, and be especially delicious. You can apply the same cooking technique to other tough cuts, such as pork shoulder, lamb or veal shanks – or even a leathery stewing hen. Between the differing flavors of the meats, and the limitless combinations of sauce and seasonings at your disposal, you'll be able to put comforting meals on the table every week for months without repeating yourself.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.