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Pot Roast

January 19, 2012

I re-built a transmission with my father-in-law once.  Okay, I helped him rebuild my transmission.  I mainly helped by staying out of the way, but I was there if he needed me.  He just didn’t.  Anyway, I have remembered a lesson I learned that day for the rest of my life.  As you might imagine, an automatic transmission is a quite complex piece of machinery, full of all manner of parts.  Now, when he tore into this thing, he started pulling the guts out of it and laying them haphazardly around on the ground.  Nuts rolling away that I had to step on to keep from getting under a counter, bolts, bands, gaskets, all in disarray on the floor of the garage.  I knew at that moment we were never getting this thing back together.

However, my father-in-law was a mechanic.  He had worked as a mechanic all his life.  At the time he was doing this for with me he had just sold the last of three garages he owned.  I was frantically putting things that looked like they belonged together in little piles while he, at least pretended, to ignore me.  Somehow he didn’t share my angst about getting things back in their proper place.  And therein lies the lesson.  Why was he not worried?  Why was he not trying to remember where the parts had come from?  Because he didn’t need to, as he not only knew where they went, he knew why.

To me, the whole thing looked like a bucket of bolts, but he knew exactly what he was working with.  He knew how it functioned, he knew what the different parts and pieces did and how they interacted.  He didn’t have to remember, because he understood.  There is a huge difference.

That is where I want to get to in my culinary education.  It’s one thing to follow a recipe step by step, it’s quite another to understand the recipe.  Why am I using this ingredient?  What’s the point of adding it now?  Why does this need to be stirred continuously?  Why does the recipe say it’s supposed to be slightly thickened and mine is a seized-up ball in the pan?  If you understand what is taking place with a dish and why, you can better prepare it because you aren’t following something step by step – putting all your nuts and bolts in little piles lest you forget where they go – you are assembling and creating something that works together.

What were we talking about?  Oh yeah.  Pot Roast.  Think of it like a transmission…  No, I mean, I had to think of it like a transmission.  I wanted to make a good pot roast.  I love pot roast.  It’s something that a good cook should be able to make.  And mine were not good.  But that’s because I didn’t understand what I was doing.  Now, If my dear mother or grandmother-in-law lived with me and I was able to watch them make it a few hundred times, I could have gotten it, by rote and their sheer will in teaching the seeming unteachable, at least I would hope.  But I didn’t want to learn that way.  I wanted to know the workings of it all.

First, I had to learn about the different cuts of meat.  How often had I been to a meat counter looking for a pot roast?  Thank goodness I never actually asked the butcher for one.  I don’t think.  But what cut of meat should one use?  What is the difference in them?  I didn’t know the parts of the animal, I didn’t know grading, I didn’t know the differences.  And “this is what Mom always bought” wasn’t going to be enough for me.  So I read and I experimented.

Chuck is from the front shoulder.  It is relatively tough (as all cuts of meat used for pot roast are, which is why they are braised…but more on that in a bit) and cooks up rather stringy.  It is the cut I prefer.  Round is from the rear haunches and is a much denser texture.  If over-cooked it will be very dry, one of the reasons I don’t prefer this cut.  If you ever see them cutting roast beef at a buffet from a large roast on the bone, this is the entire round of the beef (called a steamship round).  Brisket is from the breast.  I’ve not used this cut for pot roast, but will do so soon.  I believe a trimmed brisket would be a fine cut for it, and I have significant experience smoking untrimmed briskets, which I will discuss in future posts.

Then there is the grading.  Grading is determined by the amount of marbling in the beef.  The more marbling, the more flavorful and tender the meat, and the higher the grade.  The three grades you will see in the grocery are Select, Choice and Prime, from lowest to highest.  The better the grade, obviously, the better your cut of meat, and the better your finished product.  I have seen Select and Choice often.  Seldom have I seen Prime beef in the grocery store, as it represents only a small percentage of the very best and is therefore quite expensive.

So, what are we doing to this meat when we cook it in said pot, thereby creating a “pot roast” (see the connection?)  We are braising.  A cooking method that combines moist and dry cooking methods.  which is why we add enough liquid to cover about half the roast.  We get the liquid in the meat and the meat in the liquid.  But first, the meat needs to be browned.  This procedure caramelizes the surface of the meat and adds flavor to the dish.  It can be done with our without flour.  The pot is then placed on the stovetop or in the oven (preferably) and cooked until done.  Simple.

So now that we know what we are doing and why, we can assemble a pot roast without a recipe or further instruction.  We can make it our own.  Take a heavy dutch oven, add some oil and heat on medium high.  Season and brown the meat, turning to cover each side evenly.  Set aside.  Add more oil if necessary and saute any vegetables that need to be cooked ahead such as onion, carrots, celery, garlic, etc.  Browning these vegies will also add flavor.  Place the meat back in the pot and add your liquid.  This could be beef stock, chicken stock, wine, water, or combinations that you create.  Add any other seasonings you would like such as herbs or spices.  Cover, place the pot in the oven and braise at 325F until done.  At this point, without a recipe or significant experience you might not know how long you need to cook your roast, but an instant-read thermometer will take care of that.  Simply check it after about 1 1/2-2 hours and get a feel for where you are.  Then check it as you need to.  You are looking for about 145F for medium rare or 160F for medium.  In my opinion most cuts are much more tender cooked to medium.  While you’re in there you can baste the roast with the liquid.

Remove the roast and allow it to rest for about 10 minutes.  This will allow the meat to open up and absorb and evenly distribute the juices.  Carve the meat against the grain (unless you used chuck, in which case it will probably be better shredded), thicken your liquid with a cornstarch slurry, season and serve.  Pot Roast.  And you didn’t even have to call your father-in-law (or in this case probably mother-in-law) for “help”.


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  1. linda k. stevens permalink

    when i am browning my roast, i poke holes in the meat and push a garlic clove into each whole. it gives it a strong garlic flavor (one of my favs).

    • linda k. stevens permalink

      ooops! i push the whole garlic clove into each hole. gotta get my spellings right on hole and whole! lol

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