Pot Roast: An ode to simplicity, tough cuts of beef and time
This past weekend, I visited my dad to celebrate his 62nd birthday. I’ve already talked about my dad and our love for cooking in this post and, consequently, I was very excited to see what he had come up with for his birthday menu. Was it something new? Something old? Something complicated or something easy? Something fancy or something old school and simple?
My dad, following a pretty serious accident a while back, doesn’t cook much anymore, so I knew it was pretty much up to me to produce the main dish for his birthday bash, and I’ll admit to being a little nervous. Was he going to make some sort of odd or borderline unreasonable demand? Well, this time around, my dear old daddy had gone completely old school and dead simple: For his birthday dinner, he requested, quite simply, a humble classic: pot roast!
“Pot roast?!” I thought at first, “that sounds decidedly unambitious for someone of my dad’s stature!” But then I thought back on my dad’s love for comfort food, for old school cooking, classic dishes and simplicity, and it somehow all made sense. My dad’s compositions and favorite dishes are often simple in appearance yet deep and complicated in taste. And therein probably lies an important lesson for me, the chronic complicator of things: things need not be complicated in order to be perfect!
The dishes I describe and cook on this blog are usually in the upper echelon in terms of price, preparation and fanciness. But there’s a time and place for everything and sometimes we just want something nice, simple and flavorful. For that reason, and for that occasion, I thought I’d chime in with how I cooked a birthday dinner for dad out of basically nothing but a tough cut of meat, as well as a few general guidelines for perfecting pot roast: the simple dish that not only tastes like a million bucks, but also costs next to nothing – and just so happens to be one of the easiest meals, you’ve ever cooked.
But first, you may be asking yourself:
Just what the hell is a pot roast?
Pot roast, as the name may somewhat imply is a common denominator for a large chunk of beef, cooked slowly within the confines of a closed vessel, such as a pot, for longer periods of time. To make pot roast, a fitting cut of beef is browned thoroughly, dumped in a pot with an assortment of vegetables and a small amount of cooking liquid, then cooked slowly over low heat for several hours until the meat is fork tender. This technique is generally referred to as braising and, as we shall see, is one key factor of pot roast success.
What then constitutes a success? Well, quite simply speaking, a successful pot roast is fall-apart tender, juicy and flavorful piece of meat that is as easy to make as it is delicious to eat! Simple as that!
The one and only secret to perfect pot roast
Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that there are any great secrets to a perfect pot roast, but if there’s one secret, it’s to use the right cut of meat. And by the right cut of meat, I mean a cheap cut of meat. You don’t need anything fancy here. On the contrary. If you can, aim for a bone-in, fatty cut with a fair bit of connective tissue. These will be cheap, but carry so much more flavor. There will be some shrinkage and some waste, but really at such low prices who’s counting? Want me to be even more specific? Alright, a particularly good cut for pot roast and other slow preparations is beef chuck.
Beef chuck, in all it’s marbled, fatty glory! Photo credit:@nikkifreshki on instagram.com
Chuck, a favorite of mine, comes from the neck, shoulder and front part of the animal. This is a part of the
critter cow that does a lot of work and therefor contains quite a lot of connective tissue, muscle fibers and bone, i.e. taste. Usually, the chuck roast cuts you’ll find at the supermarket (in Denmark at least) are boneless, but with a little luck and effort, you will be able to find dirt cheap cuts of chuck with the bones still in. Get these if you can, it’ll be a little extra trouble, but well worth your time and effort. If you can’t find them, do what any reasonable man would do: try talking to your butcher, he may well be able to hook you up!
Why do I want you to go out and get the cheapest, toughest cut of beef you can? Well, for starters, your buddy Johan just saved you a bunch of money telling you not to get prime cuts for slow cooking. Secondly, for reasons that shall soon be obvious, we can make all the undesirable things such as fat, bone and connective tissue work to our advantage. For now, stick with me and find yourself a tough hunk of beef!
Once you’ve obtained a suitable cut of beef, all that remains is for you to cook it. The good news here is that, time consuming as it may be, cooking pot roast is an absolutely dead simple process – even for the novice cook. Oh, and it’s basically impossible to screw up.
The magic of pot roast
If ever you were afraid of overcooking things, pot roast’s for you! You see, my friends, the more you cook it, the better it gets! You can, and should, cook pot roast for upwards of four hours with no bad results. Au contraire, mes amis! For pot roast to become tender, succulent, good eats, it needs to be cooked long enough for the tough muscle fibers, connective tissue and fat to break down and dissolve into juicy goodness. Therein lies the beauty of pot roast and the reason I asked you to aim for a tough hunk of meat littered with fat and connective tissue. While after 2-4 hours on the heat, the meat will technically be overcooked, it will still be incredibly tender, juicy and flavorful as the collagen (tough fibers and connective tissue) nestled between the meat fibers has had enough time and heat to literally melt into delicious, lib-smacking gelatin thus making the entire roast extremely tender, moist and extra flavorful, albeit overcooked. More collagen = more juiciness and flavor. Magic!
Want to know what’s even more magical? Since pot roast is always cooked in some type of flavorful liquid along with a bunch of aromatic vegetables, you won’t have to worry about sauce! After hours of cooking, fat and flavor components from the meat will melt into the liquid in the pot and mingle with the flavors of the vegetables and spices, creating a simple and delicious sauce… Meat, sauce and veggies in one? Pot roast may just be one of the ultimate one pot meals!
No holds barred cooking!
A third and even more beautiful aspect about pot roast is that there are very few rules when it comes to preparing your meal. Basically, you need four things:
- a hunk of cheap, tough meat
- a pot that will fit your beef and carry heat well
- some aromatic vegetables
- a flavorful liquid
- salt, pepper and/or other spices
That’s IT, those are the only rules of pot roastery! Anything else can be left up to your imagination, simple chance, the kindness of strangers, or the state of the fridge and pantry at your disposal. For that very reason, pot roast is one of those things I love to cook when I’m in someone else’s kitchen and have, for one reason or another, been asked to cook without really knowing what’s at hand. This way, I know as long as I have a hunk of beef and a pot, something magical will happen. How magical, how elaborate and how, umm, exciting will be entirely up to my hosts and their stash of basic goods.
What I like to do when I embark on such a quest in an unfamiliar kitchen is to take the meat out of the fridge, generously apply salt and pepper and spend the odd half hour or so that it takes for the beef to come up to temperature on getting to grips with my surroundings and taking a little foraging run through fridges, freezers, cupboards and drawers. And that’s exactly what I did in my dad’s kitchen for his birthday dinner:
Foraging like a boss
I immediately located a bunch of onions which I diced up finely along with some leftover scraps and tops of celery I found laying around and added to a sizzling pot. Also into the pot went the meat, first nicely browned in a separate pan, along with some whole leek tops, a few sprigs of thyme and some garlic.
A flavorful liquid of some form was needed at this point and my dad had very humbly requested that said liquid be made up mostly of red wine. As for choices of wine, I had a few. I’d spend the early afternoon going through my dad’s wine collection and picking out everything I thought was either over the hill or well on its way. Our agreement was that anything that fell into this category I could experiment with for cooking, the rest he would experiment with drinking as soon as possible. This led to the opening of a questionable amount of wine bottles at a questionable time of day, along with some sipping, some pouring wines into the sink and, eventually, the addition of an entire bottle of 2004 Italian red to the dish… Life on earth is good! In along with the wine, by the way went a splash of concentrated beef stock from the cupboard and a healthy splash of soy from the fridge. I spent some time eyeing an array of vinegars, but decided against using them as my dad’s wife is allergic to both vinegar and strong smells.
I then went and turned up the heat and gave everything a quick, rolling boil to burn off most of the alcohol, then lowered the heat to a simmer and added a lid to the pot as I went in search of further vegetation. I found such vegetation in the shape of some large carrots, a few parsnips and half a knob of celeriac. These I cut into large, rustic chunks and added to the pot before replacing the lid and retreating to the couch for a few hours. My work here was done until dinner time. Pot roast for six? Easy!
Is that it?!
Yes, more or less, I’m afraid. Like I’ve already stated, one of the most flavorful meals you’ll ever have is also one of the easiest meals you’ll ever make. I’ll have a basic recipe for you at the bottom, but basically all you have to do is repeat the above with the ingredients of your choice, then wait a few hours. I’d suggest allowing at least three hours depending on the size, shape and grade of your beef, four might be better.
Testing for doneness can be done in an exceedingly scientific manner through the use of a fork. Jab the piece of beef gently with the fork. If the teeth slide in easily without resistance, you’ve reached the state of fork tenderness and your beef is done. You can now carefully remove the beef from the sauce and reduce the sauce to a consistency of your liking, possibly add a bit of cream or other goodness.
As for the beef, we need to trim and clean it a bit before serving. If using bone-in beef, start out by removing the bone(s). If cooked correctly, you can actually use your fingers for this, they should pop right out. If you see any large bits of fat or connective tissue around the outside rim of the roast, cut these off with a sharp knife. Then start carving thick slices. You will undoubtably run into pockets of either fat or connective tissue as you do. Try to remove the larger pockets, but a little fat in each slice doesn’t really matter. Most diners will eat around it, a select few actually fancy the taste and texture.
This, literally is all the work you have to do save plating up and serving. Since this is already a pretty hearty meal, I suggest you go all in and serve this up with my take on perfect mashed potatoes and plenty of sauce. If you’re into pickling, maybe a home-made pickled gherkin to cut through the richness, or throw on a dollop of lingonberry jam, Swedish style! Either way, something sweetly sour would be very nice in terms of cutting through the richness of the other ingredients.
- 2 kilos of beef chuck, preferably bone-in
- two large onions, finely diced
- two stalks of celery, finely diced
- half a celeriac root, peeled and cut into 1x1 cm cubes
- 3 large carrots, cut into one centimeter pieces
- 3 parsnips, cut into one centimeter pieces
- Two cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- one bottle of red wine
- a splash of soy sauce
- 50 grams of butter
- beef stock
- A couple of bay leafs
- A few green leek tops
- A few stalks of fresh thyme
- salt and pepper
- Start by removing beef from the fridge, unwrap it and sprinkle generously with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper.
- Fetch a pot large enough to fit all ingredients, put it over low heat and dump in half the butter.
- When butter has melted, add in onion, celery and garlic plus a pinch of salt. Sweat over low heat for about 30 minutes. Make sure garlic doesn't burn!
- Heat a large cast iron pan over high heat for a good few minutes. When hot, add a splash of cooking oil and the remaining butter.
- Carefully put beef in pan (it will splatter) and brown thoroughly for a few minutes on every surface.
- When beef is thoroughly browned, remove it from the pan and put into pot with the vegetables.
- Kill the heat under the pan and deglaze pan with a bit of red wine. Scrape bottom of pan thoroughly with wooden spoon or spatula to get any brown, caramelized bits off the bottom of the pan.
- Dump pan contents into your pot and follow up with the rest of the bottle of red wine and a splash of beef stock. Also add in bay leaves, leek tops and thyme sprigs. The liquid should only partially cover the beef, beef must not be submerged.
- Raise heat under pot to high and bring contents to a boil, let boil uncovered for about five minutes to cook off most of the alcohol then back the heat down to medium and maintain a steady simmer. Cover the pot and let it simmer for about an hour.
- After an hour, add carrots, celeriac, and parsnips. Reapply lid and continue to simmer covered for another two hours or so.
- Test beef for doneness with a fork. Fork should slide easily into beef.
- Remove beef to a plate and cover to keep warm. Remove bay leaves, leek tops and thyme sprigs.
- Raise heat to medium-high, and reduce sauce to desired consistency, then dump in whipped cream, stir thoroughly to combine and allow pot to come back to a simmer.
- If you're so inclined, you can at this point thicken the sauce using your favorite method and/or starch.
- Slice beef thickly, serve over mashed potatoes with a generous splash of the sauce.
Room for improvement
Like I’ve already said a million times (give or take), the recipe above is a very basic recipe. There is definitely room for improvement and many interesting and exciting things may be added according to your personal preferences and/or mood.
Some like to add tomato for a more Italian-like feel, others use beer rather than wine or turnips instead of parsnips. Some add mushroom to the braise for an earthy depth and the Germans, well, the Germans add raisins and ungodly amounts of vinegar and call it Sauerbraten. But that’s definitely another post!
The point is, you can do pretty much whatever you like as long as you follow the basic guidelines of pot roasting which can actually, and I wish I’d thought of this before, be summed up in three lines of text: Get a tough cut of meat and cook it low and slow in a pot partially submerged in a flavorful liquid along with aromatic vegetables of your choice until it basically falls apart. Then serve up in a rustic manner!
What is your favorite pot roast experience or roasting tip?