3 surprisingly simple steps to a perfect pot roast
In this edition of Anne Byrn’s Taste of a Place column, the bestselling author talks pot roast, telling the story of why you’ve gotta love it to get it right, and offers a blueprint on making your next roast your best roast.
Without a doubt, I became the cook I am today because I had a great role model: my mom.
She loved good food, and she enjoyed cooking it and sharing with others. And I’ve spent my adult life trying to recreate the way she made many of the comfort foods I adored as a child: slow-roasted pork roast with apples and onions, homemade yeast bread swirled with cinnamon, and her much-celebrated Christmas toffee. Yet, there is one basic comfort food — the pot roast — that I make better than my mom.
Hers was swimming in a sweet tomatoey sauce, as might have been the norm in the 1960s and ’70s. I recall a period in which she simmered a lot of things (round steak, too) in a sweet tomato sauce. And we didn’t complain. There were always homemade mashed potatoes to the side, and kids don’t complain when served mashed potatoes.
The reason my mother didn’t make a mean pot roast was that she wasn’t hungry for it, which really sums up how we all accomplish certain recipes in the kitchen. When they matter and when we hunger for them, we cook them over and over, and perfect them. But one day I did hunger for pot roast, not swimming in tomato sauce, just simmered and slow-cooked in its own juices.
I sought out different recipes. I tried different cuts of beef. And what I developed was a blueprint formula for roasting pot roast that became a staple at my family’s table.
Three Steps: The Roast, the Sear, the Slow Oven
It couldn’t be simpler than three steps: Buy the right cut of beef, have a heavy pot in which you can sear the beef, then simmer it covered. And plan your schedule enough to let the beef slowly cook in the oven. That’s it.
The roast should be chuck. It might be a tri-tip roast with less fat, but really the best pot roasts start with chuck. I look for a roast that isn’t ensconced in fat. You expect some fat in chuck, but don’t buy a roast that is laden with it. Look for a leaner cut.
You will let that beef come to room temperature, then dredge it in flour seasoned with salt, pepper and a little seasoning salt of your choice (you can substitute cornstarch for flour to make it gluten-free). Once dredged, let it rest.
Now heat up a large 5- to 6-quart heavy Dutch oven or casserole pan with a lid. Staub works, and so does Le Creuset. Place a little vegetable oil in the pan, and when it’s hot, add the beef and cook on each side until it sears. Turn on the exhaust fan because you want high heat and you want the beef to sear on each side. Once accomplished, remove the seared beef to a platter to rest, and turn off the heat.
Peel and cut three large sweet onions in half. When Vidalias are in season, by all means, use them. They cook down to bliss in a pot roast. Place the six onion halves cut-side down in the pan. Place the beef back in the pan on top of those onions.
And here lies the real trick of this recipe. The onions prevent the beef from sticking to the bottom of the pan. The beef presses down on the onions, and they cook down and soften. And the onions, as well as the heavy pan, allow the beef to cook slowly in its own juices. Therefore, the beef is tender, has flavor, and is what pot roast should be.
You only bake this pot roast at 300 degrees. You can even cook it longer and at 275 degrees if your oven tends to run hot. It takes about 3 to 3 1/2 hours for a 4-pound pot roast to cook.
Go ahead and peel the potatoes, carrots, and any root vegetable you like, and place them in a container, covering them with water to prevent darkening. You’ll add those to the pot one hour before the roast is done. And when it’s done, the beef will be fork-tender, the veggies soft, and the onions, juices, and flour will have mixed and mingled to form their own gravy.
Day Two Beef Stew
The best part of pot roast at our house is the aroma in the oven! Oh my, there is nothing more wonderful than opening a kitchen door to the smell of pot roast cooking. You will make your friends and family very, very happy if you take this recipe under your wing
And the second best part of pot roast are leftovers, which we turn into Day Two Beef Stew. It is, simply, chopped leftover roast, the cooked vegetables, defatted cooking juices, and a little beef broth or water with some beef bouillon added to thin it all out. Heat and serve atop egg noodles, grits, or just in warm bowls with toasted garlic bread.
Mothers give us many wonderful recipes and memories. I just wish my mom was still alive so I could share this recipe with her. Enjoy!
Anne Byrn’s Braised Pot Roast with Sweet Onion Gravy
Hands On Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 4 hours and 0 minutes
1 (4-pound) boneless beef chuck roast
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Seasoning salt of your choice (optional)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 large sweet onions, peeled and cut in half crosswise
4 cups roughly chopped carrots
4 cups roughly chopped potatoes, parsnips, or turnips
Place a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 300 degrees.
Pat the roast dry with paper towels. Place the flour in a shallow dish and stir in salt, pepper and seasoning salt to taste. Dredge the roast on all sides in the seasoned flour.
Heat the oil in a 5- to 6-quart Dutch oven or over heavy-bottomed pot over high heat. Add the roast and brown on each side until well seared, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Remove the pot from the heat and transfer the roast to a plate.
Place the onion halves cut-side down in the bottom of the pot. Place the roast on top of the onions, and cover the pot.
Bake for 2 hours. Add the carrots and potatoes, and spoon the juices over the vegetables to baste. Return the pot, covered, to the oven and continue to bake until the beef is very tender and the juices have thickened, 1 to 1 1/2 more hours.
To serve, remove the roast from the pot and slice it into thick servings. Arrange slices of beef on plates with the carrots, onions and potatoes. Spoon the pan juices over the top.
Anne Byrn, a New York Times bestselling cookbook author and writer, is the former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and author of the popular Cake Mix Doctor series and most recently, American Cake. Her newest book, American Cookie, is available from Southern Kitchen. Anne lives in Nashville, TN, her hometown. Visit her at AnneByrn.com.