A real staple of the American home kitchen is pot roast—a piece of beef long-cooked in liquid (that’s why it’s in a pot), and in the oven for evenness of cooking (that’s why it’s a roast). But the pot-roast memories of some of us are tainted by what mom did to it: bless her soul, she committed the unpardonable sin of serving the meat dry and/or tough. It doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, a perfectly cooked pot roast—tender, melting, primordially beefy, its rich gravy running over a mound of mashed potatoes—can be an absolutely glorious cold-weather meal. And the sandwiches the next day may be even better.
And, at this time of year…Passover!…for those holding Seders, it’s a perfect holiday main course!
The first key to a fabulous pot roast is the choice of beef. Many recipes call for beef round, or rump of beef. In my kitchen, the New York Jewish view prevails: the best cut of beef for pot roast is brisket (see below.) Next, it is important to brown the meat well before you pour the liquid around it; this helps bring out the depth of beef flavor as you cook it. Lastly, it is imperative to cook the pot roast at a fairly low temperature for a long time. Cooking at 325°F or above forces the fat to run out of the meat at a rapid rate, leading to a dry result; cooking at 300°F or below allows more fat to remain in the meat, and the meat’s collagens to melt gently and tenderly.
One more issue remains: simplicity vs. creativity. These days, it is not uncommon to see hot-shot chefs in New American restaurants that are dedicated to comfort food doing Olympic spins on pot roast: Annato-Rubbed Pot Roast with Hoja Santo Essence; Tuscan Pot Roast with Sage, White Beans and Aged Balsamic Vinegar; Hunan Red-Cooked Pot Roast with Star Anise and Hoisin Sauce. Whatever. If you want to add flavors to your pot roast, I’m going to let you do that on your own. But do me a favor before you do yourself a flavor: please try this recipe as is. You may just feel, as I do, that once you know how delicious a pot roast that relies on beef for flavor (with a bass line of onions) can be, you won’t want to mess with it. Simplicity is a virtue!
makes 8 main-course servings
6 tablespoons simple olive oil
3 lbs onions, peeled and sliced thinly
4 teaspoons sweet paprika
8 tablespoons flour
6-lb piece of brisket (see sidebar)
¼ cup crushed tomatoes
6 cups rich beef broth at room temperature
1. Place 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot or sauté pan over high heat (see below for discussion of cooking vessels.) When it’s hot, add half the onions, and cook them until they are nicely browned, just short of burned, and still a little crunchy. Don’t stir them until the brownness starts to take, then stir occasionally. The whole process may take 5-8 minutes. Remove and reserve. Repeat with remaining half of onions. Remove onions and combine with cooked and reserved onions. Stir in 2 teaspoons of paprika evenly. Reserve.
2. Season the brisket well with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Coat evenly with 6 tablespoons of the flour. Add the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil to the pan you used for the onions. Place over high heat. When it’s hot, add the beef. Sear well on all sides until the beef is brown-black (this should take about 5 minutes per side.) Remove beef, and sprinkle evenly with the remaining 2 teaspoons of paprika.
3. Pre-heat oven to 300°F.
4. Select a large pan for braising the beef (see below for discussion of cooking vessels.) Spread the reserved onions out in the bottom of the pan, making a bed that’s about the size of the beef. Spread the crushed tomatoes over the onions. Place the beef on the onion-tomato bed.
5. Place the remaining 2 tablespoons of flour in a mixing bowl. Slowly blend in the beef stock, adding just a few tablespoons of stock at first to make a thick slurry. Then beat in the rest of the stock quickly. After you’ve made sure the flour is blended, pour the stock over and around the beef. The size of your pan will determine the depth of the stock in the pan; an ideal depth is anywhere from 1/4 way to 1/2 way up the side of the beef.
6. Cover the pan very tightly with aluminum foil, and place in the oven. Baste beef occasionally (once an hour or so) with braising liquid. Cook until beef is very tender. If you’ve used the first cut of brisket (see below for discussion of brisket), this may take 3½-4½ hours; if you’ve used the second cut of brisket, this may take 4-5 hours.
7. When the brisket is tender, remove from pan, and let rest for a few minutes. Meanwhile, skim as much fat from the gravy as possible. You may strain the onions out, but I prefer to keep them in. Cut the beef—against the grain!—into slices that are about 1/4″ thick. Cover meat with gravy and serve.
Cooking Vessels for Pot Roast
The ideal cooking vessel for pot roast is a large, heavy pot into which the 6-lb piece of brisket easily fits. But not everyone has such a creature. You could use a roasting pan for pot roast, as long as the sides are high—but lots of roasting pans are made of thin metal, and they won’t be ideal for the initial browning of the onions and the beef. The best solution for most home chefs will be a two-stage solution. Brown the onions and the meat in the largest, heaviest sauté pan that you have. Then transfer the onions and the meat to a roasting pan with high sides before you pop the beef in the oven. The roasting pan I use for braising pot roast is 12″ by 18″, with sides that are 3½ inches high. Use aluminum foil to cover the roasting pan.
All About Brisket
The brisket is a large (normally 12-13 lbs) rectangle of beef that is taken from the front of the animal, just on top of the legs; above the brisket are the animal’s shoulders, from which we get chuck. Brisket has no bones, and is quite tough—unless you cook it slowly for a long time. Then its unique blend of lean meat, and fatty, spongy meat, melt into something spectacular. Corned beef is made from brisket, and I think brisket makes the very best pot roast of all.
Of course, when you buy a chunk of brisket for pot roast, you’ll have a big decision to make. You’ll usually need only half of a brisket for the accompanying recipe, which feeds eight—but which half? About 2/3 of the brisket is what butchers refer to as “the first cut;” it’s flat, quite lean, with what fat it has layered on top. The other 1/3 is called “the second cut;” it’s thicker and much more irregular, with meat and fat interspersed throughout. It also contains the insanely delicious “deckle,” which is the most sinfully tasty spot in the whole brisket. For my money, though the “second cut” is fattier, and though it requires a little more “cutting away” at the table, the “second cut” is much more flavorful, juicy and interesting.
If you are fat-phobic, ask the butcher to cut the brisket in half, and take home the 6-lb chunk that’s all “first cut.” But if you’ve made peace with a little fat, as I have, I think the best solution is to take home the other half—the 6-lb chunk that has some “first cut” in it, and all of the “second cut.” This way, you can serve leaner pieces from the “first cut” to those who want them…and keep the “second-cut pieces” for the feinschmeckers. Just save the deckle for me.