It’s Sunday night. Grandma has been cooking that hunk of beef in the crock pot since before the break of dawn. Serving time. Stringy, dry, dead and flavorless meat with flaccid gravy and mushy chunks of potatoes, carrots and onions. You fight through with a smile for sweet Grandma, and promise yourself that you would never do something so horrid to your own kids. That’s right folks. It’s pot roast. That maligned and mistreated, often misunderstood bit of Classic American Cuisine…
Or is it? Before we go into what can go VERY right, let’s look at what went wrong with Grandma’s roast.
Cooking Time… The Pot Roast that many of us grew up with is commonly known as Yankee Pot Roast. Braised in beef broth with the same traditional aromatic vegetables, Grandma cooked it in that ever present and forever stained crock pot for hours and hours and hours and hours. Well, that’s just too many hours! Even the cheapest and toughest cuts of beef, commonly used in pot roast, such as Chuck Steaks or Chuck Roast cannot stand up to that kind of cook time. While they are handy, the old school crock pots tended to cook at higher temps than expected, which caused either scorching, or over cooking of your final product.
Cooking Medium… Beef broth. More than likely, Grandma had a can of Swanson’s Beef Broth for the braising liquid. Just how much flavor can that bring to the party? Beef on beef love may sound like good cow porn, but for braising? You need MORE FLAVOR! Borrow from the French on this one man. Beef Bourguignon is a classic dish. Use Red Wine for a braising liquid! No red wine, and not into the French thing? Try something All American for your braising liquid. Sam Addams Boston Lager makes a FANTASTIC braising liquid. The hops and natural spicy tones of the beer are a fantastic flavor note.
The Veggies… Pretty simple stuff here folks. If you cook a vegetable for that long, you have cooked the flavor, and all of the fibers into mush. If you insist of keeping those veggies, blend them into the sauce. It can make a nice option for a thick sauce if you are gluten free.
The Method… Let’s talk about that word that has been thrown around this article a few times now. Braise. What is braising? Braising is a traditional cooking method that combines two cooking techniques. Searing, which is the high heat cooking of the outside of the product in fat, and slow cooking of the product in a flavorful liquid? As mentioned before, the tougher the meat, the better the result. Tough cuts of beef and pork can stand up very well to the long term cooking, and the slow moist heat breaks down the connective tissues to make the meat juicy and the cooking liquids richer. Braising differs from stewing in the amount of liquid that is used. Stewed meat is cooked more soup style and in smaller pieces. Braised meats are whole cuts, or larger cuts of the tougher parts of the animal. The usual suspects? On the cow, you have areas in the leg and chest. Chuck, shoulder and round. Why? The muscles around the legs and chest of the cow, and for that matter, the pig, the lamb, and anything that you cook with legs, tends to be tough. Why again? Collagen. That same stuff you hear about in high end cosmetics is what makes your meat tough, and your stocks and sauces made from that stock rich and meaty. The weight bearing muscles of your cooking buddy contains more moving muscles, and therefore more connective tissue that moves those muscles. Those connective tissues are made of collagen. Collagen is a long, stiff protein that is the most prevalent protein in your cooking buddy.. It’s something like the way fibers are twisted around each other to form a rope. That structure is what gives it its strength. The low and slow braise slowly breaks down that collagen and converts it to that soft and supple meat friend, gelatin. Yes, one and the same. Gelatin. Ever wonder why your vegan friends don’t enjoy that Jell-O for dessert?
Now that you know the long and the short of the method and how to make it a success. Let’s go over dinner.
Mise en Place. Again with that word. Very repetitive theme in culinary man. Get used to it. Onions, carrots, celery, bay leaves, rosemary (or thyme) garlic and concasse tomatoes. Tonight we are rolling with a smaller chuck roast of the boneless variety. Salt and pepper your meat, and get your Dutch oven or braising vessel of your choice that can be covered, nice and hot over medium high heat on the stove. When the pan is hot, add about a tablespoon of canola oil and add your meat. You are trying to sear the meat. That is adding color and flavor via the Maillard Reaction.
Huh? What the heck is that you ask? The Maillard Reaction is the chemical reaction between the amino acids and the reducing sugars in the meat that cause a brown color change and the creation of new chemical compounds on the surface of the meat that dramatically enhance the flavor of the product.
Back to the cooking stuff…. Sear all sides of your meat. Don’t move it around too much, the longer you have contact with the pan, the better the sear. Once you are nice and brown on all sides, add your vegetables, coarsely chopped. You want to get the edges of the veggies browned. Place your browned meat directly
on top of your aromatic vegetables. Add the liquid of your choice for braising. Tonight, we will go with a descent red wine. Rule of thumb with cooking wine. If you would not drink it, don’t cook with it. Do you want crummy flavored wine cooked into your good food? Don’t drown your meat. You are braising your meat. Pour the wine until the liquid is about half way up the side of your meat. Add your tomatoes concasse and your fresh herbs, cover and throw it in the oven. I run my oven at 225 degrees. Low and slow is the right answer. You are not trying to boil the meat to death.
Why add the tomatoes? The fibers in the meat are added in their breakdown with the addition of a little bit of acid. You get your acids from the tomatoes, as well as the improved flavor profiles from that illusive savory flavor profile of Umami. Don’t fret, I will go over that one soon enough. It’s pretty important stuff, but I am getting long winded tonight.
How long do I cook it? It depends on the size of the cut of meat. You don’t want your meat to be dead and grey. But you want it to be nice and juicy. Your best bet is to go by temperature AND time. Your best read is to get your meats internal temperature up to 150. Past 160 and your meat will turn grey. Grey is ugly man. 150 is a generalized number though. If you meat is super tender and is a little under don’t fret, it’s done.
Take your beautiful meat and set it into a nice warm oven covered gently to keep it warm, because now we are making sauce. Strain out the veggies and get rid of them. Just like with your stocks, they are dead. Skim as much fat as you can from the cooking liquid and start to reduce it down. At this point, I enhance the cooking liquid with a highly reduced beef stock. That is up to your taste. Cook it down by at least half in volume. Taste it. Remember to always taste your foods. If your flavors are good, your seasoning is good, etc., don’t go too far with it. Otherwise keep going. Remember to keep tasting your sauces! The more you reduce the more intense the flavor. If you get to the point that you are happy with the flavor but not the thickness, or richness, it’s time to bring out Captain Corn Starch!
Make a slurry of cold beef stock and an equal part corn starch. Mix well. Lumps in your slurry will be lumps in your sauce. Keep your sauce hot. Bring it back to a simmer, not a boil. Slowly add in to the sauce whisking it in as you go. Bring your heat back up and to a low boil. The starch does not start to thicken your sauces until you reach boiling temperatures. Continue this process until you get the thickness that you desire and the sauce does not have a starchy flavor to it.
You are now good to go! Slice it, sauce it, serve it and enjoy it! You have now saved your kids and family from that dreaded dead and grey meat and have made the humble pot roast something to be enjoyed!