Pot Roast 101
Learn to master this satisfying and wonderfully rich classic.
To most people, "pot roast" means slow-cooked beef with carrots, potatoes, or other vegetables added partway through cooking. The term actually refers either to the cooking method or the dish. Pot roast predates the modern range and likely originated when hearth cooking was common. Heavy "pot-ovens" fitted with a tight lid were suspended over a fire or nestled among the coals, so meats cooked in simmering liquid without direct exposure to the heat. (For hundreds more slow cooker recipes for appetizers, entrées, side dishes, and desserts, see our Slow Cooker Recipes collection.)
Versatile and adaptable, pot roasting is relevant today because it renders succulent a variety of tough and often inexpensive cuts of meat, including beef, pork, and lamb. You can complete most of the prep work ahead, pop the roast into the pot to cook, and do as you please while the dish simmers. Many of these recipes can be made ahead, and some freeze well. A single roast easily feeds six to eight and often offers the promise of future meals made from leftovers.
Choose the Pot
In keeping with pot roast's down-home roots, the dish requires little in the way of specialty equipment. A pot with a tight-fitting lid is crucial. Many cooks prefer a heavy cast-iron pot, often called a Dutch oven. Enameled cast iron (a French oven) is another good option. Although this kind of pot is a bit pricier, enameled cast iron cooks beautifully on the stove and in the oven, and cleanup is straightforward. A heavy pot is important so you don't burn or scorch the meat and aromatics when browning, and it conducts heat evenly to insulate the contents during roasting. A heavy cast-iron pot delivers more intense flavor because it cooks hot and browns evenly. Of course, any large, heavy, stainless steel, aluminum, or other nonreactive pan with a tight-fitting lid will work as long as the pan is large enough to accommodate the roast.
You'll need a pair of sturdy tongs to transfer the roast in and out of the pot. If you have two pairs of tongs, use both of them–one to handle the uncooked roast and the second to move the cooked meat. Otherwise, be sure to wash the tongs after handling raw or partially cooked meat. A wooden spoon is also handy to stir aromatics as they brown or to mix vegetables into the pot partway through cooking.
Select the Right Cut of Meat
Pot roasting is a great technique for less expensive, tough cuts of meat, such as those from the shoulder and neck, arm, or hip and leg. These sections are typically fattier and therefore more flavorful, but they're also tough because they contain more connective tissue than more expensive cuts. Cooking tough cuts slowly in a flavorful liquid melts the fat away and breaks down the tough connective tissue, resulting in fork-tender meat.
Beef pot roasts generally come from the chuck (cut from entire shoulder section, between the neck and arm). Brisket, rump roast, and top and bottom round are a bit leaner than chuck and suitable for pot-roasting as well. Leg of lamb and pork shoulder roasts will also work. Whichever meat or cut you choose, look for a roast that's well marbled. The smaller marbling creates smaller pockets of fat, contributing to a moist and compact roast. Avoid roasts with large ribbons of fat, as they will yield a greasy, misshapen, and fatty pot roast.
Brown the Meat
Season the meat before you cook it. Salt and freshly ground black pepper are the basics, but you can make spice pastes or rubs with fresh garlic, chopped fresh herbs, and ground spices to rub on the meat. Then heat a Dutch oven, and brown the meat on all sides. Since the meat will simmer in liquid, this step is critical to develop color and flavor. The natural sugars in the paste or rub have a chance to caramelize, while the browned exterior makes the finished dish look attractive and appetizing.
Pot roast is braised, which means the meat cooks in a few inches of liquid. You can cook it on the stove top or in the oven. When roasted in the oven, the temperature range is usually between 300° and 350°. Any higher and the meat will likely be dry and tough. Atop the stove, maintain the liquid at a slow simmer (about 180°) over medium-low heat.
Add the Vegetables
You should be able to cut the cooked pot roast on your plate with a fork. To ensure that both the meat and the vegetables will be cooked perfectly, it's usually best to cook the meat until it is almost done before adding most vegetables. Test for doneness by inserting a long, thin skewer or long fork tines into the meat. If there is little or no resistance, the meat is properly cooked. Add vegetables, such as carrots or potatoes, at this point, and continue cooking until the vegetables are tender.
Use the Pan Juices
While some pot roasts cook with a generous amount of liquid, others have just enough wine or broth to yield a moist roast and provide flavorful pan juices to drizzle over the meat. If the cooking liquid is too thick or thin, you can always adjust it to suit your tastes. To thicken pan juices, cook them over medium-high heat to reduce the liquid, or stir in a little cornstarch. If pan juices are too thick, add a bit of wine, broth, or water and simmer briefly to achieve your desired consistency.
Simply remove the meat from the pan, shred with two forks or slice it thinly, and serve with the vegetables and pan juices or gravy. Chopped fresh herbs, herb sprigs, or grated fresh citrus rind are fitting garnishes for these hearty, earthy dishes.
Freezing Pot Roast
Make sure the cooked, cooled meat is completely covered with liquid before you freeze it. You can accomplish this by cutting the meat into smaller pieces and immersing them in pan juices. Or add a bit of broth to the gravy or pan juices until it covers the roast. If you add broth, boil the liquid mixture after you thaw to thicken its consistency and concentrate the flavor. I prefer not to freeze most vegetables, as they tend to deteriorate when frozen. You can roast fresh potatoes, carrots, or other vegetables and add them to the thawed roast and pan juices.