Make Pot Roast Even Better than Mom’s - No. 82
My four secrets, plus why M.F.K. Fisher would have loved my pot roast
It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. - M.F.K. Fisher. The Art of Eating.
I’ve spent decades perfecting pot roast and wondering why my mother didn’t make a better one.
She could cook her way through our garden of summer vegetables, bake biscuits light as air, Strawberry Shortcake, unforgettable cinnamon rolls, legendary Ambrosia, and a meringue pie for every night of the week… but not pot roast. Hers bathed in a sweet tomato sauce, which I understand was popular at the time, but never wowed me.
I wanted pot roast with brown gravy and where love mixed and mingled with the potatoes and carrots. So one day, when I was finally ready to create my own pot roast memories, I pulled out my heaviest Dutch oven and began.
I seared a chuck roast and let it simmer quietly, not in tomato sauce, but its own juices while everyone went about their lives in our house until the aroma coming from the oven was too irresistible and they found their way to the kitchen waiting to dig in.
The roast, the sear, onions & a slow oven
To arrive at what I proclaim the perfect pot roast, I tried each and every pot roast method I could and steered clear of tomatoes. And I’m happy to share my favorite method with you today. It really comes down to four essentials:
The right cut of beef - a chuck roast.
A heavy pot in which to sear the beef - Le Creuset or similar.
Big sweet onions that create a mattress on which the beef rests while it cooks.
And enough time to let the beef cook slowly until done.
Why pot roast (and gravy) matter
So much of cooking comfort foods like pot roast is about technique. It’s not so much the ingredient list and those special seasonings as it is method. And back when people spent time in the kitchen with someone more experienced and watched and learned from them, that’s how you got good at something. In case you haven’t noticed, those days are vanishing.
Plus, inflation has hit the supermarket. And if you are a beef lover, do you want to buy a couple steaks or would you rather take a summer vacation? It’s not that bad, but you must agree that the cost of beef has shot through the roof.
So I propose we cook less expensive cuts, like chuck roasts, which benefit from low and slow cooking and have the most remarkable flavor.
I look for chuck or tri-tip roasts that have some fat marbled throughout but are not laden in fat. I let the beef come to room temperature and then dredge it in flour (or cornstarch if you are gluten-free) seasoned with salt, pepper, and a little seasoning salt of your choice. Once dredged, let it rest.
Now, I heat up a large 5- to 6-quart heavy Dutch oven or casserole pan with lid. Staub or Lodge works, and so does Le Creuset. Place a little vegetable oil in the pan, and when it is hot, add the dredged beef and cook on each side until it sears. Turn on the exhaust fan because you want the beef to brown well on each side. Then remove the seared beef to a platter to rest, and turn off the heat.
Peel and cut three large onions in half. When Vidalias are in season, I use them because they cook down to sweet bliss. Place the now six onion halves cut-side down in the pan. Lay the beef on top of the onions.
Secret revealed! GRAVY.
The onions make a mattress for the beef to rest on and prevent it from sticking to the pan. The beef presses down on the onions, which forces them to cook down and soften. As the beef cooks with no other liquid added, it creates its own juices that thicken thanks to the coating of flour and seasonings, and you have gravy - the most coveted 5-letter word I know.
And if that isn’t a Wordle yet, can we please nominate it? GRAVY.
At 300 degrees, it takes about 3 to 3 1/2 hours for a 4-pound pot roast to cook to perfection.
If you want to stay busy while the meat is cooking, peel potatoes, carrots, or any root vegetable you like, and cover them with water to prevent darkening. You will add those to the pot one hour before the roast is done.
And when the beef is fork-tender, the veggies soft, and the onions, juices, and flour have made gravy, dinner is served!
On day two, beef stew
The nice thing about pot roast is that it lets everyone know what’s for dinner. The aroma wafts through the house so there’s no need to ring a dinner bell.
And another plus are the leftovers, which we turn into beef stew this way: Chop leftover roast and cooked vegetables and simmer them in a saucepan with the defatted cooking juices and a little beef broth or water. Spoon over egg noodles, cheese grits or polenta, or just in warm bowls with toasted garlic bread.
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher — M.F.K. Fisher — was the most eloquent and honest of food writers. I would have loved to serve her pot roast and let the conversations begin.
How do you cook pot roast?
Pot Roast with Sweet Onion Gravy
This miraculous pot roast makes its own onion gravy! Cook in your heaviest oven-safe pot with secure lid. Let rest 20 minutes before slicing.
Makes 8 servings
Prep: 10 to 15 minutes
Cook: 3 to 3 1/2 hours
1 boneless beef chuck roast (about 4 pounds)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Seasoning salt of your choice, if desired
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 large sweet onions, peeled and cut in half crosswise
4 cups chopped carrots
4 cups chopped, peeled potatoes, parsnips, or turnips
1. Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
2. 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 and set aside.
3. Place the oil in a 5- to 6-quart heavy casserole or Dutch oven over high heat. Add the roast and brown on each side until well seared, about 3 to 4 minutes per side. Remove the casserole from the heat. Transfer the roast to a plate. Place the onion halves cut-side down in the bottom of the casserole. Place the roast on top of the onions, and cover the casserole.
4. Place the casserole in the oven, and bake until it is tender and the juices have thickened, about 3 to 3 1/2 hours. About 1 hour before doneness, add the carrots, potatoes or other root vegetables to the casserole. Spoon juices over the vegetables to baste them. Place the lid on the casserole and return to the oven.
5. To serve, remove the roast from the casserole and slice it. Arrange slices of beef on plates with carrots, onions, and veggies. Spoon the pan juices - gravy - over the top.
Dear Great British Bake Off fans: I need your help!
On February 6, Her Majesty The Queen will become the first British Monarch to celebrate a Platinum Jubilee, honoring 70 years of service to the United Kingdon. My dear friend Julie Buchanan in England, and a Between the Layers subscriber, has asked me to think of a cake to honor the Queen. All of the UK is submitting their favorite —I mean “favourite”— ‘’pudding’’ recipes, in a contest in hopes theirs will be chosen. What would you bake for the Queen? I have some ideas and would love yours!
This Subscriber Thursday: Roasted Carrots & More
I do love carrots in a pot roast, but I like them even better if I cook some separately so they develop more flavor. So I will share that recipe Thursday as well as my…drumroll, please …Aldi Shopping List!
And thanks to everyone who took part in the Subscriber Open Thread last week. We will have another in February, so look out for those details. And congrats to Laura Sarratt for winning our January Subscriber Giveaway - a copy of one of my early books, Food Gifts for all Seasons.
Anne Byrn: Between the Layers is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Have a great week and happy cooking!