Exploring Pot Roast: History of a Yankee Classic, and Four Variations

Updated on July 28, 2018
Carb Diva profile image

Exploring food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes... one ingredient at a time.

Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains; another, a moonlit beach; a third, a family dinner of pot roast and sweet potatoes during a myrtle-mad August in a Midwestern town. Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines hidden under the weedy mass of years. Hit a tripwire of smell and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.

— Diane Ackerman, American poet and essayist

My next door neighbor was born and raised in New England, Connecticut to be exact. In my humble opinion, the winter of 2017-18 has been dreadful in Washington State (that's where I live). However, my neighbor just laughs at my dismay over 3 inches of white fluff. According to him, a true winter begins in early November, and often before Halloween. Snow and ice are deposited while the pumpkins are still fresh and they (the snow and ice) remain firmly in place until early April when winter finally begins to release its icy grasp.

Survival in New England is dependent upon several key basics: wool socks, layers of flannel, L.L. Bean boots, puffy coats . . . and a recipe for Yankee pot roast.

“Pot roast”, as the name might suggest, is a roast cooked in a pot, usually seared then simmered in liquid with herbs and spices. In the final stage of cooking (the last hour) vegetables are added for both flavor and interest. Recipes for pot roast can be found in cookbooks written as early as the mid-19th century, but the actual process of simmering meat in a pot with water or other liquid has been known for centuries.

The Yankee pot roast is an invention of one part ingenuity and two parts thrift. Savvy cooks knew that the careful browning of the meat, in the beginning, would result in deeply rich, savory gravy. Less than stellar cuts of meat (tough, gristly, and full of fat and connective tissue) would obligingly submit to the long gentle cooking process. And whatever vegetables happened to be lingering in the root cellar would contribute to the hearty meal.

One might say that the Yankee pot roast is an homage to New Englanders—frugality, patience, and perseverance bring honor, reward . . . and fine eating.

Building Blocks of a Great Pot Roast

(1) The Meat

Although beef is typically featured in a New England pot roast, pork can also be used. Here is a brief list of the meats and cuts that would work well:

  • beef chuck roast
  • beef brisket
  • pork shoulder
  • Boston pork butt

Notice that I didn't mention one of the prime cuts. Save those tender (and expensive) cuts for rare roast beef with Yorkshire pudding. Today we're doing a savory simmer to make even the toughest cuts fork-tender.

(2) Aromatics

These are the herbs and fresh vegetables added at the start of the cooking process to impart flavor to the braising liquid. Onion is at the top of the list. I'll make other suggestions in the recipes that follow.

(3) Liquid to Deglaze the Pan

If you have been following my weekly Q&A series and the cooking term lexicon you should be familiar with the "deglazing." If you missed it, here's a brief explanation:

Deglaze - After cooking foods in a pan there will be juices and little brown bits left in the bottom of the pan. Add liquid and stir and scrape over high heat to melt those bits and turn all of it into a savory liquid that can be added to your sauce, or turned into gravy.

(4) Braising Liquid and Flavorings

The original recipe uses beef broth, but other liquids can be used to alter the flavor profile of the finished dish. (Stay tuned!)

(5) Vegetables

Not the initial aromatics, but the veggies that will complete the dish. New Englanders used mostly root vegetables (carrots, parsnips, turnips, etc.) because those would be most readily available.


Now that you know the basics, let's look at first the original recipe, and then explore some variations.


Recipes

Original Yankee Pot Roast

Many recipes for pot roast contain tomato paste to deepen the umami flavor, and utilize red wine to deglaze the pan. Both of those are excellent additions, but not traditional. Neither tomato nor red wine would have been available to our New England ancestors. This recipe is about as close to the original as one can get.

Ingredients

  • 1 3-pound beef chuck roast
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 2 teaspoons dried thyme
  • 2 to 2 1/2 cups beef stock, divided
  • 3 large carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 3 celery ribs, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 2 cups chopped white onions
  • 1 bay leaf, whole

Directions

Preheat your oven to 275° and position a rack in the lower half of the oven. Pat the meat dry and season liberally on all sides with salt and pepper.

Set a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat, and add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil. Add the beef to the pot and sear evenly on all sides, using tongs to turn the roast, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate and set aside.

Lower the heat to medium and add the remaining vegetable oil. Add the onion and thyme and cook, stirring often, until the onions are translucent, about 6 minutes.

Increase the heat to medium-high. Deglaze the pot by adding 1/2 cup of the beef stock, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Return the browned roast to the pot, adding more stock to come a little more than halfway up the meat (the amount of stock you’ll need will vary with the size of the roast). Bring to a simmer.

Once it’s simmering, remove the pot from the heat. Cover the top with a sheet of aluminum foil; then cover with the lid. Transfer the pot to the oven and cook until the beef is quite tender, 3 1/2 to 4 hours. Be sure the liquid in the pot is simmering, not boiling, and that there’s enough liquid to prevent the meat from drying out.

Remove the pot from the oven and arrange the vegetables and bay leaf around the meat. Cover and return to the oven for an additional 20 to 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender and a knife slips easily in and out of the meat. Transfer the roast to a plate and tent with foil for 15 minutes.

To serve, slice against the grain, or use two forks to pull the beef into chunks. Discard the bay leaf and arrange the beef and vegetables on a platter. Spoon the sauce over the beef and vegetables and serve with mashed potatoes or buttered egg noodles.

Mexican Pot Roast

Lisa (creator of the blog Bloghetti) is a self-proclaimed "foodie." She loves to experiment in the kitchen. One recent addition to her repertoire was this Mexican-inspired pot roast. She starts out her roast much the same as the original New England original, but instead of beef broth and savory herbs, she uses tomatoes, chili peppers and ground cumin for flavor, tenderizing, and a subtle bit of heat.

There are so many things you can do with this roast (and the leftovers, if there is such a thing). This would taste wonderful over a bed of Mexican rice, on top of tortilla chips (with a helping of sour cream and guacamole, please), shredded and folded into tacos, rolled into enchiladas, or (if you really want to be wild and crazy) used to top crispy baked tater tots. Add some grated Cheddar cheese, some sliced black olives, fresh tomato, green onions . . . do you see where we're going here?

Italian Pot Roast (Stracotto)

This next recipe is adapted from numerous sources. I took a spoonful of Giada, a dash of New York Times, and my own intuition and common sense to create a pot roast that cooks like it came from New England, but has the flavors one would associate with Italia.

Ingredients

  • 1 3-pound beef chuck roast
  • 6 whole garlic cloves
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1 cup dry red wine (see suggestions below)
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 to 2 1/2 cups beef stock, divided
  • 1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
  • 3 large carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 1 cup sliced fennel
  • 2 cups chopped white onions

Directions

Preheat your oven to 275° and position a rack in the lower half of the oven. Pat the meat dry and season liberally on all sides with salt and pepper.

Cut each garlic clove in half (from top to bottom). Using the tip of a very sharp knife, pierce the top side of the roast in 6 places and slip a halved garlic clove in each slit. Turn the roast over and repeat on the bottom side.

Set a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat, and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the beef to the pot and sear evenly on all sides, using tongs to turn the roast, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate and set aside.

Lower the heat to medium and add the remaining olive oil. Add the onion and oregano and cook, stirring often, until the onions are translucent, about 6 minutes.

Increase the heat to medium-high. Deglaze the pot by adding wine, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Return the browned roast to the pot; add the stock to come a little more than halfway up the meat (the amount of stock you’ll need will vary with the size of the roast). Stir in the mushrooms and bring to a simmer.

Once it’s simmering, remove the pot from the heat. Cover the top with a sheet of aluminum foil; then cover with the lid. Transfer the pot to the oven and cook until the beef is quite tender, 3 1/2 to 4 hours. Be sure the liquid in the pot is simmering, not boiling, and that there’s enough liquid to prevent the meat from drying out.

Remove the pot from the oven and arrange the vegetables around the meat. Cover and return to the oven for an additional 20 to 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender and a knife slips easily in and out of the meat. Transfer the roast to a plate and tent with foil for 15 minutes.

To serve, slice against the grain, or use two forks to pull the beef into chunks. Discard the bay leaf and arrange the beef and vegetables on a platter. Spoon the sauce over the beef and vegetables and serve with cooked pasta, gnocchi, or creamy polenta.


Asian Pot Roast

Sarah (one of the four bloggers at The Woks of Life), created this Asian-inspired pot roast. Her flavors are spot-on, but I would like to offer a few suggestions:

  • Instead of beef, why not use a pork roast.
  • She simmers her roast on the stove top. I think this could easily be adapted to slow-roasting in the oven, at 275 degrees, just as we did with the Yanke pot roast.
  • A half-teaspoon of Chinese 5-spice powder would add some interesting flavors without being too assertive.

Greek Pot Roast

Lisa (Butter With a Side of Bread), created a Greek-inspired pot roast that simmers slowly all day in the crockpot. However, she uses a commercially-made "Greek seasoning" which probably isn't available to everyone. (I can't find it). Most people would give up and go on to another recipe. I don't roll that way. I made my own, and you can too. The recipe is posted below.

I would serve Lisa's roast with a fresh salad of tomatoes and cucumbers, flatbread, and perhaps some tzatziki sauce.

Greek Seasoning

  • 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon Greek oregano (dried)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried dill weed
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried orange peel

This makes about 6 tablespoons, enough to make this dish three times. Or you could use it to season roast chicken, roast baby potatoes, add to oil and vinegar to make a salad dressing. The only limit is your imagination.

Are You Inspired?

Which Pot Roast Will You Try?

See results

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Lum

    Comments

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      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        2 days ago from Washington State, USA

        Shauna - That is the way that my mom always cooked her pot roast. The Lipton onion soup mix adds lots of onion flavor without the tears of peeling and dicing. Isn't it great that knowing how to cook can allow one to turn even the toughest piece of meat into a fork-tender, succulent meal? You've brought back some wonderful memories for me.

        I hope you are having a wonderful week.

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 

        2 days ago from Central Florida

        Funny that this is the next article of yours I'm catching up on, Linda. I just had leftover pot roast for lunch! I use chuck roast, a packet of Lipton onion soup and chicken broth to braise my pot roast, after searing it. As you say, about an hour before done (I cook mine for 3 1/2 to four hours) I add red potatoes or Yukon Gold and carrots. I don't peel the potatoes or the carrots. When the veggies are done, I remove the meat and vegs from the pot, make a slurry of cornstarch and water and whisk it into the braising liquid. Once thickened, I return everything to the pot. Yum!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        4 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Lawrence, our dear Julia Child (please Google her if that name is not familiar to you) would have called that " boeuf bourguignon". Wine is a tenderizer in addition to adding amazing flavor. Thanks for your comment and for stopping by. I DO hope you will try one of these.

      • lawrence01 profile image

        Lawrence Hebb 

        4 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

        Linda

        Roast Beef in a red wine sauce may not be a 'typical' pot roast, but it wins every time in our house, and the trick is, THE CHEAPER THE WINE, THE BETTER THE FLAVOUR!

        Great hub here, I might just try some of these.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        5 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Flourish, if I can entertain a vegan with an article solely about meat, I guess I've done my job. Thank you always for your support and encouragement. I promise a few non-meat hubs in the near future.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        5 months ago from USA

        Even though I don’t eat beef or pork, I found this well written and entertaining. My mother used to make pot roast all the time and it did smell fabulous!

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        5 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Kitchens are the finest of schools as is your's Ms. Linda

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        5 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Eric, the memory of cooking in your momma's kitchen--how fortunate you are. As the youngest, perhaps you got a bit more of her attention. How sweet. I'm sure those meals WERE Heavenly.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        5 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        My momma was cooking enough to feed twenty. She smiled at me down on my step stool with my buttermilk. Snow was a foot thick easy. About two hours left for serving I reckon. She winked and put her finger to her mouth, pulled me up and set a skillet on the stove.

        She put season upon season and had me put them in the skillet. She near giggled.The smell was a Greek heaven.

        "Son, sometimes the flavor is best left for the noses". Somehow the pot roast taught me about my "attitude". We do not need a frontal assault in the kitchen or in life. Subtleness is finer.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        5 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Peggy, they sure sound good today. I'm freezing my giblets here today. I am SOOO ready for Spring!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        5 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Oh poor Mary, why is the meat in Brazil so deplorable? You must be miserable at dinnertime. Dust off that crockpot.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        5 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Louise, there is nothing quite as comforting as the aroma of that roast simmering in the oven with onions and all of those wonderful herbs and spices. Thanks for stopping by.

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 

        5 months ago from Houston, Texas

        We have tried various pot roast recipes in our slow cooker this past year. Often we just use our oven when we are heating the house anyway. There are so many good versions beyond the original one that (like Bill) I also grew up eating. If you had inserted 'all of the above' in your poll...that is the one I would have checked. All the recipes sound like winners to me!

      • Blond Logic profile image

        Mary Wickison 

        5 months ago from Brazil

        My mother used to make a great pot roast.

        I think this is something which I should add to my menu because the meat here is so tough. Just two nights ago, my husband wanted a cheese sandwich because the chicken fried steak was more akin to shoe leather.

        As an American, I love beef. Maybe one of these pot roast meals is just the ticket to keep me eating what I love.

      • Coffeequeeen profile image

        Louise Powles 

        5 months ago from Norfolk, England

        I do love a roast dinner, I usually do a roast on a Sunday. The Original Yankee Pot Roast sounds lovely.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        5 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Bill, I wonder why it isn't so popular anymore? Lack of time? People don't cook (unless you call nuking in the microwave cooking?) I hope not.

        It's 35 degrees right now. I think it's time to start that pot roast.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        5 months ago from Olympia, WA

        This is something we ate a lot of when I was a kid. Nowadays, not so much. But man alive does it ever taste good and you are right about the smell...distinctive and mouthwatering!

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