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Exploring Pot Roast: History of a Yankee Classic Plus 4 Variations

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

Tender post roast with gravy

Tender post roast with gravy

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 the State of Washington (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.

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

Five 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.

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Read More From Delishably

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

Original Yankee Pot Roast

Original Yankee Pot Roast

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

Instructions

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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

Mexican Pot Roast

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)

Italian Pot Roast (Stracotto)

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

Instructions

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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

Asian Pot Roast

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 Yankee pot roast.
  • A half-teaspoon of Chinese 5-spice powder would add some interesting flavors without being too assertive.
Greek Pot Roast

Greek Pot Roast

Greek Pot Roast

Jessica (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 Ingredients

  • 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?

© 2018 Linda Lum

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