How to Make the Best Slow Cooker Pot Roast
We reveal the secrets to making the classic American recipe in a slow cooker for a warm winter meal with very little work.
Born out of boeuf à la mode, a traditional French dish, a classic pot roast is a deeply American experience. It's a dish where patience pays off and you don't need a pricey cut of meat; where dusting off your slow cooker gives you an impressive hands-off meal layered with flavor.
Using a slow cooker for pot roast yields a tender piece of beef plus satisfying root vegetables and rich juices that taste like liquid gold. Simply put, the pot roast is pure American comfort food. And because it uses leaner, more affordable cuts of beef it is a meal of humble luxury that's perfect for feeding a crowd. Whether you're a pot roast pro or a total newbie, we break down the basics of cooking it in this easy recipe, a Yummly original. From meat cuts and braising liquids to aromatics and serving style, we have you covered with all the info you need to make a perfect pot roast the first time.
The basics of braising
It doesn’t matter if you're making a slow cooker pot roast or pot roast in a Dutch oven, the cooking method you're using is technically braising. Braising relies on low heat, a long cook time, and a small quantity of liquid to tenderize otherwise tougher cuts of meat.
If you are using a slow cooker, aka a Crock Pot, this low and slow method will drastically transform a leaner cut of meat into a fork-tender masterpiece in a completely hands-off way. There are not too many things to keep in mind when making pot roast in a slow cooker, just a few key details. The most important components are the meat selection and the braising liquid.
Choosing the right cut of meat
It’s important to remember that the term "pot roast" refers to a dish, not a cut of meat. There are many options when it comes to selecting the kind of meat to use in your pot roast, but in general, your best options are the leaner, tougher, and more affordable cuts. Leaner cuts of meat have less fat, but they have more connective tissue (collagen). And collagen is the good stuff that makes the difference between a dry pot roast and a moist one.
When you cook a piece of meat, the muscle fibers firm up first, and then the fat starts to melt. In fattier steaks like rib-eye and T-bone, the less you cook them, the more tender they remain. But in leaner cuts the opposite happens, and here’s why.
As the meat cooks, water molecules are squeezed out of the meat's cells. When you continue to cook fattier meat cuts, their moisture will eventually evaporate and the fat will melt, leaving your steak tough and leathery. That’s why most people like their steaks cooked to medium or medium-rare. But when you continue to cook leaner meat, especially in a low and slow way, the collagen will break down into gelatin, which gives the meat a melt-in-your mouth feel.
The best lean meats for pot roasts are chuck cuts like boneless chuck roast, chuck shoulder pot roast, chuck seven-bone pot roast, and beef chuck arm. Brisket, shank, and round cuts like rump beef roast and bottom round are also wonderful options.
A case for skipping the searing step
Some recipes start with searing the meat over high heat or medium-high heat in a little olive oil before the main braising step. If you're cooking pot roast in a Dutch oven, searing or browning pot roast first does create a nice base of browned bits for the braising liquid and some extra flavor. But for slow-cooker pot roast, where one of the advantages is convenience, you can skip this step if you're trying to keep prep time and total time to a minimum. The meat will cook long enough to build plenty of flavor and you'll save yourself the trouble of an extra pan to clean, as well as saving some cooking time.
Selecting the braising liquid
Our slow cooker pot roast recipe uses red wine to add flavor complexity and a gentle sweetness to the finished dish. But you can use almost any liquid you have on hand when it comes to braising. Traditional braising liquids include vegetable stock and beef broth (aka beef stock). But even water, vinegar, beer, and/or a mixture of all three are viable options.
Though the choice in liquid is a consideration for creating flavor in a pot roast, most of the flavor builds from using aromatics, which we'll get to in a moment. So go with what you have on hand, even if that means you're braising in water.
The amount of liquid can vary, and depending on your desired result, you can use a little or a lot. Using a little, as in this recipe, yields a smaller amount of braising liquid at the end of the cooking process. Using more liquid (some recipes call for enough liquid to cover the meat), of course yields much more liquid in the end. This option might appeal to you if you are turning the braising liquid into gravy at the end with a little cornstarch.
The aromatics of pot roast
Now that you've chosen your braising liquid and your cut of meat, let's talk about aromatics. Aromatics are the herbs and vegetables that give a dish flavor. Cooking a pot roast without them won’t get you too far in the flavor department.
The most common seasoning aromatics in pot roast dishes are dried or fresh thyme and rosemary, ground black pepper, and a touch of soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, or apple cider vinegar for a punch of savory umami flavor. Here, this recipe uses rosemary and pepper as well as sea salt (but feel free to use kosher salt or whatever salt you have on hand).
The most common vegetable aromatics in pot roast are alliums (like shallots, garlic cloves, leeks, yellow onions) and root vegetables (such as carrots, parsnips, beets, and potatoes). You can add other vegetables such as mushrooms, but if you're out of veggies at home and still want to add flavor, you can go for dry onion soup mix or mushroom soup mix. For the best appearance at serving time, cook veggies in large chunks (2- or 3-inch pieces) rather than chopping them or using baby carrots, say, which will break down during cooking. This best pot roast recipe from Yummly uses the classic combination of onion, carrots, and yellow potatoes; feel free to add several cloves of garlic if you like or swap in red potatoes. The total cook time is six hours.
Serving a pot roast
Serving and enjoying pot roast is the final step. Deciding on how to do this is a matter of preference. For the meat, you can slice it and arrange it on a platter, set out a whole larger piece such as a beef chuck roast to slice and serve at the table, or shred the meat if it's fall-apart tender. For the accompaniments, here are a few things to consider.
To Mash Or Not Mash: Some folks swear that serving pot roast with its braising potatoes (as in this recipe) is the only way to go. Others can't imagine not serving mashed potatoes alongside pot roast. Honestly, you can’t go wrong either way. But if you want to go with a mashed potato side while still keeping it simple, you can use the braised potatoes instead of cooking separate ones on the stovetop. Take the braised potatoes from this recipe as they are (this will yield a skin-on mash) or gently peel off their skins (they will slide off easily if you pinch them off with your fingers) and mash as you normally would.
Easy ways to change up your pot roast dinner
If you’re in the mood for mashed sweet potatoes or low-carb mashed cauliflower to add to your pot roast feast, we’ve got options!
And keep in mind that you can take the basic pot roast principles you’ve learned here and tweak the seasonings to create Korean, red-wine, and even ramen pot roast.