How To Make The Best Slow Cooker Pot Roast
We reveal the secrets to making this classic American recipe in a slow cooker for a warm winter meal without all the work.
Born out of boeuf à la mode, a classic 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 surrounded by 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 this Yummly-original recipe. 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 are making a slow cooker pot roast or pot roast in a Dutch oven, the cooking method you are using is techinically braising. Braising relies on low heat, a lot of time, and a small quantity of liquid to tenderize otherwise tougher cuts of meat.
If you are using a slow cooker or 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. So, let’s get into it.
Choosing The Cut Of Meat
It is 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. In fattier meat cuts like rib-eye, T-bone and skirt steak, the less you cook them, the more tender they remain, making high-fat meat cuts great for steak. 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 water molecules will eventually evaporate and leave your steak tough and leathery. That is 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 begins to work its magic. It 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 and round cuts like rump roast and bottom round are also wonderful options.
A Case To Skip The Searing Step
Some recipes start with searing the meat over high heat before the main braising step. If you are 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. But for slow-cooker pot roast, where one of the advantages is convenience, you can skip this step. You likely won't notice any difference 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, beef broth and beef stock. But even water, vinegar, beer, and/or a mixture of all three are viable options.
It seems natural to assume that the meat will become the most flavorful from the most flavorful braising liquid, but in actuality, that isn’t necessarily true. 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 matters as well. Depending on your desired result, you can use a little or a lot. Using a little, like 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.
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 taste department.
The most common herbal aromatics in pot roast dishes are dried or fresh thyme and rosemary, ground black pepper and a touch of soy sauce or apple cider vinegar for a punch of savory umami flavor. Here, this recipe uses rosemary and pepper.
The most common vegetable aromatics in pot roast are alliums (like shallots, garlic, leeks, onions) and root vegetables (like carrots, parsnips, golden beets, and potatoes). You can add other vegetables like mushrooms, but if you're out of veggies at home but still want to add flavor, you can add in dry onion soup mix or mushroom soup mix. This recipe uses the classic combination of garlic, onion, carrots, and yellow potatoes.
Serving A Pot Roast
Serving and enjoying pot roast is the final step. Deciding on how to do this is a matter of preference. It is hard to get it wrong as almost anything goes. However, there are a few things to consider.
To Mash Or Not Mash: Some folks swear that serving pot roast with its braising potatoes (like in this recipe) is the only way to go. While other couldn’t imagine a world in which mashed potatoes are not served alongside pot roast. Either way is a winner. 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 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.