Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The 2020 Pot Roast Experiment

     "You'll send me detailed instructions, right?"  That was Tam's question as I departed for work yesterday, leaving her with a large lump of beef in the fridge, a stewpot and a short (verbal) course in how to prepare and simmer a pot roast.

     She was apprehensive.  It takes hours.  Most of them aren't very busy, but with a stewpot on a gas range, it's not set-and-forget, either.

     A little after noon yesterday, I sat down at my laptop and wrote about two and a half pages on what I thought I knew about cooking a pot roast,* from seasoning and rolling it in flour, to browning, to simmering, with as much detail as I could provide on where various kitchen supplies and tools were to be found.†

     And then I stopped worrying.  What would happen would happen.

     Three or four hours later, when I arrived home, it was fine.  (I should have had one more box of bone broth or beef broth on hand than I did, but that's on me).  I added vegetables -- a lot of washing and knife work -- and gave them time to cook up.  We had a nice dinner, tender pot roast and veggies in their own broth.  (Carrots, potatoes, celery, mushrooms and the very last of the Shishito peppers.)

     Tam was only a little frazzled when I got home from work -- this was well outsider her comfort zone.  Other than the occasional rare steak and tasty things sold in cans, she has avoided cooking for years, put off by TV cooking shows set in spacious, gleaming kitchens crowded with fancy gadgets.  (And possibly by my tendency to growl at interlopers when I am in the middle of cooking in our tiny kitchen.)   I hope this dinner has helped make cookery a little less daunting for her.  Like most tool-using activities, learning a few core skills and a small set of basic tools is all it really takes to do everyday cookery; that other stuff is nice once you've got the basics down but it can also get in the way.
* Here is what I wrote:
It looks like I will clock out at 6:45 p.m., home about 7:00, and we want 3-4 hours total cook time, so if you start the process about 4:30 or 4:45, that should do.

This is a process that you can use over and over, to cook beef, pork and poultry. It is one of the basic ways to prepare meat, the basis of most stews and soups. So it’s worth learning. I get very detailed but my aim is to share some of the wonderfulness in this skill.

On Cooking A Large Beef

To begin with, take the meat out of the refrigerator and set it in the bottom of the oven, towards the front, and give it about fifteen minutes to ponder its fate. Set Alexa for, say, 12 to 14 minutes.

Take the large glass bowl I have left on the stove, and put about a quarter-cup of flour in it. The flour is in a paper bag in the cabinets over the stove, behind the right-hand door on the middle shelf. The quarter-cup measuring scoop is on the oatmeal box, to the right of the stove. It is the smaller of the two scoops on the oatmeal box – the markings on them are difficult to read. You don’t have to be exact, heaping or a little scant should be okay.

Flour is sneaky stuff. Move slowly, especially when closing the bag back up. You do not want to aerosol it near flame.

With the flour in the bowl, pepper it and salt it. Don’t stir, just grind pepper over it and shake salt over it, like you are seasoning it to eat.

Slide the bowl back out of the way and get the meat out of the oven. Unwrap it and try not to get blood in your hands. Finish unwrapping and then wash them if you do! I don’t know if the roast was bagged or has a plastic sheet on it or if it is just wrapped. With clean hands, salt and pepper the visible portion, then pick it up and set it in the bowl of flour so the unseasoned bottom side is still down.

Throw away the wrapping that was on the meat (this is why I like step-to-open trash cans).

Now bring the bowl forward where it is easy to get at, and turn the meat over and over until it has a good coating of flour on it. You can use a big fork (hang on to the bowl with your other hand!) but it’s often easier with hands. Once the meat is coated, leave it in the bowl and wash your hands.

You will want a fork later on, so get one out and set it on a saucer on the counter to the right of the stove.

Get the copper-bottomed stewpot (the one from last night) out of the dishwasher and put it on the front, right-hand burner of the stove. Do not turn the burner on yet.

Get the small glass bowl of good bacon grease out of the fridge. It is on a shelf in the door, up high between (I think) jars of mustard and horseradish. Set it on the stove top.

Get out a teaspoon, just a regular metal teaspoon like I use to eat soup, and scoop out a couple of teaspoons of bacon grease into the stewpot. Hold the bowl in one hand, or it will get away. The stuff has the consistency of slightly soft ice cream. You may need to use a butter knife to push it out of the spoon. If a little stays stuck to the inside wall of the stewpot, that’s okay.

Set the grease bowl on the counter off to one side – over by the coffeepot, maybe. Prop the spoon on it.

Get a one-cup glass measure from the cabinet over the stove and fill it with water. Set it on the counter to the right, near your fork. You’ll want it later.

Turn on the burner, turn it down to about medium or lower, and watch the grease melt. You want it liquid but not sizzling. It should cover ¾ or more of the bottom of the pot once it has melted. If it doesn’t, add another teaspoon.

With the grease melted, transfer the meat from the glass bowl to the stewpot. It may sizzle a little. If you used your hands to move it (safer), wash them, quickly! You may want to turn the fire down. Give that side about a minute (use Alexa) and then turn the meat to another side, using he fork. (Weirdly-shaped sides might require holding the meat in place with the fork stuck in the up side – save those for last.) Continue browning and turning until all sides are brown. Some of the flour in cracks and crannies might not brown, oh well.

When the meat is browned on all sides, pour the cup of water over it. It may yelp a little.

On the counter on the other side of the kitchen, in front of the microwave, is a box of bone broth. Shake it up, then follow the instructions to open it – fold up the triangular flaps on the sides, pop the top up like an old-fashioned milk carton, and use scissors or bend and tear on the dotted line to open. Pour it into the stewpot.

Does the water and bone broth cover the meat? If so, you win! If not, use the measuring cup to add a little more to barely cover it. If the meat floats, stop. Put the lid on and set a timer for five minutes. This is a good time to stay in the kitchen, to see how things go. Now is the time to put the grease bowl back in the fridge, and then dump any left-over flour from the big bowl into the trash and wipe it out with a damp paper towel. If timer is still ticking, empty the dishwasher or find something else to do that will keep you in the room and not staring at the pot like it’s a TV. (This is why you sometimes catch me doing randomish stuff in the kitchen while cooking.)

Remember to throw away the box from the bone broth.

At the end of five minutes, have a look. Is the water simmering, bubbling, boiling? Then turn down the heat. If not, go for another five and check again. If the stewpot starts making noise while you are waiting, it’s boiling – lift the lid and have a look. You want it just simmering – maybe a few bubbles coming up, maybe only rarely. You do not want it boiling after the initial temperature has been reached. This is the critical phase.

Regulating temperature – gas ranges are a little finicky at the low end. Ours will go into “carburation” if it is too low, the flame going out and relighting repeatedly with a series of popping noises. That is highly undesirable; it can put itself out and build up rather more gas than one might wish before the pilot relights it, or it can put the pilot out. Sometimes the pot gets too hot even at the low setting – taking the lid off, stirring, and leaving the lid off awhile will help. It get hotter and stays hotter with the lid on. We want most of the cooking to take place with the lid on, so it takes some attention.

It would be best to check the pot every five minutes for the first fifteen or twenty minutes, and every ten for the next half-hour and if you feel confident after that, every 15 minutes afterward. Do not leave the pot unattended for longer than that. I would advise not going outside while cooking; it’s the hottest part of the day anyway. Make sure there is nothing left out on the counter or stovetop near the burner.

If the liquid cooks down far enough to uncover the meat, add a little more. Cold water is best, and will help with temperature regulation.

What we are after with all this is to preserve the flavor of the meat while cooking it very tender. The flour and fat will help form gravy. The whole process is nearly magical to me, from bloody, raw meat and white, raw flour to warm rich, thick broth and delightful roast meat.

† My Mother and I organize our kitchens similarly, about 50-50 between getting things as close to where they will be used as possible and the art of making everything fit into the available space.  It works -- if you know where everything is.  Her own mother is said to have remarked, "When I visit Ellen's kitchen, I know it will be neat, clean and organized, but I won't be able to find anything."  Her other daughters got better marks for findability, but not quite as well in the other categories.


John Peddie (Toronto) said...

Sounds Yum!

Cooking is one of those things where you start small and modest, then work up the ladder as your comfort zone expands.

Success breeds success!

waepnedmann said...

If you were very brave you should have started out with a Little Johnny joke and then..
"On this 3-4 hour block of instruction you will learn..."
But, I guess the purpose was to actually eat dinner and not incur the wrath of The Tam.
And I saw no instructions as to the disposition of Holden and Huck during the process. Underfoot hoping for a fallen morsel or in durance vile elsewhere in the cottage?

Windy Wilson said...

Rolling the roast in flour. I really am a mere slinger of hash. I thought I was getting fancy marinating a brisket with a bottle of two buck Chuck and A-1, soy sauce, and mustard, with garlic stuck in holes stabbed in the brisket.

Windy Wilson said...

John Peddie of Toronto; I think another thing that matters is what you start with. I started in high school, baking bread. When you start with cooking on the stovetop, the precision you need for baking is alien to you. When you start with baking, the jazz-like improvisation of cooking on the stovetop is something you never get the hang of.

Ken said...

The recipe looks really good. I don't do beef roasts that often because pork is so much cheaper but I might give this a shot. Also wanted to add an endorsement of RevereWare copper-clad cookware. I have a pretty near full set dating back to the 1990s (plus a 3-qt. saucepan I found at the Salvation Army in Bloomsburg, PA 3-4 years ago for about $4).

JayNola said...

That's a great bit of bloggery. Thanks Ms. Ecks. I've been playing with a sousvide for stuff like this lately and produced a rump roast the wife declared "as nice as a rib roast" but I think I need to employ the flour trick.

Old NFO said...

Great set of instructions! I'm sure it was delicious!

Cincinnatus said...

TL:DR use flamethrower on lawn.....

Antibubba said...

You should start Tam with a crockpot. There's almost no way to screw it up.