By Chef Joe LaVilla

Once the “darling” of the 1950s Americana kitchen, pot roast seems to have gone the way of Malt-o-Meal—in a word, “extinct” (or in exile, depending on how you feel about Malt-o-Meal). While it would be nice to think that the death of pot roast is due to a more sophisticated American palate, the more likely culprit is the modern cook’s inability to correctly execute a proper stew or braise. Sorry Rachael Ray fans, you just can’t do it in 30 minutes.

The terms “stew” and “braise” fall under the category of moist-heat cooking methods, meaning they use liquid to transfer the heat to the meat (or vegetable—but that doesn’t rhyme as well). The differences in the methods are the size of the product that is being cooked, and how much liquid is used in the process. Stews are typically made from smaller pieces of meat and vegetables which are completely submerged in cooking liquid, while braises consist of larger chunks of meat or vegetables which are submerged in enough cooking liquid to reach about halfway up the product. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to go ahead and use the term “braise”, because aside from those minor differences, it’s essentially the same method, and because “braise” takes precedence– alphabetically speaking.

The first step toward achieving a good braise is selecting the appropriate raw product. A premium New York Strip may be beautiful on the grill, but it is not good braising material. Instead, reach for a nice pork shoulder or chuck roast. Many people associate these cuts of meat with gristle and fat, but it is these attributes that make for a tender, succulent braise. As for vegetables, more mature items are your best bet. Older vegetables have more lignin (firmer cell walls) than baby or young vegetables do.  The lignin softens when moist heat is applied, and in some cases pectin (sugar) develops, creating a softer, sweeter product. 

So, how, you’re wondering, can that big, fatty hunk of meat possibly be better than that plump, cherry-red New York Strip? It’s actually the fat and connective tissue that gives the meat its flavor, silky, texture, and juiciness. These pieces come from the shoulders, legs, and rear-end of the animal; in other words, the muscles that are used most while the animal is alive. The connective tissue is made of collagen which holds the muscles together, while the marbling (or fat) helps lubricate the muscle fibers.   

During the braising process, the heat from the stove is slowly transferred to the meat through the simmering liquid.  As the meat reaches ~180 degrees, the collagen begins to transform into gelatin, lending an unctuous texture to the meat. This process takes time and requires temperature control since the collagen will not completely convert to gelatin until the temperature reaches at least 210 degrees. You MUST allow this process to occur gradually. It may seem logical to raise the temperature to 210 degrees as quickly as possible, but this will only result in a product that has the flavor profile of cardboard.

 Don’t forget that those muscle fibers in the meat hold a great deal of liquid. The fibers are also made of protein which denatures and changes shape when it is exposed to excessive heat. If the fibers get too hot too quickly, they seize-up and force the highly concentrated liquid within the fibers, as well as the cooking liquid they have absorbed, out of the meat. Heating the meat too quickly also causes the fat in the muscle to melt and run out from between the fibers. The equation is very simple:  Meat-Fat-Moisture=Yuck.   

Making a great braise is not rocket science. It just takes time, patience, flavorful cooking liquid, and a well-executed sear (check out the article on the Maillard reaction). Dredge the meat (or veggies) in flour, salt and pepper, sear it in a hot pan, and add the cooking liquid. When the liquid begins to simmer, most cooks transfer the pot to a hot oven to maintain an even temperature in and around the product. Leave the lid ajar to prevent the liquid from coming to a boil, grab a book or turn on a movie, and let your dish cook, low and slow.

Do I hear you all pulling out your Dutch ovens? Let’s give pot roast another try.

About Joe LaVilla

Chef LaVilla is the Academic Director for the Culinary Arts programs at the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Phoenix. Besides being a Certified Executive Chef, Chef LaVilla also holds a certification from the International Sommelier Guild (ISG) as a Certified Sommelier. In addition, Chef LaVilla is experienced in food styling, food and wine pairing, the hospitality industry, culinary arts management, and more.

Before joining The Art Institute of Phoenix, LaVilla had been Executive Chef for Tucchetti restaurant in Phoenix. He has worked for Mark Tarbell as well as Wolfgang Puck. His credits include, “Faculty of the Year” award at The Art Institute of Phoenix; finalist in the Arizona Pork Council Taste of Elegance Competition; and author of the textbook “The Handbook of Wine, Beer and Spirits: A Guide to Styles and Service”.

Chef LaVilla received his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from the University of Rochester and his Bachelor of Arts degree, Cum Laude, in Chemistry from Cornell University. He also received an associate’s degree in Culinary Arts from the Culinary Institute of America, where he graduated with honors.