Pot Roast - Two Questions
I made my first attempt at a pot roast last night using the Cooks Illustrated recipe. Came out very tasty, but the meat was somewhat tough. The recipe called for a boneless chuck roast, but I could only find a bottom round roast at the market. Question one, what is the best cut of meat for a pot roast? Question two, can anyone recommend a good resource (book, website) for learning about meat and all of the different cuts (and their appropriate uses)?
Thanks in advance!
I prefer the 7-blade roast for pot roast (so named because the bone looks like the number '7'), between 2 and 3 inches thick. According to Alton Brown, the longer and thinner the bone, the better for pot roast.
As for your second question, try this:
Bottom round is a good braising cut, and traditional for pot roast, but chuck is preferable in certain cases and the instructions were obviously built around chuck, not bottom round. CI usually explains its preferences in cuts and how that relates to the recipe. Round will be less tender than chuck by nature because its grain is very long and uniform, so it must be cut more thinly. Chuck has a much more variable grain, which can become very tender when cooked to above 195-205F. Chuck also has more collagen that makes it tougher when undercooked, but more tender when properly cooked.
Bottom round is a difficult piece of meat - not really tender enough for an oven roast, and not really enough fat and collagen to produce a good pot roast. It's never been one of my favorites, though some have good results with it (more on that below).
It might be good to review what's going on when you pot roast. Obviously, much of the fat cooks out and helps to keep things moist, but the really important thing is the conversion of collagen (hard, gnarly connective tissue) to gelatin (soft, moist, with great mouth-feel). This is a chemical reaction that occurs slowly in the presence of moist heat at or just above the boiling point, and it's what makes pot roasting and braising the wonders of the cooking world.
So, the original advice to use chuck with it's ample supply of both fat and collagen was spot on (the 7-bone roast comes from the chuck). One of the most fundamentally educational books available on cooking meat is "How to Cook Meat" by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby. In addition to having a ton of basic info on meats, the organization of the recipes is pure genius - they've got a section on large tender cuts, then large tough cuts (e.g., pot roasts), small tender cuts, etc. Interestingly, they recommend bottom round for their "Yankee Pot Roast" recipe. Well, nobody's perfect, but the book really is worthwhile otherwise.