Roast beef and pot roast are both foods for special occasions. Both cooking methods can transform tough cuts of meat into delectable main courses. Both roast beef and pot are slow-cooked until they are tender.
But there are several important differences between making roast beef and making pot roast that involve more than just the cooking method. Roast beef and pot roast involve different cuts of beef. They look very different when they are cooked properly. And the techniques for making the best roast beef and the best pot roast ever aren’t the same at all.
Let’s break down the differences between roast beef and pot roast. We’ll start with cooking method.
The most obvious difference between roast beef and pot roast is that roast beef is cooked dry, while pot roast is cooked in liquid.
You can dry roast nearly any cut of beef muscle to make roast beef. Even some cuts usually cooked as steaks will work. The end result of making roast beef is a product that is tender but not so tender that it can’t be sliced to make sandwiches.
While roast beef is a big chunk of baked beef, pot roast is a big chunk of braised beef. Almost any cut of beef muscle can be transformed into pot roast. Here maximum tenderness is the goal. Pot roast should be fall-apart and melt-in-your mouth tender. Cooked in liquid, it really doesn’t work well for sandwiches served with two slices of bread.
Defining Perfect Cooking
Perfectly cooked roast beef and perfectly cooked pot roast don’t look anything alike.
A perfectly cooked roast beer has a dark brown, crispy, crackly, salty exterior crust. Just inside the perfect crust, the interior of the roast is uniformly cooked to a perfect medium rare. There’s no gray zone between the crust and the center of the roast. There’s just two distinct layers of deliciousness.
A perfectly cooked pot roast has been cooked at a higher temperature than roast beef so the collagen in the muscles breaks down and the meat becomes perfectly tender.
How is it possible that a pot roast cooked in liquid simmering at 212° F has been exposed to more heat than a roast beef cooked in a 300° F oven?
Water and other cooking liquids hold a lot more heat than air. The interior of a pot roast heats up a lot more than the interior of a roast beef. The result is that roast beef holds together, and pot roast falls apart. This means that your choices of the cut of beef for making a great roast beef are more limited than your choices of cut of beef for a great pot roast.
Cuts of Beef
There are cuts of beef that you can find in the supermarket labeled “roast,” but you won’t really get the tenderness and flavor you deserve for the money you will pay. These four cuts cost a little more, but they deliver good value for your money.
- Rib roasts are a very flavorful cut of meat. The rib roast has a big end and small end. The small end is leaner, but the big end has a better chew and just a little more fat for flavor. Rib roasts are also sold as prime rib.
- Top sirloin roasts are a very tender cut of meat. They have a beefy flavor without the fatty marbling you will find in a rib roast. They can have a tough band of sinew running through the center. Remove the sinew just before serving, not just before cooking. Top sirloin roasts are also sold as center-cut, top butt, and top round steak roasts.
- Tenderloin roasts have a buttery texture. They are the tenderest of all the cuts of beef you can use for making roast beef. But what they have in tenderness, they lack in flavor, and they can dry out if not cooked properly. You will need a flavorful rub and/or a savory sauce to give them taste appeal. Tenderloin roasts are also sold as châteaubriand and fillet.
- Chuck eye roasts come from the shoulder of the cow. They are loaded with connective tissue, which means that have to be cooked slowly at a low temperature to be tender. If you don’t mind trimming it on your plate (it’s not a great choice for sandwiches), it’s a good low-cost option for making roast beef. Chuck eye roast is also sold as boneless chuck roll.
Pot roasts are often prepared from chuck roasts. They are intensely beefy, and they have a lot of fat for flavor. A chuck roll will be easier to slice. Look for well-marbled pieces that have a cylindrical shape. Pull the roast apart at the seam in the middle and remove excess fat and gristle before cooking.
You can also make pot roasts from brisket, sirloin tips (flap meat), or round steak.
Secrets of Successful Cooking
The very best roast beef and the very best pot roasts require different cooking techniques. Here are some useful kitchen tips.
It’s a challenge to get a great crust on a roast beef. If you cook it at a high temperature from the very start and then turn the temperature down, you will get a gray zone of well-done roast beef around a medium-rare center. If you sear the roast beef first and then put it in a low-temperature oven, you may be surprised to learn that it will leak juices. Scientists studying searing beef have confirmed that searing a roast beef doesn’t lock the juices inside a roast beef.
(Searing a pot roast before adding liquid, however, adds flavorful bits that you should deglaze before adding the rest of your braising liquid.)
The best way to get a great crust on a roast beef is to cook it slowly until it is medium rare all the way through (you can check this with a digital thermometer). Then take it out of the oven for a few minutes while you get the temperature up to 500° F. Then put the roast back in the oven just long enough to get a crispy crust.
Brief exposure to high heat powers the Maillard reaction, which generates flavor compounds in the crust.
Pot roast is, as the name suggests, cooked in a pot. You can cook a pot roast in the oven. If you leave the lid off the pot, some of the braising liquid will evaporate, but the pot roast will cook at a lower temperature and come out tenderer. The liquid keeps the temperature in the pot constant, and makes a great gravy later.