Autumn Roast

November 23 2014

When the turkey’s all gone, but the family’s still in town, what is there to eat? A beef roast, of course. As the temperatures drop, the best way to satisfy that need for cozy comfort food is a perfect braised pot roast. This week, we caught up with Tanya Cauthen, the owner of Richmond, VA’s Belmont Butchery to talk beef, braising, and finding the perfect cut.

Braising is, by definition, a combined cooking method–the application of dry heat and then wet heat. The ‘dry heat’ step is done by searing (hot and fast) the meat to a nice even brown. This caramelizes the natural sugars in the meat and makes for a great crust. The ‘wet heat’ step is done low and slow. Once seared, the meat is partially covered with a flavorful liquid brought up to a simmer and cooked slowly to allow the connective tissue to breakdown and tenderize the proteins.

The key to a great braise is the right cut of meat! Braising meats should be tougher cuts that contain meat, fat and connective tissue.  Generally, the tougher the cut the more flavorful the meat. When selecting a cut – think about where it came from on the animal and how hard it worked. Cuts from the shoulder have worked hard and have a great ratio of meat to fat with all the connective tissue in the shoulder joint – they make for moist succulent braises  – think Pork Butt, Beef Chuck, Lamb Shoulder.

Grilling meats come from the loin of the animal, also known as the back. Since it’s horizontal, it doesn’t do a ton of work and therefore is more tender and perfect for grilling (think pork loin, ribeye, NY strip, rack of lamb). The leg of the animal works really hard. It has great flavor, but is much leaner then the shoulder. It’s also great for braising, but a little more finicky due to the leanness. The leg yields cuts such as the ham, top round, bottom round, leg of lamb and shanks. 

Beef chuck (right) is from the shoulder of the steer. It’s characterized by the beautiful layers of muscle with thinner layers of fat and connective tissue.  Ideally, it’s from grass-fed or pasture-raised steers that have been dry-aged to bring out the nuance and depth of flavor that proper rearing and handling bring to really good beef.

The chuck is incredibly versatile. Used as a large piece and it’s a simple pot roast. Cut into cubes it can become a stew, tagine or curry. In it’s most classic form, it becomes Beef Bourguignon.  The fat and connective tissue also help to make this cut more forgiving during cooking. The fat breaks down and bastes the meat from the inside out. And the connective tissue will denature and become silky and gelatinous in texture, adding an incredible mouth-feel to the braise.

The eye of round (from the leg of the steer, left) is much leaner. Since it lacks fat or connective, it’s a bit more finicky in the cooking process. You need to be sure to not overcook a cut from the round or your braise is going to get a little dry and mealy in texture instead of succulent and tender. The round, though, is ideal for marinating and then braising (aka Sauerbraten!).

Belmont Butchery’s Beef Bourguignon
(adapted from the goddess of all things worth eating, Julia Child)

2 Tbs Bacon Fat (or cooking oil)
4 lbs Pasture-raised Chuck, cut into 1 ½ inch cubes
Salt and Pepper
1 large Onion, large dice
1 large Carrot, large dice
1 bottle dry Red Wine (not expensive, but nice enough you could drink)
2 cups Beef Stock
1 cup chopped tomatoes (canned is okay)
2 bay leaves
Beurre manie – 3 Tbs of flour blended with 2 Tbs butter (looks like a paste)
Veggies to finish – 1 large onion, diced and caramelized and 3 cups of mushrooms, quartered and browned quickly.

1. Season beef chuck cubes with salt and pepper.
2. In a Dutch Oven, over medium-high heat, heat the bacon fat and brown the chuck cubes on all sides until well browned (do not overload the pan – it can be done in batches!)
3. Set beef cubes aside when browned. Brown the onion and carrot, and deglaze the pan with the wine being sure to scrap all the bits off the bottom of the pan.
4. Return the beef to the pan, and add beef stock, tomatoes, and bay leaves.
5. Bring to a simmer, then cover and either simmer gently for about 2-2 ½ hours (or move to a 325 degree oven).
6. To check doneness – eat a small piece. It should be tender and succulent. If it’s not, cook another 30 minutes.
7. Remove meat from braising liquid and keep warm.
8. Bring braising liquid to a boil and reduce to about 3 cups. Remove from heat and whisk in ‘beurre manie’ (aka flour and butter paste), simmer about 2 minutes – this will thick the sauce. Taste and adjust the seasonings.
9. Return meat to the sauce and add onions and mushrooms – return to a simmer and serve!