Some meals are all about speed and convenience, and some are more about enjoying a leisurely sit-down with friends and family. Roasts definitely fall into the second category, because they require an investment of time and money. The end result can be wonderful, though, as long as you know what purpose best suits each kind of roast.
Three Broad Kinds of Roast
There are lots of different cuts sold for roasting, and they all have their distinctive characteristics. You can classify them or subdivide them in any way that makes sense to you, but you'll find that they fall into three general types:
- Tough cuts for slow cooking: These are the ones you'll usually use for pot roasts, pulled pork and similar comforting dishes.
- Premium cuts for special occasions: These are the best and tenderest cuts, the ones you'll pay extra for when you want to have a special meal.
- "Ordinary" roasts: Neither as tender as a premium roast nor as tough as a slow-cooking roast, these are the workhorse general-purpose roasts you'd serve on a normal weekend or slice up for sandwiches.
Once you learn what sets them apart from each other, it's relatively straightforward to pick the right roast for whichever meal you have in mind. All meat animals have a broadly similar anatomy, so — for example — if you start by learning the types of beef roasts, you can apply that knowledge to the other meats.
Understanding the Tough Cuts
As a rule, the more a muscle is used, the tougher it will be. Roasts such as brisket and chuck, from a steer's chest and shoulder, are prime examples of that principle. They're used every time the animal stands up, lies down or moves around, so they're dense and full of connective tissue.
The bad news is that this makes them relatively tough and chewy. The good news is that they're also the most flavorful cuts, if you're patient enough to cook them until they become tender. Usually, you'll cook them at a low temperature for a long time, either roasted in your oven or perhaps braised in a Dutch oven or slow cooker. The connective tissue that makes them tough eventually softens and breaks down, giving the finished roast that soft, luscious comfort-food texture.
In beef, these roasts include the brisket and various shoulder cuts, with names including chuck, blade roast or seven-bone roast.
If you're buying pork, those cuts include shoulder roasts and butt roasts, or Boston butt as they're sometimes called. Lamb and veal are tender enough that even the shoulders can be treated as a regular roast, but you'll sometimes see a roast called the "breast" of veal or lamb. That's from the chest of the animal, and it's much like the brisket of beef.
The Premium Cuts
These roasts are cut from the least-used muscles, so they're at the opposite end of the scale. They're very tender, and relatively simple to cook. The tenderest of all is the tenderloin, sometimes called the "filet." Tenderloins are relatively small roasts, so they'll cook quickly. They taper toward the ends, so if you're cooking a beef tenderloin as a roast, you'll want to take your cut from the center where it's most cylindrical. That way it'll cook evenly.
Some cooks consider the tenderloin to be the best cut for roast beef, but others argue in favor of the strip loin or prime rib. These are more flavorful and nearly as tender, and either one makes an outstanding roast.
Rib roasts and loin roasts are also superior choices in pork or lamb. Pork tenderloins are small enough to roast in just a few minutes. Lamb tenderloins are even smaller, so they're seldom sold in that form. Instead, they're left in place and sliced for loin chops — the lamb equivalent of a T-bone steak.
The Ordinary Cuts
The remaining roasts you'll see in your supermarket's case come from the hind quarters of the animal, and include the rump, the round and the sirloin. The sirloin falls into a bit of a gray area — it can be thought of as either the least tender of the premium cuts or the tenderest of the ordinary cuts. A top sirloin, or a sirloin tip roast, can be especially good.
Cuts from the rump and round aren't as flavorful or as tough as the shoulder cuts, but they're leaner and less expensive than the premium cuts. Round roasts are excellent for slicing, for example, so they're often used on restaurant buffets or as the roast beef that's sliced for wraps and sandwiches.
In pork these cuts are generally spoken of as "fresh ham," because the hind leg ordinarily goes for that use. If you can find one, it makes an excellent roast. Lamb is tenderer than pork or beef, so leg of lamb is still a tender and premium roast, though not as tender as the rib or loin.