Rich beef stews and pot roasts are beloved in the global grandmother community for delivering mouthwatering results at an affordable price. Both are incredibly easy to make, with long cooking times and plenty of freedom to add or change ingredients depending on what you have in the cupboard.
But what’s the difference between pot roast vs. beef stew? While the results of each dish are a proper hug-in-a-bowl, there are several technical distinctions during preparation.
Our guide will cover all you need to know about pot roast vs. beef stew – we’ll also provide some handy tips on the best cuts of beef for each dish. Curl up on the couch and put your favorite comfort TV show on; it’s time to get stuck into our ultimate comfort foods.
What Is a Pot Roast?
A pot roast delivers a melt-in-your-mouth, beautifully browned piece of beef with tender, mouthwatering vegetables. It’s typically cooked in a Dutch oven, as the dish must be ovenproof.
Here’s what defines a pot roast.
Meat Is Cooked Whole
Perhaps the biggest difference in the pot roast vs. beef stew specification is that pot roasts use a whole cut of meat. This may be bone-in or boneless, although bone-in roasts are often recommended for the great flavor the bone adds to the gravy.
Chefs may optionally brown the joint on the stovetop on all sides before cooking. This is best done in the same Dutch oven that you’re using for the roast to avoid wasting that delicious, caramelized goodness.
However, there’s no need to brown meat for a pot roast. The beef joint is so large that it tends to protrude from the gravy, meaning it’ll brown naturally on top. It can be turned over halfway to achieve browning on both sides.
Vegetables are Added Whole (or in Large Chunks)
The cooking times for pot roasts are very long. They’re cooked in the oven on a very low heat (often around 350F) or can be prepared in a slow cooker.
Because of this, vegetables are typically added in whole or in large chunks. Potatoes can go in whole or halved; onions can be added halved; carrots can be cut into large chunks or added whole. They’ll become incredibly tender with minimal preparation.
Beef stock is added to both pot roasts and beef stews to create the gravy. However, as the meat is cooked whole in a pot roast, the gravy only needs to cover the vegetables, so less stock is sometimes added. Also, as it cooks in the oven rather than on the stovetop, less water tends to evaporate.
This distinction isn’t as important as the others – you can have as much gravy as you like with either pot roasts or beef stews!
Cooked in Oven or Slow Cooker
As the name implies, pot roasts are “roasted.” This means being cooked in the oven, where the ambient heat roasts the meat slowly, rather than having heat applied at the base.
Slow cookers achieve a similar effect, so they are often used for pot roasts today. However, ovens typically achieve better browning on the meat.
What Is Beef Stew?
Beef stews are beloved around the world as the perfect solution to the toughest, cheapest cuts of meat. If you dice something and cook it for long enough, it will eventually become tender – and some of those cheap cuts are so rich in flavor you’ll end up with an incredible result.
From Indonesian Beef Rendang to Hungarian Pörkölt to Cuban Ropa Vieja, beef stews are a central “grandmother” dish in so many cultures. There’s always more to learn – here’s what separates pot roast vs. beef stew in this context.
Meat Is Cooked in Chunks
The most common preparation method for beef stews is to dice the meat before cooking. This generally means cutting it into 1 “-2” chunks, but the method depends on the dish. Cuba’s Ropa Vieja, for example, has the beef torn into strips (the name means “old clothes”).
Today, it’s most common to brown the beef before adding other ingredients. This isn’t traditional in many countries as it reduces the ease of preparation, but browning the meat first in most stews adds extra flavor to the pot.
Methods are incredibly varied, though, and it’s always best to check with authentic sources before preparing a stew. Sometimes flour is added (e.g., in Carbonnade Flamande) so that the beef can be browned on lower heat in butter and still obtain a beautiful crust.
Meanwhile, other stews like Indonesian Beef Rendang always use unbrowned meat. Anyone who has tried this dish will assure you that browning the beef in advance is 100% unnecessary.
Vegetables are Sliced or Diced
The vegetables used in beef stews are typically added sliced or even finely diced. Dicing vegetables is more time-consuming, but the long cooking time means that they’ll effectively melt into the sauce.
Chunky vegetables are still used in many stews, and often it’s down to personal preference.
The meat in beef stews is usually fully immersed in gravy. Some stews are cooked until almost dry, but a significant amount of liquid is still added at the start – this evaporates during the cooking process.
Again, liquid levels in stews depend on regional and individual preferences. Some stews feature a thin gravy that is nonetheless packed with flavor (e.g., Pakistani Nihari), while others are cooked until the gravy is extremely thick.
Cooked on Stovetop and/or in Oven
Beef stews are typically cooked on the stovetop in a Dutch oven or large stainless steel pot. Some may be finished in the oven.
Cooking on the stovetop allows more water to evaporate, thickening up the stew. Leaving the lid on the pot for at least part of the cooking process is common to avoid the stew drying out.
Pot Roast vs. Beef Stew: Roundup of Key Differences
Here’s a brief summary of what we’ve covered so far.
- Pot roast: Awhole chunk of meat is cooked with large/chunky vegetables in an oven or slow cooker.
- Beef stew: Smaller chunks of meat are usually cooked on the stovetop with more finely chopped vegetables.
It’s important to remember that these are very loose culinary terms. If you want to adapt your cooking methods, vegetable chunkiness, or gravy levels, that’s your call!
The most significant difference in these terms is that the meat is cooked whole in a pot roast while it’s chopped up in a stew.
Pot Roast vs. Beef Stew: Best Cuts of Meat
Pot roasts and beef stews both prioritize getting the most out of cheap cuts of meat. However, slightly more expensive options like short ribs are also frequently used with delicious results.
Here’s a quick guide to the best cuts.
Bone-in Chuck Roast
This is perfect for pot roasts. The bone adds incredible flavor, and there’s no need to slice it up ahead of time.
Boneless chuck is typically preferred for stews because it’s easier to dice. However, if you have a bone-in joint, just add the bone to the pot as it cooks for extra flavor – or keep it for homemade beef stock.
Best for: both
Boneless Chuck Roast
This is the cut most U.S. chefs recommend for stews. Buying it whole and chopping it up at home saves money compared to buying pre-cut.
It’s also great for pot roasts, as the marbled fat keeps it tender during the long cooking process.
Best for: both
Short ribs are great for stews as they’re usually solid individually. They’re a little more expensive than other cuts but deliver unbeatable flavor.
Best for: stews
Silverside can be used for slow-cooked stews. It requires a long cooking time as it’s a tough cut.
This meat is very lean, meaning that it dries out easily. It’s less ideal for pot roasts as it’s difficult to monitor toughness through the large joint.
Best for: stews
Like the silverside, this is a very lean cut and is best diced in advance. It can also be cooked in a low-gravy pot roast to medium-rare or rare and sliced extremely thin.
Best for: both
Brisket is lean and tends to favor oven cooking. It’s more tender than topside and silverside joints but not quite as flavorful when diced. In a pot roast, it’s best rolled and cooked very slowly to ensure it’s tender.
Best for: pot roast
Beef shin is an incredibly flavorful and tender cut of meat but is less widely used than chuck despite a similar price tag. It’s one of the best meats for stews as it suits dicing and becomes fork-tender after a couple of hours.
Best for: stews
Oxtails are almost always cooked whole because of their unique design. But as you’d usually put multiple oxtails into a dish, is it a stew or a pot roast?
The answer is unknown, but whatever you call it, we recommend you give oxtail a try.
Browning oxtails is highly recommended, and you should be prepared for an incredibly long cooking time. Giving your oxtail stew or pot roast a head-start on the stovetop before potentially moving it to the oven is a good idea.
Best for: both
Whether you prefer your beef and vegetables whole or diced, the versatility of these dishes is unlimited. There are hundreds of regional variants from around the world just waiting for you to discover them.
Get to a good butcher, embrace your inner grandmother, and add these crowd-pleasing classics to your repertoire today!