“There are 7 chances against even the most simple dish being presented to the mouth in absolute perfection.  For instance a roast beef –

  1.  The meat must be good
  2. It must have been kept a good time
  3. It must be roasted at a good fire
  4. By a good cook
  5. Who must be in good temper
  6. With all this felicitous combination you must have good luck, and
  7. Good appetite – the meat and the mouths which are to eat it must be ready for action at the same time.”

 Hannah Peterson filled her The Young Wife’s Cook Book with such gems of wisdom.  Roasting beef is a handsome and toothsome way to serve it, but for those who hadn’t the more expensive cuts, braising it made even the toughest beef fork tender.

POT ROAST or BRAISED BEEF.—Remove the skin and some of the fat from the flank of beef, (put both in the oven with half a pint of water to “try out”,) sprinkle the beef with two level teaspoonfuls of salt and half a saltspoonful of pepper, a tablespoonful of finely chopped parsley, if you have it, and a scant teaspoonful of thyme, also, if you have it.  Roll up the beef tightly with these flavorings inside, flour the meat and put in a thick saucepan or pot with a wineglass of vinegar and two cloves.  Cover very closely and if the lid of the saucepan does not fit well put a clean cloth over it.  Let it so remain till nearly browned turning it about occasionally.  Have ready a carrot and half an onion sliced, and when the meat has been slowly cooking nearly two hours, put them to it with half a pint of boiling water and a dessert spoonful of Worcestershire or any nice table sauce, if you have it, and simmer very slowly two hours, then take up the meat, remove the strings, carefully skim all fat from the gravy and pour it over it.  In summer put a pint of young peas into the gravy; fried potatoes are very good with this dish.  – Good Housekeeping.  Vol. II.  Feb. 6, 1886.

In 1887, Fanny Gillette published a recipe for what she called old style pot roast, saying of it, “This is an old-fashioned dish, often cooked in our grand mothers’ time.  Take a piece of fresh beef weighing about five or six pounds.  It must not be too fat.  Wash it and put it into a pot with barely sufficient water to cover it.  Set it over a slow fire, and after it has stewed an hour salt and pepper it.  Then stew it slowly until tender, adding a little onion if liked.  Do not replenish the water at the last, but let all nearly boil away.  When tender all through take the meat from the pot, and pour the gravy in a bowl.  Put a large lump of butter in the bottom of the pot, then dredge the piece of meat with flour, and return it to the pot to brown, turning it often to prevent its burning.  Take the gravy that you have poured from the meat into the bowl, and skim off all the fat; pour this gravy in with the meat and stir in a large spoonful of flour; wet with a little water; let it boil up ten or fifteen minutes and pour into a gravy dish.  Serve both hot, the meat on a platter.  Some are very fond of this way of cooking a piece of beef which has been previously placed in spiced pickle for two or three days.”

Fanny was born in 1828 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  She married G. W. Gillette on March 15, 1848.  She was roughly 60 years old at the time her book was published.  For a recipe to date to her grandmother’s time, it would have to date from at least the latter third of the 18th century. 

The term “pot-roast” isn’t readily found prior to the 1880’s, but the cooking method is so simple and basic the dish was undoubtedly being prepared much earlier. 

Roasting a large joint of beef required constant turning and attention, but slow braising allowed the cook to attend to other household tasks while the roast cooked.  Gauging by the time it took to cook and the fuel needed for hot coals to roast beef I suspect pot-roast was one of those dishes that was very common but so basic it rarely merited mention in cookery books prior to the 19th century.