Jan has been cooking and writing about food for over 20 years. She has cooked on multiple television stations, including the Food Network.
Corned Beef Is Better When It's Homemade
Corned beef is fabulous. The flavor is unlike anything else. Redolent of cinnamon and juniper, it's incredible served alone, with potatoes, cabbage or turnips, braised, roasted, or smoked. The top three dishes made with corned beef in the United States are corned beef hash, the Reuben sandwich, and corned beef and cabbage—with an explosion of the last one around St. Patrick's Day.
Corned beef and cabbage is Irish-American rather than traditionally Irish. After that, the history seems a bit murky. One story is Irish immigrants looking for a replacement for their Irish bacon learned from their Jewish neighbors about this meat on the lower East Side in the late 19th century. Another is that the Irish were preserving low-quality cuts of beef in a salt brine as early as the 16th century. Perhaps part of both stories is true. However it came to be, it's delicious when done correctly.
That's when I realized recently that the flavor of what I was buying at the grocery was rather insipid. So of course I decided to see if I could do better. I have to say—I did. The directions look complicated, but they're not. Whip up a brine, trim the beef, submerge and chill it, turn it once a day, then cook it off. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. The result is tender, juicy, and intensely flavored.
What Is Saltpeter, and Do You Need It?
One thing I have to mention at this point: many of the recipes I found called for saltpeter, which is the common name of potassium nitrate. In searching it down, I discovered that just about the only way to obtain it was at the hardware store—where it is sold as a stump remover. I had issues with the potential purity of the product. In looking online for food-grade saltpeter I found only a couple of sites selling it for "women who wanted to keep their men from cheating." Uh . . . well now.
Since its only function (in corned beef) is to preserve the pink color of the meat, I decided that perhaps I didn't need the corned beef to be traditionally pink after all. There is no function as far as a flavoring or preservative. The preservative properties are mind, and I'm not making this to keep for months—it's gone at my house within days. I mean, dang. So this recipe will result in a corned beef that's just plain old brown. Your men will thank you.
For the brine:
- 2 quarts water
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1 cinnamon stick, broken into several pieces
- 1½ teaspoon mustard seeds
- 1½ teaspoon black peppercorns
- 10 whole cloves
- 10 whole allspice berries
- 10 whole juniper berries
- 3 bay leaves, crumbled
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger OR 1 (3-4) inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and broken into pieces
- 2 tsp pickling spice
- 1 gallon ice
- 1 (6-7) pound beef brisket
- 1 medium yellow onion
- 2 celery stalks, roughly chopped
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
Trimming the Beef Brisket
- Trim the fat from the beef brisket.
- In a large heavy saucepan, place salt, sugar, cinnamon stick, mustard seeds, peppercorns, cloves, allspice, juniper berries, bay leaves, and ginger. Heat just until the salt and sugar have dissolved. This is the brine solution for the corned beef.
- Pour the brine into a large container—it needs to be big enough to hold the brisket and keep it submerged. I use a big 2-gallon container.
- Add the ice and stir until melted (or mostly melted). You want two things from the ice: you’re adding enough liquid to keep the beef submerged, but you’re also bringing the temperature of the brine down to where it’s safe to add the beef. If you add it to the brine while it’s hot, you’ll be parboiling the out outside, which is not only dangerous from a bacteria side, but it will prevent the brine from penetrating as well as you want. The temperature needs to be 40°F or less for safety.
- Once the brine and ice are at or below 40°F, add the brisket to the container. Make sure the brine completely covers the beef. If it doesn’t add just enough very cold water to cover the beef by about an inch.
- Stash the container in the refrigerator. It needs to "cure" in the brine solution for 6-7 days. Once a day you’ll need to stir the brine and turn the beef.
- Once 6-7 days have passed, remove the brisket from the brine. Discard the brine. Rinse the brisket well under cold running water.
- Place brisket in a Dutch oven or stockpot. Add onion, celery and carrot. Add just enough fresh cold water to cover brisket by about 1 inch. Bring to a boil.
- Reduce heat to a bare simmer. Allow corned beef to simmer, covered, for about 3 hours or until tender.
- Remove from the pot and place on a cutting board. Allow to rest for about 10 minutes. Make sure you slice very, very thinly, across the grain of the meat. Store tightly covered, with a little bit of the juices from the pot to help keep it moist.
Now it's ready for whatever you want to do with it. Corned beef and cabbage, corned beef hash, a phenomenal Reuben sandwich, straight out of the container at midnight . . . you get the idea. Give it a try—you'll love the results!
© 2010 Jan Charles