Although I grew up in an ecumenical home in a small town that was diverse before that term had any political meaning, I had an Irish father who exuberantly celebrated anything to do with his heritage. His favorite color was green, he swooned to Irish tenors, wore a tweed cap every winter's day, and secretly thought St. Patrick's Day was more important than Christmas.
So as his favorite holiday arrived on March 17th, he'd celebrate by having corned beef and cabbage. To him this was the culinary high point of the year. Every March my mother would buy a brisket of beef that had already been corned by the butcher, and she'd boil the heck out of it, trying to remove as much of the salt as she could. In the last half hour or so of the cooking she'd add white potatoes, carrots and wedges of cabbage to the pot. By the time we sat down to dinner the house had a smell that to someone else might have been unpleasant but to my Dad, it was sweet perfume.
While I don't love the dish as much as he did -- no one could! -- I've found that by corning your own beef instead of buying one already fully salinated, this traditional dish can be wonderfully complex with flavor that's not just salty. I also skip the cabbage and instead prefer to serve the beef with separately cooked vegetables and a side of horseradish and sour cream.
So in memory of my darling Dad and for all the Irish fathers who will be putting on the green for St. Patrick's Day, this is for you.
So what is corning? It's a centuries-old preservation method that used salt to cure beef before the invention of refrigeration. The name came from the corn kernel-sized grains of salt in which the meat would be packed and stored. As time passed, the distinctive flavor of salt-cured beef became popular and today, even though we have refrigerators, butchers and home cooks continue to turn briskets into corned beef.
I'm sure the first question many might ask is why bother to corn your own beef when you can buy it ready to cook? This question gets answered by Julia Child in her masterful book, The Way To Cook: "No serious reason except for the pride of authorship; besides, it's easy to do, and you know exactly what's in it." She was so right. We should know exactly what's in the food we cook and eat.
When I first began investigating how to corn my own beef, nearly every recipe I found included a generous amount of pink salt, or nitrite; this gives the beef its distinctive pink color and adds preservation potency. But since we're making this for our own dinner table and not some supermarket shelf life, if you're willing to give up the familiar color, skip the pink salt and instead just use kosher salt. Many commercially corned beefs also include saltpeter, another preservation chemical that we can do without. Some home cooks corn beef by putting it in a seasoned brine for several days but I think such soaking is an aggressive step we can avoid, as I'll explain in a moment.
A corned beef is nearly always a brisket, which comes from the chest of a cow. A center cut brisket is large -- usually about 5 to 7 pounds. But your butcher can sell you a half center cut, weighing about 2 to 4 pounds. Ask him to trim off excess fat but leave a thin layer; this will add flavor to the cooking.
The brisket is a tougher cut of meat that needs hours of braising, stewing or slow roasting to become tender. This makes it perfect for days of corning and then cooking by simmering the fully corned beef in water, a method that manages to not only make the meat tender but also cook out much of the salt.
I know. Crazy. First we put the salt in and then we take it out. But it's all in pursuit of a distinctive taste.
I got the best results by using salting and cooking methods by both Julia Child and The Best Recipe by the editors of Cook's Illustrated Magazine. Instead of a brine, both use a dry rub of kosher salt plus many of the spices usually found in a pickling blend. No nitrites. No saltpeter. No sugar. And in this method the meat is only given a long submerge in water when it's cooked, which I think produces a better texture than the double soak of first brining and then boiling.
The corning process takes 5 days so plan ahead for when you intend to cook and serve the beef. Corning for longer than a week can make your beef excessively salty; if you decide to corn for more than 5 days, I recommend that you change the cooking water two hours into the process and continue with a pot of fresh, simmering water so to help remove as much of the salt as possible.
1/2 cup kosher salt
1 tablespoon black peppercorns, crushed into big pieces (use a spice grinder or crush with the bottom of a heavy fry pan)
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon dried or fresh thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon hot paprika
2 bay leaves, crumbled
1/2 center cut fresh beef brisket, about 2 to 4 pounds, trimmed of excess fat but with a thin layer of fat left on the meat; rinse and patted dry with paper towels
- In a small bowl combine the salt, peppercorns, ground pepper, allspice, thyme, paprika and crumbled bay leaves.
- With a sharp serving fork or the tip of a skewer, pierce the surface of the brisket about 25 to 30 times on both sides. This will help the salt rub penetrate the meat.
- Place the brisket inside a large plastic bag that can be tightly sealed; a one gallon zipper-lock bag is perfect. Reaching through the opening, add all of the salt mixture and use your hands to rub it on all surfaces of the brisket.
- Seal the plastic bag, pressing out any air as you do, and place it in a shallow baking pan or small sheet pan. Place on top of it one or two other baking dishes or other heavy objects like cans of tomatoes, thus weighing it down.
- Refrigerate 5 days, turning the brisket, still in its sealed bag, over once a day. Within the first day you'll see how the salt will pull liquid out of the beef, creating its own marinade liquid. If you let it cure for more than a week, the beef will not be spoiled but it may become excessively salty so try to not marinade for more than 7 days.
- When you're ready to cook the brisket, remove it from the refrigerator. Take it out of its plastic bag and rinse it completely.
- Place the brisket in a large pot, fill the pot with cool water so to cover the beef by about an inch, and bring to a boil. Scum is likely to come to the surface and this should be skimmed off with a slotted spoon or mesh spider. Once the scum seems to have been completely removed (this can take 4 or 5 minutes), cover the pan, reduce to a simmer and cook for 2 to 3 hours or until the meat is completely tender and can be easily pierced with a skewer.
- Drain completely and cut in thin 1/2-inch slices, cutting across the grain.
- Serve with steamed potatoes, roasted Brussels sprouts and buttered carrots, plus pass a bowl of sour cream horseradish sauce.
Certainly if you think corned beef can't be eaten without boiled or steamed or sautéed cabbage, you should add your favorite version of this winter vegetable. But I prefer vegetables that add contrasting flavor and color to the brown, boiled beef and so instead recommend steamed red bliss potatoes (leave on a little skin to add color), baby Brussels sprouts -- or larger ones cut in half -- that have been roasted with a little olive oil until they caramelize and have the fragrance of popcorn, and thick pieces of orange carrots, steamed and lightly buttered. If there are leftovers, corned beef makes a splendid sandwich, piled high on a bulky roll with a spread of coarse mustard, or it can be combined with a dice of potatoes and onions into a fantastic corned beef hash.
I also love corned beef with a Sour Cream Horseradish Sauce made with shredded onion. This sauce has more personality than a classic cream and horseradish Sauce Raifort that is often served with roast beef, and thus can stand up to corned beef's aggressive taste. We've added a link to our recipe.
As my Dad used to say -- "Happy St. Patrick's Day to the Irish. And to everyone who wishes they were."
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