Corned Beef

by Elizabeth Skipper | March 6th, 2012 | Ask the Chef

Can I make my own corned beef instead of buying the brined meat?  If so, is it a project that is better left to the professionals or something I should try?

With St. Paddy’s Day right around the corner, it’s a perfect time to try your hand at making your own corned beef. You don’t need to leave this to “the professionals.”

We all used to be the professionals. In the days before large food processors existed to perform these tasks for us, people raised their own food and were responsible for preserving it as well. Food was precious. “Corning” beef is a method of preserving it, after all, though we now think of it was just another kind of taste.

From The American Frugal Housewife, Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy, written by Mrs. Child in 1833, comes this succinct advice:

When you merely want to corn meat, you have nothing to do but to rub in salt plentifully, and let it set in the cellar a day or two. If you have provided more meat than you can use while it is good, it is well to corn it in season to save it. In summer, it will not keep well more than a day and a half; if you are compelled to keep to longer, be sure and rub in more salt, and keep it carefully covered from cellar flies. In winter, there is not difficulty in keeping a piece of corned beef for a fortnight or more.

So, originally, corned beef was salted beef. Ever wondered why the odd name? It has nothing to do with corn, the grain. In England, whole grains of salt, some quite large, were known as “corn” – hence the term.

What we now think of as corned beef is pickled beef, preserved in seasoned brine. In addition to salt, the brine may also contain vinegar, sugar and/or garlic. The spices used vary, but may include some combination of bay leaves, black peppercorns, mustard seeds, cloves, allspice, coriander, ginger, fennel, and even chile peppers. You can see there are a lot of choices. Some recipes call for sodium nitrate, also known as pink curing salt, Prague powder # 1 or InstaCure # 1, which gives corned beef its distinctive pink color. It’s optional, and I’d avoid it. For the salt itself, use kosher or pickling salt, which contain no additives.

Compared to traditional methods of using a salt barrel, or keeping the meat submerged in the brine with a weight, in the root cellar, we now have it a little easier. Some folks use vacuum sealers to remove the air from the brining meat, or use a food-grade plastic bag with as much air squeezed out as possible. If you rely on a non-vacuum sealed bag, be sure to put the sealed bag in a large pot or container for additional insurance – you don’t want this to leak. Your refrigerator takes the place of the root cellar.

Corned beef is can be made from the rump or the round, but more commonly, the brisket. There are two cuts of brisket, the flat and the point cut. The point cut is fattier and more flavorful. In this era of fat phobia, you may have to ask your butcher to order it for you, so plan ahead. Other than that bit of advice, I’m not going to provide a recipe. There are tons online; find one that looks good and give it a whirl. It’s easy! Just be sure to start about a week before you want to eat your homemade corned beef; it takes that long to cure.

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