Originally posted on March 18, 2012
Corned beef, also known as salt beef and spiced beef, is a national dish of Ireland. Recipes vary, but the cure is usually made of kosher salt, curing salt, a heap of brown sugar, and spices like clove, allspice, black pepper, and mustard seed. The cured meat is gently simmered (usually in water, sometimes in beer) until tender, and can be eaten hot or cold.
To clarify, corned beef has nothing to do with maize. “Corn” was once a broad English term for a small bit, whether a grain of wheat, or a crystal of salt. “Corned beef” is beef that has been covered in corns of salt.
Like most charcuterie, corned beef was first developed as a way to preserve the meat. Because of its good keeping quality, the British navy adopted Irish corned beef as a ration for its sailors. Wherever the British navy went, there was money to be made in provisioning its sailors, and many, many inferior corned beef producers sprang up around the world, notably on the Hawaiian islands and in South America, where the cured beef was later canned. Sailors detested the canned meat, and apparently called it “salt junk.”
Inferior corned beef was also used extensively as cheap, long-keeping food for British and French slaves, especially in the Caribbean.
Despite its bastardization at the hands of imperialists and industrialists, corned beef remains one of the great festive dishes of Irish cuisine, along with colcannon, discussed below. It is commonly eaten on Christmas, Easter, and St. Patrick’s Day.
Corned beef is made of brisket, a cut of beef from the breast of the cow. It is actually comprised of two muscles: a long muscle on the bottom called the flat, and a smaller muscle on top, off to one side, called the point.
The bulk of the flavour of corned beef comes from the pickling spice used in the brine. Don’t buy pickling spice; make your own. Here’s a simple procedure. I divide my pickling spices into two families: the “sweet spices” like cinnamon, clove, and allspice, and the “deli spices” like mustard seed, black pepper, coriander, and chili flakes. Combine one measure of each of the sweet spices with two measures of each of the deli spices by weight. Add the spices to the brine as you are heating the liquid to dissolve the salt and sugar.
I’ve had some issues with brine-penetration when curing brisket in the past. It seems that the tough, fatty muscles of the brisket resist curing more than, say, a pork loin. Some tips on achieving uniform cure:
- Consider separating the point and flat from each other before curing. This creates two, tabular muscles that will brine more evenly than a whole brisket.
- Don’t overcrowd the meat in the brine. It’s tempting to try and cram as much meat as you can into the tub so that it is all just, just submerged. If you do this there will not be enough salt to cure the entire mass of meat, and there will be grey, un-cured pockets in the centre of the brisket. Maintain the ratio in the recipe below: 4 L of curing brine for every 2.25 kg of meat.
- Inject the meat with some of the brine. A good rule of thumb is 10% of the weight of the meat. This is especially important if you have decided to keep the briskets intact.
- Curing time: 5 days should be sufficient if you follow the guidelines above.
As a side note, once you have cured the brisket, if you were to coat your corned beef in crushed black pepper and coriander, then hot-smoke the meat, you’d be making pastrami. If your hot-smoker were in Montreal, you’d be making Montreal smoked meat. Anyways.
Brisket is a tough cut that requires extensive cooking. I put my corned beef in a casserole, add cider until the meat is half submerged, cover the dish with parchment and aluminum foil, then kept it in a 250°F oven until a fork slides easily into and out of the meat, about eight hours.
The water left in the casserole is extremely flavourful, though very salty and greasy. Cool the liquid, remove the solidified fat from the top, then dilute with water or more apple cider until the salt content is tolerable. Serve as a brothy sauce for the beef.
Corned beef is a fantastic dish to serve to large groups. Once the beef is tender, you need only gently reheat it. You can throw it in a low oven an hour or so before you plan on eating, then bring it to the table and slice across the grain of the meat. I probably don’t need to write this, but the leftovers can be sliced and used to make superlative sandwiches.
- 4 L water
- 350 g kosher salt
- 225 g dark brown sugar
- 42 g curing salt (6.25% sodium nitrite)
- 45 g fresh garlic
- 20 g ground coriander
- 2.5 g (1 tsp) ground allspice
- 1.2 g (1 tsp) ground bay
- 8 g (1 tbsp) mustard powder
- 8 g (1 tbsp ground black pepper
- 1 beef brisket, roughly 4-5 kgs in weight
- Combine half the water with the salts, sugar, garlic, and spices. Heat on the stove, stirring periodically, til the salts and sugar have dissolved. Remove from the stove and add the remaining cold water. Chill brine thoroughly.
- Inject the brisket with 10% of its weight in brine. Focus injections on the thickest parts of the brisket.
- Completely submerge the brisket in the remaining brine, weighing down with ceramic plates as necessary. Keep refrigerated for 5 days.
- Remove the brisket from the brine, rinse with cold water, then let rest in the fridge a few hours, preferably overnight.
- Put the cured brisket in a large pan. Add about an inch of apple cider to the pan. Cover loosely and cook in a 250°F oven for several hours (maybe 8-10?). The corned beef should be fork tender and wobbly when fully tenderized.
1. Kurlansky, Mark. Salt: A World History. ©2002 Mark Kurlansky. Vintage Canada 2002 Edition. Page 125.
3. Ibid! Is it bad to have three citations from the same page of the same book?