How to corn your own beef

With St. Patrick’s Day coming, many a cook’s thoughts turn to the annual pot of corned beef and cabbage — the traditional New England boiled dinner.

We Americans consider this an Irish culinary tradition but ironically, it’s an inside joke among the Irish is that the boiled dinner we prepare in America to celebrate the feast day of a beloved Irish Catholic Saint is a dish that the Ireland Irish only prepare for American tourists. The enormously popular dish — last year, the Hurley Mountain Inn served 12,000 pounds of it in the week leading up to March 17 — owes its humble, historic (and fairly recent) tradition to Irish-American Catholics and Jewish butchers in New York City.

The curing (or corning) of meat for preservation and extension of shelf life is an ancient practice found in many cultures around the globe. During the British industrial revolution of the 18th century, wealthy landlords in Ireland realized they could become even wealthier landlords by making impoverished tenant farmers use the more lush pastures for grazing cattle, instead of growing other crops. The export of salt-cured beef had become extraordinarily lucrative as the demand for it in Britain, France and for the naval fleets in North America increased exponentially annually. As landlords’ purses got fat on the profits of beef, tenant farmers toiling in the production of beef for curing were forced to use marginal lands for other crops. Because it grows abundantly in less than adequate soil conditions, the potato became the preferred Irish crop.

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Pork was the meat of choice for the poor as it demanded fewer resources to produce than beef. Accordingly, the consumption of beef — including the cured salted beef tenant farmers themselves produced — was a rarity in Ireland. Irish bacon (what we call Canadian bacon) and potatoes become a staple in the diets of the people in the coastal cities of Ireland.

Skip forward to 1845 and follow the trail from the Great Potato Famine in Ireland to Lady Liberty in New York as a wave of immigration to America picks up momentum.

As Irish immigrants settled into New York, they inhabited ethnic neighborhoods adjacent to or interspersed with other “less than desirables” — the Jewish and Italian immigrants that preceded them. The Jewish delis often served corned beef and pastrami (corned beef brisket that’s smoked after curing). The briskets were cheap, made from tougher, less-marketable cuts of meat and nearly impossible to overcook. While beef back in Ireland” was prohibitively expensive, here in America it was budget-friendly. When the salty meat was boiled with American spuds, it was an acceptable substitute for Irish bacon and potatoes.

Since pork was not readily available at Jewish delis and, in general, was too expensive for the immigrant budget, traditional bacon and potatoes become corned beef and potatoes.

And as St. Patrick’s Day evolved from a religious feast day to a celebration of Irish heritage, Irish Americans sought to create a festive meal reminiscent of home. But another vegetable was needed to round out the meal. And as New Yorkers can still attest, cheap seasonal vegetables in mid-March are not plentiful. So, cabbage fit the criteria. A corned beef from the Jewish deli, boiled with the iconic potato and complimented by the cheapest vegetable to be found in New York in mid-March soon became the authentically Irish dish we know today celebrating St. Patrick’s Day each March 17.

Now that we understand why, let’s take a look at the how.

First off, there isn’t any corn in the corning of corned beef. “Corn,” in this sense, refers to the large grains of rock salt used in the curing or brining process. Additionally, spices and sugar are often added as is saltpeter or pink salt (not the pink table salt or Himalayan salt … that’s a whole other article if the editor will indulge me later). The pink curing salt contains nitrates and nitrites, compounds which will translate into the pink red hues associated with commercially produced corned beef.

When you corn your beef at home you may opt not to use the nitrates. It will not significantly affect the flavor, but the finished product will be grey rather than the pink you are used to seeing.

 

Not hard at all

The recipe I’m using results in a flavorful corned beef that is ridiculously easy to make at home. The pink salt can be tricky — you may want to take advantage of that free shipping membership perk and order it online or simply choose to omit the nitrates.

Next decision is what cut of beef. A full brisket is a substantial piece of meat, average 15 pounds. It is comprised of two distinct muscles, the flat and the point, that are separated by a fat layer and topped by a fat cap above the point.

When I teach cooking classes, I always ask my students to think about what they want at the end — what is the real destination? For example, in my family the Thanksgiving turkey is really a means to an end of the true goal; the day-after sandwich.

What is the true destination of your corned beef? If it’s the Reuben, the crowning jewel of deli sandwich glory, then choose the flat-cut brisket or the round. These cuts are better for slicing — they’re less fatty and will give you more control for the mile-high pile on your rye.

Now, if it’s the hash that puts the giggle-in-your-wiggle the morning after night of stout and whiskey, then seek the point-cut brisket. This fattier cut has a fibrous grain that is perfect for shredding and, with just a stir when perfectly cooked, will be that ideal Hooley partner for potatoes and onion for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

You can also use this brine to cure thick pork chops or a boneless pork loin.

 


To corn beef

8 qts. cold water, divided

4 cups Kosher pickling salt

1 (1.5 oz) jar of McCormick or other pickling spice*

1 cup brown sugar

2 bay leaves

1 cinnamon stick

2 Tbsp. black peppercorns

2 garlic cloves smashed (no need to peel)

3 Tbsp. pink salt **

10 lbs beef (or pork!)

* You can create your own pickling blend if you like. The prepackaged mix is more affordable if you don’t cook often and don’t have a wide range of spices in your pantry. But if you are feeling adventurous, here’s what to put together:

2 tablespoons mustard seeds

2 tablespoons coriander seeds

2 tablespoons crushed red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons allspice berries

1 tablespoon ground mace

2 tablespoons whole cloves

1 tablespoon ground ginger

** Optional to add the pink curing salt, remember this is what gives corned beef its red/pink hue!

In a large stock pot, combine half the water and everything else for the brine. Stir over medium high heat until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Remove from heat and add the second half of the cool water. Refrigerate brine until cool before adding meat.

This will be enough brine to corn 10 pounds of brisket.

Submerge beef into brine and weight down with a plate to keep the meat below the surface of the brine. You can also take smaller cuts of meat (beef or pork) and insert them into zip-style freezer bags filled with brine, rotating the bag each day if you don’t have cooler space for a large bucket. You’ll want to keep the meat in the solution for a minimum of 10 days. Smaller cuts will brine more quickly — seven days.

Feel free to halve the recipe but use the full amount of cinnamon, peppercorn and bay even if dividing in half.

After corning your beef, give it a good rinse and pat dry to use in your favorite corned beef and cabbage recipe (or try this one!)

 

New England boiled dinner

Serves 4 with leftover for sandwiches or hash!

3-4 lbs. corned beef

1 cup cider vinegar

1 bay leaf

2 tbsp. pickling spice

8 small red potatoes

8 small carrots, scrubbed and cut into medium pieces (peeling is optional)

1 head cabbage quartered

1 onion, peeled and halved

Water to cover

4 tbsp. honeycup mustard (or any sharp mustard of your choice)

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 tbsp. butter

1 bunch flat parsley, leaves chopped

Step 1:

Desalinization and tenderize — remove the corned beef from your brine and pat dry. Place in stockpot with vinegar and cold water to just cover. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer, cover and cook for 30 minutes, skimming the top often to remove any scum.

Step 2:

Combine the brown sugar with mustard. Set aside. Drain pot of all liquid. With corned beef still in the stock pot, add fresh cold water, pickling spice and onion. Make sure meat is just covered. Bring to a boil again. Reduce to a simmer and then cover and cook for one hour or until meat is easily pierced with a fork. Remove the meat, leaving the liquid in the pot. Place meat in shallow roasting pan, fat side up. Cover with mustard and brown sugar mixture and place in a 375-degree oven for 30-40 minutes until crust is bubbling brown. (Oven time will vary based on the size of the beef.) While meat is browning, place potatoes into the cooking broth and bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes. Add carrots and cook for 15 more minutes. Add cabbage and cook until tender for an additional 15 minutes.

Remove meat from oven and allow to rest while you remove the vegetables from the pot, reserving a cup of the liquid.

Warm the reserved liquid and whisk in a tablespoon of butter until it is incorporated.

Slice the cabbage quarters in half and arrange on a platter with potatoes and carrots. Slice the corned beef and add to the platter of vegetables. Drizzle everything with some of the reserved cooking liquid-butter mixture and garnish with chopped parsley.

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