Corned beef actually has nothing to do with corn. The English once used the word “corn” to describe anything that was small, hard and granular, in this case the size of the salt grains used to dry-cure corned beef. Although most corned beef today cures while submerged in brine, the name has stuck.
Most people associate corned beef with St. Patrick’s Day. This dish did not originate in Ireland, but was popularized by Irish immigrants who were trying to find an inexpensive replacement for their traditional bacon and cabbage. (Traditional Irish bacon more closely resembled lean bacon such as Canadian bacon or cured pork loin.)
Curing Corned Beef
Corned beef usually comes from the brisket or eye of round, although any cut of beef could be used. Neither cut is naturally tender; compared to naturally tender cuts, these are fairly inexpensive.
The cure can be either wet or dry, yielding similar flavors but different textures. The curing process can take anywhere from five days to two weeks, depending on the thickness of the meat. The cure or brine needs to penetrate to the center of the meat to help distribute flavor and cure. Cutting the meat into smaller pieces and trimming off the fat will help to ensure the preservation of the meat, which before the invention of refrigeration or freezing was extremely important.
The curing process delivers salt and TCM (Tinted Cure Mix or Curing Salt No. 1) throughout the meat, which, in turn, kills or drastically inhibits bacterial growth in the meat. Salt alone can cure meat, but TCM helps retain the signature red color of corned beef. We still perform this curing process today with many items, not because we need to be able to preserve meat without refrigeration, but because it is delicious.
Cooking Corned Beef
The curing process does not make the meat become tender. Most short brines (pork loin, chicken and fish) only last for a handful of hours, just enough to distribute the salt and flavors, maintain moisture in the meat, and help tenderize it. Corned beef is created with preservation brine; the process actually draws out moisture, which is why the meat still needs moist, slow cooking with a low temperature to break down the thick muscle strands and make the cut become tender.
This process is easy but time-consuming. Whether you are using stock or water for your liquid (I prefer stock), your beef will get lonely in the pot as it simmers for two to three hours. No matter what your final use of the corned beef, you may as well flavor some vegetables along the way. The addition of vegetables provides a twofold benefit; the vegetables help fortify the liquid to help round out the flavor of the beef, and they pick of some delicious flavor along the way. The best way to check for doneness in a stewed dish like this is not with a thermometer, but with a kitchen or carving fork. (It is well past the necessary temperature to be safe.) Check the resistance of the meat. It will actually become more firm before it becomes fork-tender. The fork should easily pierce the meat and slide out with very little pull from the meat as the fork is removed. The moisture and flavor in the meat increase when the meat is allowed to cool in the liquid.
Uses For Corned Beef
After you have gone to the trouble to take up space in your refrigerator for two weeks with a whole beef brisket, you probably want to have several uses for it — unless you are serving corned beef and cabbage for 50. The cured meat will freeze well, either cooked or uncooked. Cooked beef that has cooled in the pot with the liquid and vegetables will freeze well and work for corned beef sandwiches or Reubens. Just remove the wrapped or vacuum-sealed cooked meat and allow a day or two to thaw in the fridge — you are ready to slice. Leftover pieces of corned beef are good for corned beef hash; just add some butter with the cooked cabbage, vegetables and potatoes, brown in a pan and next morning’s breakfast is ready.
Proper Sandwich Assembly
Butter, mayonnaise and cheese are delicious additions to your sandwich, they also have other positive attributes. If you are making a Reuben sandwich, use the spreads and cheese to buffer the moisture from the meat, sauerkraut, lettuce or any other additions. My preference, working from the bottom, is bread, dressing, cheese, meat, sauerkraut, meat, dressing and bread. This will help keep the bread crisp during the griddling and cheese-melting process.
Cures a 4 to 5 pound piece of brisket or eye of round
(Multiply as needed for larger or multiple cuts)
4 to 5 pound piece of brisket or eye of round, trimmed of excess fat
1 gallon water
2 cups kosher salt
½ cup granulated sugar
1 ounce TCM (Tinted Cure Mix or Curing Salt No. 1 — optional but strongly preferred)
4 cloves garlic
2 thyme sprigs
1 teaspoon peppercorns
½ teaspoon mustard seeds
½ teaspoon juniper berries
½ teaspoon allspice berries
½ teaspoon coriander seeds
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon fennel seeds
½ teaspoon caraway seeds
½ cinnamon stick
1-inch section of ginger, peeled and sliced
Combine water and all brine ingredients together in a large stock pot and bring to simmer for 10 to 15 minutes to infuse the flavors. Transfer liquid to a large food-storage container with clearly marked measurements of at least up to 4 quarts. Add ice to bring liquid level up to 4 quarts (1 gallon) to account for evaporation while simmering to infuse flavors. Place beef into a container that is large enough to hold it snugly. Pour cooled brine and seasonings mixture over the beef and weigh down the beef with a couple plates to cover the meat in brine, and then refrigerate (all the brine does not have to fit into the container, as long as the meat is covered).
Alternate method: Place the beef into a zip-close bag (at least 2 gallons) and pour enough brine to generously cover the beef. With the alternate method, you may be able to get away with doing a half recipe of the brine or curing twice the amount of beef between two bags. Squeeze out all excess air in the bag and close. Place in the refrigerator (preferably in another container or crisper drawer to prevent a mess should the bag leek) for the allotted amount of time.
The appropriate amount of curing time depends on the thickness of the meat. Allow the meat to cure for 1 to 2 days for every ¼-inch of thickness (minimum 5 days and maximum 14 days). This should allow the cure to penetrate all the way through to the center of the meat.
Once the beef has cured for the appropriate amount of time, remove from the cure and rinse. If you are using the brine to make corned beef and cabbage, follow the recipe below.
If you want to cook the meat to use for sandwiches, perform the following steps. Place the cured corned beef into a stockpot and cover to an inch above the top of the meat with white chicken stock or water. Add 1 large diced onion, 2 large diced stalks of celery, 1 peeled large diced carrot, 3 bay leaves and 3 cloves of garlic. Simmer for 2½ to 3 hours until fork-tender, then place the entire stockpot into the refrigerator to cool, preferably overnight. Remove meat from the liquid and slice or freeze whole as desired. Be sure to slice against the grain; you want thin slices against the grain, not with the grain. This ensures tender meat that does not have long strands of muscle fibers. The leftover liquid makes a great base for soups or sauces.
Corned Beef and Cabbage
Serves 4 to 6 people
2 to 3 pound piece of corned beef (uncooked)
3 to 4 quarts of chicken stock or water as needed
5 whole cloves of garlic
2 onions, large diced
1 carrot, large diced
2 russet potatoes, peeled and large diced
1 medium cabbage, cored and large diced
Cover the corned beef with chicken stock to about an inch above the top of the meat. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until fork-tender (2½ to 3 hours). Add garlic, onions, carrots and potatoes and simmer for another 15 to 20 minutes. Add cabbage and simmer until potatoes become fork-tender (about another 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the corned beef and let rest on a cutting board for 5 minutes. While the beef is resting, season the liquid to taste with salt and pepper. Slice or cut into chunks as desired and serve with vegetables and a little broth. Feel free to change up the flavoring ingredients; add beer, caraway seed, cayenne or other herbs and spices to your preference.
Brook Harlan is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He is a culinary arts instructor at the Columbia Area Career Center.