Welcome to Super Food Nerds, a new column which will be written in alternating installments by me, Rupa (Food and Beverage Editor, Culinary Staff) and my colleague Jonathan (Research Librarian, same place). Each installment will be dedicated to a particular topic – how to DIY something you don’t normally DIY, how to perfect a dish usually taken for granted, plus best techniques, underlying chemistries and a handful of inexplicable preferences. Basically, if we can overthink it, we’re on it.
So, spring’s in the air, and naturally our thoughts are turning to beef. OK, that’s a lie, I was already thinking about beef — specifically, corned beef. There’s the whole St. Patrick’s Day thing, and I also really like corned beef. I’ve kept a mysterious bucket of brining beef in our kitchens’ walk-in fridge since last week, and have taken out pieces here and there to braise. After decent testing and rigorous eating, I’m pretty happy with the end result.
To make corned beef, you take a big, flavorful piece of meat and infuse it with even more flavor in the form of a salt-sugar-spice solution (aka brine) for way longer than you’d ever think you could safely keep meat in a fridge. Then, you cook it. The cumulative effect of beef, salt, sugar, spices and time is so much more than the sum of its parts that it’s sort of mind-blowing and unbelievably rewarding.
Here’s the gist (FAQ and recipe follow):
I cut a whole beef brisket in half (you can start with half a brisket if your commitment to beef is less than mine, which is both possible and probable) and submerged it in a gallon of salted, sugared, flavored water.
(I had dissolved kosher salt and brown sugar and added herbs and spices to the water). I weighed it down with a plate and let it sit in the fridge for four days, at which point I took out one of the halves, rinsed it, braised it and fed most of the kitchen staff with it.
Three days later, I checked on the other half, and did the same thing. That’s it. Shockingly easy, remarkably delicious. You really should try it.
Corned Beef: FAQ
If I wanted to make homemade corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day, should I get on it now?
How much corn do I need?
You don’t need any. Corn here just refers to the size of the salt grains used to brine the beef. They’re kernel-size, or at least they can be.
If there’s not any corn, what’s the point of corned beef?
Corning started out as a food preservation technique long before there was refrigeration. The first use of the word dates back to at least the 1500s (and probably long before). It works like this: When you put something that’s not very salty (like meat) into a salty liquid (like brine), the salt levels are going to try to even themselves out to be the same both inside and outside the meat. What happens then is that the brining liquid (salt, sugar, spices) travels inside the meat, providing seasoning and flavor (making it delicious) as well as creating an unfriendly-to-bacteria environment inside (keeping it edible for a longer period of time).
Nowadays, we have fridges to handle food preservation, but fridges alone can’t make you a sandwich. That’s where the corned beef comes in.
What do I need to make it?
See the recipe below. But in short, you’ll need meat, a large vessel to put it in, salt, sugar, spices and fridge space. And time. You’ll also need some time. Four to seven days, ideally.
What meat should I use?
Brisket is classic (and easiest to carve and serve), but any tough, long-cooking cut works. Neck and shank would probably do well, too. If you go with brisket, you can do the flat cut (leaner), the point cut (more flavorful) or both.
What’s a good container to do this in?
We used a large plastic bucket, but you could use a nonreactive stockpot, a very large plastic bag or even a cooler. (As long as it fits in your fridge.)
And why should I make it for St. Patrick’s Day? Is it Irish?
Sort of. Corned beef is, corned beef and cabbage isn’t. The food writer Francis Lam did some pretty thorough digging into the history, and his conclusion is more or less that it’s Irish-American and also delicious and we should just enjoy it and not stress about the authenticity.
Why is corned beef usually pink?
A lot of beef brines use pink curing salt (a combo of regular salt and sodium nitrite, mostly used in sausage-making) to give corned beef its characteristic color. Because it’s a specialty ingredient that I’d have to track down, and the beef’s color wasn’t important enough to me to go to the effort, I didn’t bother. So this recipe gives you corned beef that doesn’t look pink. It looks brownish, like cooked beef. If you ever buy naturally-cured bacon, you’re probably familiar with the color.
Does it make a difference how long I brine it for?
Honestly, there was not an enormous difference between the four-day brisket and the seven-day brisket. If you only have four days, you’ll be fine cutting it short. In the four-day brisket, we noticed that the fattier meat took the brine a little better than the leaner meat did.
How do I cook it when I’m done curing it?
Like this (on the stovetop), or like this (in the slow cooker). With the leftovers, make Corned Beef Hash or Corned Beef and Cabbage Rolls or Corned Beef Grilled Cheese. It’s a pretty versatile ingredient and a brisket’s pretty large, so plan to have all corned beef everything for at least a couple of meals.
Why am I not corning beef right now?
I have no idea, but you should probably go start. Recipe follows.
Recipe courtesy Rupa Bhattacharya for Cooking Channel
Yield: One 10- to 11-pound roast
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Inactive Prep Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 1 hour 25 minutes (includes cooling time, plus 4 to 6 days brining time)
Ease of preparation: easy
2 cups kosher salt
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
20 juniper berries
20 black peppercorns
4 whole cloves
4 sprigs fresh thyme
3 bay leaves
One 10- to11-pound brisket, split into flat and point
Combine the salt, sugar, juniper berries, peppercorns, cloves, thyme and bay leaves with 1 gallon water in a large stockpot. Bring to a boil over high heat and stir until the salt and sugar are dissolved, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely, about an hour.
Pour the brine over the brisket, weighting the brisket down with a heavy plate to ensure it’s completely submerged. Cover, and transfer to the refrigerator for 4 to 6 days.
After 4 to 6 days, remove the brisket from the brine and discard the brine. Rinse the brisket well in cold water, and cook according to your favorite recipe.