Alan Tangren: Making corned beef
Dear Alan: I always buy corned beef to cook for St. Patrick’s Day, but I’d love to cure it myself. Is it hard to do?
Alan: Corned beef and cabbage is a traditional treat for many on St. Patrick’s Day, whether of Irish ancestry or not. It has had a special place of honor on the tables of generations of Irish immigrants who settled in the northeastern U.S., especially New York City and Boston.
The Irish were long used to cooking cabbage with cured pork or bacon, but beef was a luxury item.
It was only when Irish immigrants to the U.S. found abundant supplies off corned beef in Jewish delis in their neighborhoods that the substitution was made and a tradition started.
Corned beef has nothing to do with corn. The Old English word refers to small grains and was carried over to the coarse salt used in curing meat. The use of salt as a preservative was a necessary and helpful process before the days of refrigeration.
Corned beef is cured with a dry salt rub or a brine solution, with aromatic herbs and spices added for flavor.
It is usually made from the tougher cuts of beef, particularly the brisket, but also top and bottom round and parts of the chuck. Pork can also be used, especially boneless shoulder.
These parts of the animal do a lot of the work, and have higher concentrations of connective tissue that requires long cooking to become tender and palatable.
Ready to cook corned beef can be found in the meat department of any supermarket, especially as we get closer to March 17. Look for vacuum sealed bags of heavy plastic with the beef and a little of its brine inside.
A three to five pound piece will serve four to eight people. Pre-made corned beef should keep in its plastic bag for five to seven days after the “sell by” date on the package.
To cure your own
It’s relatively easy to cure your own, but allow yourself about two weeks to source ingredients you may not have on hand, such as curing salt and spices.
I would choose a piece of beef brisket or boneless pork shoulder weighing four to five pounds that is well marbled with fat. The more fat, the juicier the outcome. You will want to have this at least 10 days before you plan to cook it.
You will need a large, probably 2-gallon zip-lock bag and a roasting pan that will accommodate the bag when filled with meat and brine, and that will fit in your refrigerator. I like to use Alton Brown’s recipe for a wet brine.
Place a 6 or 8-quart stock pot over high heat and add 2 quarts of cold water. Stir in 12 ounces by weight of kosher salt, about 1 cup, and ½ cup light brown sugar.
Add 2 tablespoons of curing salt ( saltpeter) if you want the corned beef to be pink. You can find curing salt at many Asian grocery stores. If you don’t want the nitrites, leave it out, but the meat will be a nice gray color when cooked.
Add the herbs and spices:
1 stick of cinnamon, broken into several pieces
1 teaspoon mustard seed
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
8 whole cloves
8 allspice berries
12 juniper berries
2 crumbled bay leaves
½ teaspoon ground ginger
Stir until the salt and sugar are dissolved. Remove from heat and add 2 pounds of ice cubes to cool the brine. Stir until the ice has melted, then place in the refrigerator and cool to 45°F.
Place a 4 to 5-pound piece of brisket or boneless pork shoulder in the 2-gallon zip-lock bag and add the brine. Remove excess air and seal the bag securely. Lay the bag in a roasting pan that will accommodate it and refrigerate. Leave in the refrigerator for 10 days, turning the bag and massaging the brine every day.
Remove the meat from the bag and discard the brine. Rinse the meat well with cold water.
To cook home-cured or store-bought corned beef
Place a 3 to 5 pound piece of corned beef or pork in an 8-quart stock pot and add water to cover by 1-inch. Add 2 teaspoons of coarsely cracked black pepper, 1 teaspoon of allspice berries, 2 bay leaves and 2 teaspoons kosher salt.
Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer. Cover and cook for 2-1/2 to 3 hours, until fork tender.
Add 3 or 4 coarsely diced carrots, 2 coarsely diced medium onions, 1 pound of russet potato chunks and 2 stalks of diced celery. Return to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes.
Add a small head of cabbage that has been cut in thin wedges or coarsely diced. After a few minutes take out the meat and let it rest on a cutting board, tented with foil.
Continue to cook the vegetables for another 15 minutes, or until the potatoes and cabbage are tender. Fish out the bay leaves.
Slice the meat across the grain and arrange on a platter with the vegetables and some of the juice.
Serve with whole grain bread and Irish butter. Guinness stout would be a good beverage choice, or a sturdy white wine or light red.
Plan on having leftovers for sandwiches or for hash at breakfast or supper.
Cooked corned meat should be allowed to cool to room temperature and then stored in zip-lock or reusable containers that can be sealed airtight, where it will keep for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator.
Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef’s Tables at Tess’ Kitchen Store, 115 Mill Street in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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