Making Home Made Corned Beef From Scratch
Your first question has to be "Why bother?" And the answer is simple: Homemade corned beef is better.
Why? The commercial stuff, especially the cheap stuff mass marketed for St. Patrick's Day for Irish wannabes, is usually made by taking shortcuts that result in odd flavors and gelatinous textures.
Home made corned beef can also be cheaper. And it's easy. And you can customize it. Once you've had the real deal, you can't go back. It just takes time. So start now.
Corned beef has no corn. OK, maybe the steer ate some corn, but no corn is harmed in the process of corning beef. Actually, to be precise, corn was the old British name for grain before corn on the cob was discovered in North America and usurped the name. "A corn of salt" was as common an expression as a "grain of salt" is today. So corned beef is really just another name for salted beef.
So corning has become another name for curing or pickling. Yes, we are pickling this beef. These are ancient processes invented for preserving meat by packing it in salt or soaking it in a concentrated brine, long before refrigerators. In recent years, curing is also done by injecting meat with salt. The process was probably discovered when some ancient hunter speared a deer and it fell into the ocean and washed ashore a couple of weeks later. Surprisingly instead of bloating and turning foul, the meat had been preserved, and tasted pretty good.
The salt concentration for curing is higher than the typical 4 to 6% brine used to moisten chicken, turkey, and pork before cooking. The salt is usually a blend of plain sodium chloride and Prague powder #1 or curing salt. There are many types of curing salts all discussed in detail in my article on the Science of Salt but I recommend Prague powder #1. It is approximately 94% plain old sodium chloride with approximately 6% sodium nitrite with some anticaking agents and red dye. You can often find it at groceries, butcher shops, or online. It is not the same as Himilayan pink salt, so do not try to substitute. It kills bacteria, especially the botulism bug, and it is needed for the bright pink color we associate with corned beef. Click here for more info on nitrites and nitrates.
There are three ways to apply the cure. You can inject and this is the way most commercial manufacturers do it. You can do it the old fashioned way and mix up the ingredients and sprinkle it on by hand, but it is hard to get the right amount on this way. It is easy to apply too much or too little, and thick sections of meat need more than thin sections. Apply too much and it could make you sick. I prefer a wet brine because the ingredients are all dissolved and dispersed evenly, and they enter the meat evenly. No hot spots. As they move through the meat the seek equilibrium, so thick and thin get the same cure. And yes, I know this contradicts my instructions for dry brining other meats like steak, chicken and pork. But with those meats you are applying only plain salt, not a curing salt.
Corned beef was a World War II staple among civilians in Great Britain and among the troops in Europe because fresh meats were hard to come by. It came in a can. Sliced corned beef is especially popular in Jewish delicatessens where it is a sandwich staple.
A vital part of the process is your selection of the meat. Corned beef is simply a slab of beef, usually a section of the brisket, soaked for about a week in a flavored brine. It is sometimes made from navel, but that cut is so fatty I cannot recommend it. The waste and eating experience are inferior.
Brisket is a pair of thick muscles from the steer's chest and a whole "packer" brisket is a large hunk of meat made of two muscles and can weight up to 18 pounds. It can be bought whole, but is usually cut near the middle and sold as flat or point sides.
These are heavily worked muscles and are tough cuts. Making it into pastrami is a great way to tenderize and flavorize these otherwise lesser cuts, and a great way to preserve meat in the days before refrigeration.
This is a two step process. One step is to cure or corn the beef, and the next step is to cook it. You can make traditional corned beef and cabbage boiled dinner, you can make corned beef hash, you can make Reuben sandwiches. If you want, you can add two extra steps, smoke it and steam it to turn it into incredible pastrami.
Some important words of caution
Curing meat is not like any other recipe. It is not like brining a turkey or chicken for a few hours. There is no room for improvisation when it comes to the amount of water, salt, and Prague powder #1. Sanitation is crucial. If you have a larger piece of meat you must increase the quantities proportionally. For a smaller piece, do not alter the ingredients at all. But if you follow my instructions precisely, you have nothing to fear if you keep it chilled.
Before you get started, you must read my article on the basics of curing meats and my article on the science of salt for background. It explains why you need to ignore all the formulae you've read on the internet, on the curing salt packages, and follow a specific recipe and not try to invent one of your own or cross the streams and blend two recipes from two different sources. And finally, if the meat smells funny or the brine gets scummy, throw it our. Something went wrong. Don't take chances.
Makes. 12 big fat NY Deli sandwiches
Preparation time. 1 hour
Curing time. 5-7 days
About 8 pounds of beef brisket
1 gallon water
8 ounces salt, by weight
3 teaspoons Prague Powder #1
1 cup brown sugar, preferably dark
5 tablespoons pickling spices
4 cloves garlic, smashed or pressed
About the other salt. When you weigh salt, it doesn't matter what type of salt you use. When you measure by volume, there is a big difference because different salts have different grain sizes. I prefer Morton's kosher salt because it has fewer additives. Do not omit the Prague powder #1. For more about different salts, read my article on the Science of Salt.
About the beef. Many delis use the fattier navel cut. You can also use boneless short rib meat, flank steak, tongue, or round, but round can be very thick, so cut in into 1.5" planks. For that matter you can use any cut you want, but brisket is my fave.
About the pickling spices. You can buy them premixed or click here for a recipe for pickling spices that you can make yourself.
1) Find a container large enough to handle 1 gallon of brine and the meat (you can cut it into pieces as small as 2 pounds). It must be non-reactive (stainless steel, glass, porcelain, Corningware, or food safe plastic). It cannot be made of aluminum, copper, or cast iron, all of which can react with the salt. Do not use garbage bags or a garbage can or a bucket from Home Depot. They are not food grade. Do not use a styrofoam cooler. It might give the meat an off flavor and you'll never get the cooler clean when you're done. Food grade zipper bags or Reynolds Easy Brining Bag for Turkeys work fine. A reader, Reid Garner, says he lines a 5 gallon plastic bucket with a Large Reynolds Oven Bag. It fits perfectly and the bucket makes it easy to move the brine in and out.
2) To make the cure/brine, mix all the ingredients except the meat in 1 quart very hot water. Add 3 quarts very cold water.
3) Take the meat and remove as much fat as possible from the exterior unless you plan to use some of it for pastrami. In that case, leave a 1/8" layer on one side. Because corned beef is cooked in simmering water, the fat just gets gummy and unappetizing. But if you plan to then make pastrami from it, you will be smoking the meat and in that case the fat gets succulent and lubricates the sandwich. I like to buy a full packer brisket and separate the point from the flat, and cut the flat in half when making corned beef or pastrami. That gives me 3 manageable hunks of 2 to 4 pounds each. If you leave the point attached to the flat beneath, it will be very thick and take longer to cure.
4) Add the meat to the brine. It will float, so put a plate or bowl or another non-metallic weight on top of the meat until it submerges. The meat will drink up brine so make sure there is enough to cover it by at least 1" or else you'll find the meat high and dry after a few days. Refrigerate. Let it swim for at least 5 days, longer if you wish, especially if the meat is more than 2" thick. You will not likely need more than 7 days, but once it is well cured, it can stay in the brine for several weeks. I don't know the limit, but I've left it in there for a month. Move the meat around so touching parts get exposed to brine for the first week, and then you can ignore it. When you are done, the exterior of the meat will be pale tan or gray and if you cut into it, it should not look too different than normal raw meat, just a little pinker.
5) Now decide which path you want to follow. You can make traditional corned beef and cabbage boiled dinner, you can make corned beef hash, you can make Rockin Reuben Sandwiches, or turn it into Close to Katz's Pastrami.
This page was revised 3/2/2013
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