Curing meats such as bacon, ham, or pastrami is fun and the results are often better than store bought. But curing is very different from any other recipe because you are using a preservative, sodium nitrite. You must read and thoroughly understand my article on the Science Of Curing Meats before attempting to cure meat or before you ask any questions. That page also contains info on scaling the recipe up or down.
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.
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. I have seen other muscles used, but not very often. The waste and eating experience are inferior.
Brisket is cut from the pectoral muscles, 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 12 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 corned beef 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 cooking 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 a barbecue touch with two extra steps, smoking it and steaming it to turn it into incredible pastrami.
Homemade Corned Beef Recipe
Corned beef is simply a slab of beef, usually a section of the brisket, soaked for about a week in a flavored brine. This recipe will help you make a great traditional corned beef and cabbage boiled dinner.
Makes. 12 big fat NY Deli sandwiches
Preparation time. 1 hour
Curing time. 5-7 days
About 4 pounds of beef brisket
1 gallon distilled water
8 ounces Morton's Kosher Salt, by weight (about 7/8 cup)
2 teaspoons Prague Powder #1
1 cup brown sugar, preferably dark
5 tablespoons pickling spices
4 cloves garlic, smashed or pressed
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 proper container large enough to handle 1 gallon of brine and the meat as described in my article Science Of Curing Meats. Clean it as described.
2) Mix the cure ingredients and the distilled water. Stir until they dissolve.
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, and there's an ugly hunk of fat between them.
4) Add the meat to the curing solution. It might float, so put a plastic bowl filled with brine 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 5 days, up to 7, especially if the meat is more than 2" thick. Move the meat every day or so just to stir up the cure. 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.
Scaling this recipe up
If you want to do a whole packer, I strongly recommend you first remove all surface fat. It inhibits penetration of the cure. You should also separate point and flat and remove the fat from between the layers. Discarding the fat will reduce the weight by as much as 30% and that will shorten the cure significantly. Separating the two muscles will also speed up the process because the thickness has been reduced significantly. For more on scaling read my article on the science of curing and use the curing calculator on that page to determine how much Prague Powder #1 you need and how long it will need to cure.
"Corned beef should not be blue."Woody Allen in Manhattan