Skill Set: Brining and Cooking Corned Beef

It’s about St. Patrick’s day and in the States that means everyone who is even vaguely Irish is going to make damn sure you know it and then continue to shit on an entire culture by simplifying it into drunken stereotypes wearing green. The classic dish for this time of year in the States is…whiskey…but also Corned Beef and Cabbage. The history of the dish is actually kind of neat and to summarize I’m going to say what I know about it without any sources being cited. It goes back to when Ireland was under English rule and they would celebrate by eating bacon (back bacon, not belly bacon which is the bacon most people think of when they see/hear the word) and because they had to hide it from the English they cooked cabbage along with it to hide the smell. The tradition was carried over when the Irish emigrated to the states but instead of bacon they ended up using a dish their Jewish neighbors knew quite well, Corned Beef. That’s the brief and uncited story anyway. My mom’s side is from Tipperary Hill in Syracuse,NY so they’re quite Irish so every year my mom always made it and it was among the best meals because she was a terrible cook and had to do so little and it still came out good. The thing is though she always had the pre-made stuff which is so damned salty that you need a couple pounders to get through it. Around the same time I learned to make my own bread I also learned how to brine my own corned beef and a tradition I grew up with was given a fresh coat of paint and about a couple 1000 mg of sodium less. I’m actually a really huge fan of brines and marinades because they take a tough piece of meat that is otherwise nigh inedible and gives it a whole new life (for those readers who are feeling adventurous I may make another Skill Set of my “pig heart stew” or “grilled tongue buns”, STAY TUNED!).

First thing first, you need some brisket. I’m sure I’m losing some anarcho-creds (though in a system without credit or money can anarcho-creds even exist? zing) but I like to get massive cuts of beef at BJs or any other wholesaler. They’re always in great condition and are a fraction of the cost of individual cuts. If you ever want several pounds of Filet Mignon for cheap, get a primal, they’re under $100, and you get like 16 lbs of the best cuts of beef and every bit of it is beefy magic (gross).

beef packaged
This was 7 lbs and under $30.

Other recipes are going to say “oh you’re going to want to look for the best cuts with a lot of marbling” and they’re all liars. Marbling is just fat and at least in a real slow, wet, cooking method like we’re doing here it’s not all that necessary. Now if we were smoking this (also stay tuned) that’s a different story but that’s for another time. Next you’re going to want the three most important ingredients to this, water, regular salt, and curing salt. Just a heads up for readers in the states, I’m using metric measurements here.

2 liters water, purified if possible
25 g  curing salt
100 g kosher salt

Outside of the curing salt, this is the base for every brine. A 20:1 ratio of water to salt is a pretty solid metric to go by. I probably don’t need to say much else about kosher salt other that “salt is salty” and that kosher salt is a much coarser grain than table salt. If you only have table salt that’s fine provided you’re still using measurements by weight as the flavor isn’t going to change at all. What I probably do need to talk about is the curing salt. Also known as “pink salt” it’s Sodium Nitrite that’s dyed pink. It adds the unique “cured” taste to meats and since its died pink is responsible for giving cured meats like corned beef or ham their distinct color. It’s pretty inexpensive and can be found online with only a bit of searching. Since I only ever really make this once a year the 4 oz. jar my wife got me 5 years ago just ran out when I was making this batch. You don’t need the pink salt but the beef is going to come out looking like really sad pot roast without it. Oh, and just a disclaimer this shit is SAAAALTY like butt clenchingly so. You don’t want to be eating this stuff on french fries.

salts

To round out the base of the brine you’re also going to want to include:

50 g sugar
10 cloves of garlic (or comparable amount of powder, I think 1/8 of a tsp is equal to a clove)

Put that in a pretty big pot and then start to add spices. This is when things get fun because you can put anything you want in here. Remember, you’re boiling the crap out of a hunk of meat so its flavor is all on you. The most common ones I’ve seen include clove, all spice, cinnamon, nutmeg, black peppercorns, bay leaves, and yellow mustard. I use this and then some. Here’s a photo of my own assortment I like to use.

spices
L to R : Anise, Rosemary, Caraway, Pepper flakes from my garden, Black Mustard, Cloves, Dill, Coriander, Fennel, Lebanon Paprika and Cardamom in the baggy in the center.

I like to toss it up every year. I personally don’t measure these out at all so every year it comes out a little different. The amount of each spice you have isn’t super important just remember you’re going to need a lot of them to add some flavor to your hunk of boiled meat. If you need a road map here’s a couple amounts I’ve seen in other recipes that I feel are a nice start.

2 tsp whole black pepper
2 tsp yellow mustard seed
2 tsp coriander seed
2 tsp red pepper flake
2 tsp whole allspice
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1 cinnamon stick
6 bay leaves
2 tsp whole clove
1 tsp ground ginger

Some recipes say use only about 2/3 of these in the brine and that last of it in your cooking liquid but I personally don’t see why. So next it’s a matter of finding a sizeable stock pot and putting all these together into a slurry of smells.

Cook this until the salts and sugar dissolve into the water and let this cool for a while down to room temp. A couple ice cubes can help if it’s taking a bit long but just remember that for every extra bit of water you put in your 20:1 brine ratio of water to salt is going to be altered. While that’s cooling we can draw our attentions to the beef.

If you’re using a vacuum packed brisket like the one I’m using here you’re going to want to open that in a sink and rinse the goo off. The goo isn’t blood, I forget exactly what it is but I know at least it’s not blood. Probably just water with some proteins in it. Needless to say you’re still going to want to use adequate prep and cleanliness procedures no matter what as you never know what this stuff will attract. Okay, actually science has a lot of good ideas on that and none of which are good for you. When you’re done rinsing it, move it over to a cutting board for some good ole fashion trimmin’.

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So this thing is pretty huge. The itty bitty pot behind it is what I’ll be brining and cooking this in so we need to trim it down a smidge to fit. Not to mention I don’t think even I could humanly eat 7 lbs of this stuff (and certainly not since starting HRT) so I’m going to break it down and cook about 4 lbs and save the remaining for smoking when it’s warmer (seriously coming soon, if you think brining is magic smoking will make you flip).

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Since we’ll be cooking this thing for a long time we’re going to want to have a pretty sizeable chunk. I’ve found between 4 and 6 lbs is pretty good and will give you and another person plenty of meals for a couple days. A lot of times I actually even go so far and get “orders” from friends and throw them a bit because even at 4 lbs it’s a lot of corned beef for one girl to eat and hate herself over. When the brine is done and the beef is cooled put the meat in the brine and then stick in the fridge for no less than 4 days. At this point it’s important to make sure this thing is submerged for that entire time. Any piece of meat outside of the brine provides a risk of spoilage. Basically brines work by making an environment that is toxic to pathogens that carry illness. This is how pickling and also marinading work. Pickling is pretty much brining and marinating uses acid instead of salt to make the environment inhospitable. It’s also worth noting here that since acids are so much more hostile to pathogens you often need way way less of a marinade than a brine to work. While we’re doing roughly a liter of brine per kg of meat, a marinade only needs ~0.06 liters (~60 ml) per ~0.45 kg of meat (or 1/4 cup of marinade for every pound of meat). The more you know! Anyway, yeah, make sure your shit is covered or else you’re going to make yourself very sick. If you don’t have a vessel large enough for your brisket you can fold it and stick it in there (…teehee…) but remember to turn it a couple times a day to make sure everything gets soaked into the meat.

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After at least 4 days the beef should be pretty well penetrated (…teehee…). At this time you can take it out of the brine and rinse it off. It’s going to look like this after 4 days in a salt bath.

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Cooking this thing can take place in 1 of two ways. I like to put it in a slow cooker at like 9 am and have it cook for an entire day. You can also put it in a nice heavy pot (cast iron dutch oven is a nice pick) bring it to boil, then simmer for at least 3 hours. Some people say cooking it over the course of the 3 hours tastes better but I’ve done both and honestly I can’t tell much of a difference. Regardless of what method you use, you’re going to want to sear the meat first before putting it in the cooking liquid. Despite popular belief, you don’t sear to “keep juices in” that’s about as over used and incorrect as the “you only use 10% of your brain” garbage people keep repeating. What you’re really doing here is causing what’s called a Maillard Reaction. The short of this is you’re caramelizing the surface and accessing some flavor compounds you’d otherwise miss out on if you were to just put this thing in the boil. Again, not necessary, but totally worth it.

So as far as cooking liquid goes you’re pretty much going to just be doing a lighter version of the brine you had with maybe some alterations (I used dried sage and lavender from last year’s crop along with the spices from the brine). Just remember to not use the brine AS you’re cooking liquid because that’s gross. It’s like taking a long bath but not rinsing off afterwards, there’s just a lot of crap we don’t want to be cooking with. Since we seared the beef we can take advantage of some of the leftovers in the pan by deglazing it with some water and creating our cooking liquid on top of it.

When your cooking liquid is good put it all together and cook.

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After however many hours your chosen cooking method takes, it’s time to take the corned beef out. By this time you should really be smelling the aromatics we put into the mix and, provided you eat beef, this should smell pretty damn good.

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Congrats! You have yourself some Corned Beef.

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Lens fogged up a bit.

Serve it up by itself or with some cabbage and potatoes.

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I personally like to roast my potatoes with some olive oil, salt, pepper, and rosemary and stir fry the cabbage in butter, salt, and pepper until it’s barely still crispy. So there you have it. Here’s how you make your own Corned Beef from start to finish. It’s a bit of a process but totally worth it. Thanks for reading, and enjoy the beef!

 

 

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