If it is St. Patrick’s Day, we must be cooking corned beef!
Corned Beef the Irish Dish?
If you ask anyone to name one Irish dish, the answer will surely be “corned beef and cabbage.” Yet, unbeknownst to many, this is a late 19th-century American invention. The meat of choice in Ireland has been ham because it was cheap. (Cows need large grazing spaces, while several pigs can fit into one small pan right next to a house). At the time of the 1840 potato famine, when impoverished Irish emigrants arrived in the United States, they discovered that pork was expensive here, but the beef was affordable. Therefore, they started to frequent New York City Jewish butcher shops for kosher cured brisket. The St Patrick’s Day centerpiece for Irish-American families became corned beef and cabbage, a new American invention.
What is Corned Beef?
Corn originally referred to the large grains of salt used for salting meats. To corn meant to salt the meat. Now it refers to meat, most commonly brisket, brined in salt and spices for several days, then slow-cooked until very tender. Brisket is one of the cheaper and tougher cuts of beef, but it is very flavorful and becomes even more tender throughout the brining process.
Brining vs. Curing
As early as 12,000 years ago, our Neolithic ancestors discovered that salt could prevent spoilage by drawing moisture out of food. Salt is the main ingredient in both processes, but unlike brining, you don’t cure meat to lock in moisture; you cure meat to remove the moisture, like in curing ham or salami.
What is Prague Powder?
Prague powder is named after the famous Prague ham but is more commonly known as pink curing salt and is not to be confused with Himalayan pink salt! Prague powder is used by professional butchers and sausage makers for curing meats sold commercially to prevent botulinum and listeria toxins in meat. It removes fluid from the cells discouraging the growth of microbes. It is essential that sodium nitrate breaks down into sodium nitrite. This is a controversial topic in the health food industry, and it is even forbidden for sale in certain countries (read more about this in two opposing view articles at the end of this post). As the name indicates, pink curing salt turns the meat into a distinctive pink color; if it is not used, the brined or cured meat will have a brown color.
Beet Juice to the Rescue
Since all prepackaged brined bags of corned beef in grocery stores contain pink-curing salt, I decided to research alternative recipes myself. To recreate the pink color, I am using beet juice.
The most important is to remember to add 1 tablespoon of salt for every cup of water used. Brining is usually done in a 2-gallon, re-sealable plastic bag. I do not like food in plastic, so I used a nonreactive cooking pot, which makes it easy to flip the meat every other day. Don’t be intimidated by the brining time, and do not try to reduce it. Brine one weekend and cook the next.
Home Brined Corned Beef
- 5 lb Brisket
- 2 quarts Water (depending on the size of the brining container)
- 1 c Table salt
- 1/2 c Brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp Ground ginger
- 1 Cinnamon stick (crushed)
- 1 tsp Red pepper flakes
- 4 Bay leaves
- 2 tsp Mustard seeds
- 1 tsp Allspice
- 2 Star anise
- 4 Cardamom pods
- 1 tsp Juniper berries
- 10 Cloves
- 1 Large Onion (peeled & quartered)
- 6 cloves Garlic (peeled)
- 5 Carrots (peeled & cut)
- 5 Potatoes (quartered)
- The brining solution is 1 tablespoon of salt for every cup of water.
- Gather the ingredients.
- In a pot, heat salt and sugar in enough water to cover the brisket; heat the water until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Let cool completely. Turn off the heat and let cool, then place in the fridge until very well-chilled.
- In a skillet, toast spices until fragrant and the mustard starts to pop (a minute or two). To save time, you can use store-bought pickling spice mix.
- Use a mortar and pestle to crush the spices. Add ground ginger and other powdered spices and stir to combine.
- Rub the spices on both sides of the meat and lay flat in a suitable brining container large enough to hold both the brisket and the brining solution.
- When the brine is cool, pour the brining liquid over the meat and submerge it completely, weighing it down if necessary. Brine in the refrigerator for 5-10 days, long enough to infuse the meat with all the brine spices and tenderize it. Turn every couple of days, so the meat marinates evenly.
Cooking the Corned Beef
- Remove the meat from the liquid and rinse in cold water to remove the spice. All of those flavors have already penetrated deep into the meat! Discard the brine. Place in a Dutch oven or a slow cooker, fatty side up. This will prevent the meat from drying out. Add the onion and garlic and cover with water. Simmer gently on the stovetop or in the oven, or in the slow cooker, and cook until tender enough to cut with a fork.
Adding the Cabbage and Potatoes
- About 45 minutes before the meat is done, add carrots, potatoes, and cabbage wedges. Cooking time is about 3-4 hours. Once done, place the meat on a cutting board. Always slice carefully against the grain for maximum tenderness. Corned beef is traditionally served with mustard and horseradish.
Storing Corned Beef
- Once the meat is completely cool, transfer it to an airtight container before placing it in the fridge. It will stay fresh and delicious when consumed within 4 days or up to a week. Keep frozen for up to three months. Corned beef leftovers are perfect as a sandwich served with mustard, sautéed with vegetables, in soups, and made into corned beef hash. Enjoy! And love people by cooking them healthy food!
Community Services Librarian
Kansas City, Kansas Public Library
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Read more about the controversial topic of nitrites and nitrates below
by McLoughlin, Judith,
Book Call Number:
by Andrews, Colman. Hirsheimer, Christopher.
Book Call Number:
by Horowitz, Will, Horowitz, Julie, Dobson, Marisa,
Book: Call Number:
by Kurlansky, Mark. Schindler, S. D.,
J 553.632 KURLANSK
Publication Date: 2006