Corned beef and cabbage has been the traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal for my family and invited friends for many years. We are not of Irish descent, but do enjoy the St Patrick’s Day cuisine. While St Patrick’s Day is celebrated around the world, corned beef is strictly an Irish-American tradition. It isn’t the national dish of Ireland nor the food you would eat on St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin.
The early Irish immigrants are credited for giving us corned beef, however. In their homeland, St. Paddy’s Day was celebrated with boiled bacon. Being too poor to afford the high price of pork and bacon products, they turned to a cheap cut of beef (brisket) and adapted Eastern European and Jewish brining methods to prepare the meat. “Corned” has nothing to do with corn; instead it refers to the corn-sized salt crystals (saltpeter) used during the brining process to cure or pickle the meat. Their new celebration dish was paired with cabbage as it was one of the cheapest vegetables available to them.
Corned beef is essentially beef cured in a salt brine, with some pickling spices for added flavor. It is readily available around St Patrick’s Day in ready-to-cook form and available at most delis year round. It can also be made at home using fresh brisket or any other cut of beef desired.
I decided that this year I would attempt making my own corned beef and in the process learn another food preservation technique first-hand. After looking at a few recipes, it became apparent that while the technique was nearly the same from recipe to recipe, the seasoning for pickling varied and there was a learning curve regarding curing salts referred to as ‘pink curing salt’ for me.
Salt (sodium chloride), in general, acts as a preservative and by osmosis action pulls water out of the meat cells as well as any bacteria, killing or preventing it from multiplying by dehydration. Even though salt is a dehydrator, it also produces a contradictory reaction making brined meat moister and juicier by changing the shape of the cell protein to hold more juice. Care should be taken in the amount of salt used in the brine. 1Ruhlman and Polcyn recommend a 5-percent brine, 5 ounces of salt per 100 ounces of water. Kosher salt is preferred but it is not absolutely necessary; table or pickling salt can be used. Since kosher salt has larger crystals, a lesser amount of finer grained salts should be used. (See this Morton Salt conversion table.)
Pink curing salts are a mixture of sodium chloride (93.75%) and sodium nitrite (6.25%) and serve as a preservative by inhibiting bacterial growth as well as giving cured meats their characteristic reddish color and savory, sharp flavor. Pink curing salt used for brining have such names as InstaCure #1, Prague Powder #1, DQ Cure #1 and Modern Cure #1. I had to order a small packet online as none was available in my supermarkets.
Pink curing salt should not be confused with Himalayan salt which is also pink; the two salts are only similar in color and sodium chloride content. Curing salts are colored pink so that they are not confused with table or pickling salt as, if used in quantity, they are toxic. The National Center for Home Food Preservation recommends that consumers use 1 ounce of curing salt for every 25 pounds of meat or one level teaspoon of cure for 5 pounds of meat.
There is some controversy over the use of sodium nitrite in curing meats as with frequent consumption of cured meat, some studies have shown a risk of certain types of cancer. (Per University of Minnesota scientists, “based on available evidence to date, nitrite as used in meat and meat products is considered safe because known benefits outweigh potential risks.”2) Because nitrites are also found in vegetables, it is estimated that around 90 percent of the nitrite in our bodies comes from vegetables, while just 10 percent comes from processed meats.2 If curing salt is not used, the brined meat must be cooked immediately after curing and one should expect grey meat; salt used in the brine turns the meat grey.
Regardless of recipe, making corned beef is a three-step process and is easily done. The biggest difference in recipes is the pickling spice mix.
Step 1. Make a salty curing brine of water, kosher salt, and pickling spices with any combination that appeals in flavor. Pickling spice, mustard seed, allspice berries coriander seeds, peppercorns, juniper berries, bay leaves, cinnamon stick, cloves, and ground ginger are just some of the pickling spice suggested. The brine for corned beef usually contains a small amount of sugar (white or brown) and pink curing salt. Sugar helps to cut some of the harsher effects of salt and enhances flavor. The brine is boiled and chilled. Boiling activates the pickling spices to flavor the brine and insures that the sugar and salt are fully dissolved.
Step 2. Add meat to the chilled brine and marinate in the refrigerator. This is perhaps the most difficult as it involves finding a sealable, non-reactive container big enough for brisket and brine to marinate for 5-10 days and a space large enough in the refrigerator. The container should be plastic, glass, or stainless steel. Other metal containers will react with the brine solution and give the meat a metallic flavor. A large zip bag on a tray is a good option if the brisket is not too big and both will fit in the refrigerator. The brisket should be turned daily during this time to insure that it is cured evenly and thoroughly.
Step 3. Rinse and simmer in the same way as a prepared corned beef brisket from the supermarket. The brisket is rinsed to remove the brine and simmered in water covering the meat with more pickling spices for at least three hours or until tender. Once the meat is tender, it should be sliced against the grain for serving. Cutting through the muscle fibers shortens them and makes each piece easier to chew.
Obviously, DIY’ers need to start early. Since this is my first attempt, I started extra early giving me time to purchase a prepared corned beef should I fail. I’ve gathered by ingredients, made the brine, and am currently marinating the brisket. Assuming I am successful, I will slice the cooked brisket/corned beef and freeze it for use on St Paddy’s Day. I will also defat the cooking liquid and freeze it for cooking the cabbage, potatoes and carrots to accompany the brisket for the once-a-year meal.
With any luck, this DIY adventure will end well with a “Ta-Da! Corned Beef from scratch!” and we will enjoy the flavoring derived from the combination of spices chosen. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
To learn more about corning, curing, and salts, I used the following resources:
1Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, 2013.
Joy of Cooking, by Irma S Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, Ethan Becker, John Becker, and Megan Scott, 2019.
National Center for Home Food Preservation: Curing and Smoking Meats for Home Food Preservation
2Nitrite in Meat by Richard J Epley, Paul B Addis and Joseph J Warthesen, Minnesota Extension Service, University of Minnesota Agriculture
The Ultimate Guide to Curing Salts from the Smoked Barbecue Source website
Follow up to blog: “Ta Da!!!” The corned beef adventure was a total success! The meat is tasty and succulent with a lovely pink/red color; I would not hesitate to do it again. There will be no need to purchase a prepared corned beef for this family.