DIY Corned Beef

Corned beef and cabbage traditionally comprise a St. Patrick’s Day meal.  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.

Corned beef brisket on a cutting board
Corned beef brisket sliced on a cutting board

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 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.

DIY CORNED BEEF

Regardless of recipe, making corned beef is a three-step process and is easily done. It does require curing time so factor that into the preparation time. 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. 

INGREDIENT FUNCTIONS

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.  It may be necessary to order curing salt as it may not be readily available in local 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.

DIY Corned Beef can be a rewarding experience and a “TaDa!” moment! There is great joy in doing something ourselves and having control of the ingredients we use.

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.
Curing and Smoking. National Center for Home Food Preservation.
2Nitrite in Meat. Minnesota Extension Service
The Ultimate Guide to Curing Salts. SmokedBB

Updated February 2024, mg.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Know Your Pork Ribs

Sliced pork ribs
Sliced pork ribs

“My family loves ribs. 
I want to try them on my own but I don’t know what to buy.  Spare ribs? Baby back ribs?  Country ribs? St Louis style/cut ribs? 

What’s the different?”

Ribs are one of the marquee pork dishes that are a favorite at backyard barbeques, family reunions or anyplace else that people gather over food. Because there are various rib choices, consumers have questions about which rib for what. To begin to answer the question, we need to take a brief look at the source of ribs within the anatomy of the pig.  

Outline of a pig with diagram of the location of various cuts or meat pointed out
Know Your Pork Ribs. Outline of a pig with diagram of the location of various cuts of meat–specifically pointed out are the rib sections. Photo: mrgeiger

As shown in the picture, ribs are derived from the lower sides of the pig, specifically the belly and breastbone, behind the shoulder and picnic are 14 long bones attached to the spine.  There is a covering of meat on top of and between those bones.  From this area, we get four basic cuts: Baby Back Ribs, Spareribs, St Louis (Style/Cut) Ribs, and Rib Tips. Each rib type has its own distinct characteristics and refers to the section of the rib cage from which it has been cut and how it is trimmed.  Sometimes these same cuts have different names based on a local way of cutting and trimming. 

Baby Back Ribs.  Also called loin ribs or riblets, baby back ribs come from the highest part of the rib section and are connected to the backbone, right beneath the loin muscle.  They are curved and called ‘baby’ because they are short or small and have a small amount of meat on them.  Ranging in length from 3-6 inches (short end to long end), baby back ribs are the most tender, lean, and expensive of the four types.  Each rack is about 2 pounds in weight with approximately half of the weight in bone.

Spareribs.  Spareribs are the most plentiful of rib types and generally what are known as ‘ribs.’  They are found below the baby back ribs, have flatter, straighter bones and are meatier.  Generally they have more marbling and more flavor.   A rack typically has 11-13 bones and ranges from 2.5 to 3.5 pounds with about half being bone and cartilage.  Spareribs may require some trimming.

St Louis (Style/Cut) Ribs.  St Louis style/cut ribs are simply spareribs spiffed up.  They are cut from the area of the rib cage that is closest to the breastbone. As a result of their location, these spareribs have a lot of tough cartilage. However, once the hard breastbone, chewy cartilage and gristle is removed, St. Louis ribs are a uniform, rectangular shape making them competition champions as the meat is neat and tidy for presentation and easy to eat. Because they are thinner and flatter, they also brown more evenly.  (Kansas City style ribs are St Louis style/cut ribs with more bones removed.)

Regardless of rib type, any of these three types are prepared and cooked the same. If you can’t find the type of rib that the recipe calls for, don’t fret.  Any of the three fore-mentioned varieties of pork ribs will work great. To prepare ribs, follow these easy steps:

Step 1: Remove the Membrane or Silverskin. The silverskin covers the bone side of each rack.  If left on, it cooks leathery-crisp and keeps seasonings, rubs, and smoke from penetrating the meat.  You can do this by hand. Scrape a corner with your thumbnail to get it started and pull the rest free from the ribs. 

Step 2: Season. Season ribs as desired – pick your favorite rub or marinade and apply liberally. Many recipes will recommend seasoning at least four hours in advance of cooking for best flavor and aiding in tenderizing. 

Step 3: Cook. Ribs are best cooked long and slow whether it be the oven, grill, slow cooker, or electric programmable pressure cooker. According to the USDA, ribs are done when they reach 145⁰F.  At this temperature, however, they will still be tough so taking them up to 190 to 200⁰F allows the collagen and fats to melt and make the meat more tender and juicy.  Find a favorite recipe and follow guidelines.  Baby back ribs will cook more quickly.

Now what about those ‘other ribs’ – rib tips and country-style ribs? 

Rib tips are derived from the triangular, cartilage-dotted slab of meat attached to the lower end of the sparerib. When preparing St. Louis cut ribs, this section of meat is removed in order to square up the slab of ribs. They are not usually readily available as they are often ground for sausage.  However, when cut into bite-sized pieces they make a great snack, appetizer, or even main course. Fans suggest the ultimate rib tip experience is derived by navigating and nibbling your way around the small pieces of cartilage and bone! 

Country-style ribs are not ribs at all.  They come from the shoulder area of the pig. They are meatier than ribs and may have one or two bones embedded in their meat. When country-style ribs have a bone in them, it is not rib bone but the scapula or shoulder blade.  They can be prepared in much the same way as true ribs but can also be sliced thin and cooked in a stir-fry.

Regardless of the rib style, be prepared. Eat those ribs with your hands and enjoy every bite!

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Safe Summertime Grilling Reminders

Sausages and burgers on the grill

Grilling is a great way to help keep the kitchen cool during the summer months and yet prepare delicious meals. Here are some quick reminders to keep the food you grill safe.

  • Cold food colds until ready to grill. Bacteria grows rapidly at room temperature, so meat should remain in the refrigerator until ready to grill. Marinating should be done in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator. If grilling will be done away from home, make sure to transport meat and other cold foods in a cooler with some ice. The goal is to keep meat at refrigerator temperature.
  • Do not reuse the plate that was used to take the meat to the grill. Juices from raw meat and poultry are high in bacteria and could contaminate the cooked meat.
  • Use two cutting boards. One for preparing meat. One for chopping vegetables.
  • Color is not an indicator of doneness. Recent USDA research studies indicate that some ground beef may turn brown before it has reached a safe internal temperature of 160°F. The only safe way to determine if food is done is to use a food thermometer. An instant-read thermometer takes the guess work out of grilling.
  • Avoid partially cooking meat. If you must cook ahead, cook the food completely, cool it quickly in the refrigerator in shallow containers, and reheat it on the grill.
  • Know these safe internal minimum temperatures measured by a food thermometer as determined by the USDA. For reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook food to higher temperatures.
CategoryFoodTemperature (F)
Ground meat and meat mixturesBeef, pork, veal, lamb160
Turkey, chicken165
Fresh beef, veal, and lambSteaks, roasts, chops145
Poultry (turkey, chicken, duck, goose)Whole poultry, breast, thighs, legs165
Pork and hamFresh pork and ham145
Precooked ham (to reheat)140
SeafoodFin fish145 or until flesh is
opaque and flakes
with a fork
Shrimp, lobster, crabCook until flesh is
pearly and opaque
Clams, oysters, musselsCook until shells
open during cooking
ScallopsCook until flesh is milky
white, opaque, firm
As a general rule, let your food rest for 3 minutes after it is removed from the heat in order to continue to kill dangerous germs. Chart source: Cornell Cooperative Extension
________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

So get out there and enjoy your grill, knowing that you are doing all you can to keep your food safe.

Updated 4/2024, mg.

Beth Marrs

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Adult Home Economics Education. I love to cook and entertain and spend time with my family.

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