One of our guilty pleasures is on occasion treat ourselves to a great corned beef sandwich from the last great kosher deli in NYC: Second Avenue Deli. Their sandwiches are piled high with thinly sliced deli meats of your choosing, served with pickles and cabbage salad. A hot corned beef sandwich will set you back $17.50.
Even though I’d been eating corned beef since I was young I had no idea what it actually was. What I knew was:the meat at the deli wasn’t grass-fed or local and that the corned beef of my childhood came in a can and was basically beef Spam.
About a month ago, rather randomly, I got it into my head to make my own corned beef from scratch. In doing research on this mystery meat I discovered that corned beef is cured in a brine with salt, sugar and spices. “Corned” originally referred to the rock salt that’s used to cure the meat. The recipes on-line are all pretty similar with a few variations, garlic versus no garlic, size of brisket, length of time cured and most importantly do you use aaltpeter or not?Potassium Nitrate aka saltpeter is used as a preservative and to give the meat that lovely pink color. Which is retains even after 10 days of sitting in a brine and being boil for 3 hours. Nice trick, eh?
Nitrates are not something I normally would add to a recipe. Martha Stewart has a recipe for preservative free corn beef which is an old Irish recipe that does not include saltpeter. The end result looks like an over cook brown piece of beef but tastes like it’s more well know pink relative. It should be noted if you search “Martha Stewart corned beef” you come to page of gloriously pink corned beef pictures, just saying, even Martha is down with some nitrates every now and again.
So, how important are aesthetics in food? I wanted my corned beef to look like all the corned beef I had eaten since childhood. My rational is that it’s the first time in my life I have ever cooked with nitrates and I don’t think this is going to set some dangerous trend.
My rational is that I’ve been eating corned beef all my life and given how infrequently this happens a little saltpeter wasn’t going to hurt, and hasn’t killed me yet.
Alton Browns recipe seemed the most reasonable. You didn’t need a 10 pound brisket or to brine it for a month. It got great reviews and has a helpful video included. The only changes I made were that I upped the spices and added garlic.
The most important thing to note is that the recipe called for a 4-5 pound piece of brisket. My butcher told me he had a 6 pound local grass-fed piece and did I want it? I said sure, figuring a pound wouldn’t matter. Well it didn’t because the first thing you have to do is trim the fat off and in this instance that was nearly a pound and a half of fat! So I ended up with about a 4 1/2 pound piece of meat.Above is the brisket as I got it from the butcher. Below is the fat I trimmed:Here is the brisket ready to get brined:Here is my slightly adapted version of Alton Browns’ recipe:
In a large 6-8 quart pot add: 2 Quarts of water (8 cups), 1 cup Kosher salt, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 2 tablespoons of saltpeter, 1 cinnamon stick broken into pieces, 1 1/2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds, 1 generous teaspoon black peppercorns, 12 whole cloves, 15 Juniper berries, 12 allspice berries, 2 bay leave crumbled, 6 smashed garlic cloves and 3/4 teaspoon of ground ginger.
Cook over high heat until the salt and sugar dissolve.Remove from heat and add: 2 pounds of Ice. You want the brine to be cold, 45 F to be exact. I got mine cool but wonder if the reason the outside of my corned beef browned was because the brine wasn’t cold enough? Doesn’t really matter except in Alton’s picture the entire piece of meat if pink. I ended up splitting my brisket into two pieces so it would fit into the 1 gallon bags I had. If you have a 2 gallon bag and the entire piece will fit in, perfect.
Once the brisket is in the bag, add the cold brine and seal the bags, placing them in a large container that, if possible, has a lid. I used a large cake tin that has a lid so you can carry the elaborate rectangular birthday cake you made to your friend’s house for their birthday, or something like that 😉 Now wait 10 days. Be sure to turn the bags over everyday to make sure the brine is evenly distributed. After 10 days it looks like this: Remove the brisket from the bag(s) and rinse under cool water to remove all the bits and piece of spice from the brine.
In a large pot add the brisket and 1 large onion cut into 4, 1 large carrot chopped into large pieces and a large stalk of celery also cut into large chunks. Cover with water to 1″ above the meat.Cook over high heat to bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 2 1/2-3 hours. When tested with a fork the brisket should be very tender and offer no resistance.