I was surprised at how easy it is to make corned beef, and how much better home-made is compared to the vacuum sealed packages of brisket and brine in the supermarket. It does take time—five days for the brining process and three hours to simmer it–but neither step requires much work or attention.
You’ll need an ingredient you probably don’t have: curing salt, also known as pink salt, Prague powder #1, and by various brand names. It’s a little difficult to source, but I found it labelled “Backwoods LEM Cure” at Bass Pro Shops. I’ve tried to make corned beef without curing salt but, frankly, it’s just not as good. The curing salt gives the meat a flavour you don’t get from regular salt alone.
What is curing salt? Well, it’s controversial, for one thing. It’s a mix of ordinary salt with 6.25% sodium nitrite. In the US, it also must contain a little red food colouring, hence the term “pink salt.” The colour is only there so you can’t mistake it for table salt or anything else. In large quantities, sodium nitrite is definitely dangerous. It may also be dangerous in the small quantities used in curing meats–some studies link cured meats to stomach cancer, especially if you eat them frequently. But it’s complicated: cured meats, such as salami, lunch meats, ham, and hot dogs, are not the major source of nitrites in our diet–vegetables are. From what I’ve read, the jury is still out on the health effects of nitrites and cured meats. My approach is to eat them in moderation, and to enjoy them when I do. Decide for yourself.
Next warning: measure carefully. In meat curing, like baking, guesswork won’t do. You can have fun with the spices, but measure the salt, curing salt, and water carefully. If you have a decent digital scale, weighing is far more accurate than using volume measurements. Corned beef is more forgiving than, say, making salami (I haven’t tried that–yet), but the relationship of salt to curing salt, and the strength of the brine, is important. Because I’m new at this, I relied on a recipe from a trusted source: Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. My version uses different spices, but is otherwise based closely on theirs.
Home-Made Corned Beef
Home-made corned beef is terrific on sandwiches, with braised cabbage, or roasted vegetables. Save the cooking liquid; it makes a great stock for pea soup.
Hands-On Time: 30 minutes | Start to Finish: 5 days, 4 hours (includes 5 days brining and 3 hours simmering)
1/4 tsp each mustard seeds, coriander seeds, celery seeds, fennel seeds, cloves, and hot pepper flakes (1 ml each)
1/2 tsp peppercorns (2 ml)
One 3″ cinnamon stick, broken in pieces (One 7.5 cm stick)
1 bay leaf
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup brown sugar (60 g)
1/2 oz curing salt (14 g)
8 oz coarse salt (225 g)
8 cups water (2 L)
2 lbs beef brisket (1 kg)
1. Using a mortar and pestle, crack the seeds, cloves, and peppercorns. Combine all ingredients except brisket in a large pot. Bring brine to a simmer, stirring to dissolve sugar and salts. Remove from heat and let cool completely.
2. In a large, non-reactive bowl, pour brine over brisket. Weigh brisket down with a plate to keep it submerged and refrigerate for 5 days.
3. Remove brisket and rinse off brine. Place brisket in a pot; add water to barely cover. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 3 hours. Add more boiling water as needed to keep meat covered during cooking.
Yield: Makes 2 lbs corned beef (1 kg).