This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Buffalo Spree Magazine.
I like pickled things. A lot. My German grandmother taught me the basics of making pickles, and now it’s become a several-hundred-jar-a-year “problem” in my pantry. The other half of me is Irish, so I feel compelled to go out for corned beef to soak up the pint of Guiness I promised my dearly departed dad I’d drink for him every year. So imagine my cross-cultural culinary delight several St. Paddy’s ago when it dawned on me that corned beef IS a pickle, and that meant I could honor all my ancestors at once by making it at home.
Corning beef is essentially making a refrigerator pickle out of a beef brisket by soaking it in brine packed with spices that infuse the meat with flavor. Back in the day, people cured meat with salt to preserve it; the word “corned” refers to the large grains – or “corns” – of rock salt typically used in England and Ireland. Now we just fancy up our beef brisket with a flavorful brine soak because it tastes damn delicious.
Making corned beef is not difficult. The hardest part, for me, is remembering to start the process a week before St. Patrick’s Day so it’s ready in time. But aside from a pickle obsession and a stubborn Irish DIY gene, why do it yourself when you can just go out and buy an already-corned beef brisket at any grocery store in March? Like any home preserving and pickling, making corned beef from scratch means you control what goes into it. Yours won’t be saturated in artificial preservatives or flavors and a salt lick’s worth of sodium. You can also be more choosey with your meat – local, organic, grass-fed, kosher, conventional, big roast, a small one. And then there’s the experience of eating it. Holy crap. You get fall-apart meat that’s incredibly tender and more richly flavored, with a depth of complex spices and no flat, chemical aftertaste. Plus, who doesn’t like to be a little bit of food show-off once in a while, especially when it’s so stupid easy?
There are hundreds of recipes for curing your own corned beef at home, and your family might have their own variation (definitely ask; it’s incredible to hear the ingredient details people remember when prompted). Some methods have you cure the meat for up to 10 days, toast your spices first, add more/less/different spices. This is an amalgamation of a handful of recipes distilled into one go-to set of instructions I’ve used for years to minimize fuss and maximize flavor. Don’t have a spice or two listed? Fine, just skip it. Is there something your great grandma O’Malley added? Throw it in. You are the master of your own meat here.
Yields 6-8 servings
Prep time: 15 minutes
Curing time: 6 days (minimum; up to 10 is fine)
Cook time: 3 ½ hours (stove top) or 5-9 hours (slow cooker)
4-5 pound beef brisket, trimmed of most of the fat
For the brine:
1 gallon of water
1 ½ cups kosher salt
½ cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 Tablespoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon allspice berries
2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds
4 bay leaves, crumbled
1 large cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon ground ginger
5 teaspoons pink curing salt (optional)*
* Pink curing salt contains nitrites that help preserve the beef’s pinkish-red color. It’s not required and I don’t bother with it, but it will make your finished brisket look more like the rosy restaurant slices we’re all used to. I wasn’t able to find it locally, but you can order it online. Note: It’s not the same thing as the pink Himalayan salt everyone’s talking about. Don’t use that.
For cooking (veggies are optional, but you might as well make a meal of it):
4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 Tablespoons pickling spice (store bought, or a combo of spices you used in the brine)
1 ½ pounds small potatoes, scrubbed and halved if larger
3 small yellow onions, peeled and quartered
6-7 carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
½ head green cabbage, cut into 1-inch wedges
Corning your beef
1) Make the brine. Combine the water, salt, sugar and spices in a large pot. Bring to a boil, stir, and remove from the heat. Let the brine cool completely. If you’re pressed for time, use 2 quarts of water to make the brine and then stir in 2 pounds of ice to speed up the cooling.
2) Once the brine is cool, add the brisket to the brine. This can be done in a large nonreactive bowl or right in your brine pot if you don’t need it for a week or so. Weigh the meat down with a few small plates or a gallon Ziplock filled with water and sealed so the meat remains completely submerged in the brine.
3) Cover and refrigerate for 6-10 days, checking occasionally to make sure the meat is still covered in the liquid.
4) Discard the brine, rinse the brisket thoroughly, and cook according to either method shown below.
To cook the corned beef
Place the rinsed brisket in a large pot. Add the garlic, pickling spices, and enough water to cover the meat. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer, covered, for 3-3 ½ hours. Check occasionally and add a little more water, if needed, to keep brisket covered. During the last 45 minutes of cooking, add the veggies to the pot – layering potatoes on the bottom, then carrots and onions, then cabbage on top – and put the lid back on. It’s done when everything is fork tender
Place the rinsed brisket in a 5-6 quart slow cooker. Add the garlic, pickling spices, and enough water to cover the meat by about an inch. Add the potatoes, carrots, and onions. Cook on low for 9 hours (or on high for 5). Add the cabbage when there’s 1 ½ hours left to cook (or 45 minutes on high).
To serve, thinly slice the brisket across the grain and portion the meat, veggies, and a little of the cooking broth into shallow bowls, with some grainy mustard and a cold glass of beer on the side. Use leftovers for a killer Reuben sandwich or corned beef hash.