May I just point out that I am awesome?
I made corned beef! From scratch! Starting with a raw beef brisket and some salt!
Okay, YES. People have been making corned beef from scratch for centuries, even before they found out about saltpeter (which was quite a while ago, actually — almost a millenium). But still: how many people do you know that have any desire to do it now?
I don’t mean to suggest that I am the coolest person in the entire world. I could stand to be better at almost everything I can think of. And probably “awesome” is taking it a little far. But I made corned beef from scratch! And it was GOOD! I don’t think it’s too surprising that I’m excited.
Last year we had a St. Patrick’s Day party, and I made corned beef and cabbage using an organic corned beef from a local market. It was really good, probably the best corned beef I’d ever eaten, but for some reason I got it into my head that I wanted to try to corn beef my very own self. I’d actually thought about making it from scratch for that very party, but given that I was going to be feeding 20 people, I didn’t want to make a mistake and possibly doom them all to an Uncomfortable Demise. This year, though, I would only be feeding Teacherman and myself, so I was braver.
About two weeks ago I bought a 3 lb beef brisket from the market, and brought it home to corn. I thought that I had a Tupperware container big enough to cure it in, but when I got the container out of the cupboard I realized that I had been vastly inflating its size in my mind, and it wouldn’t do at all — the Tupperware wouldn’t even hold the brisket by itself, let alone the quarts of saltwater brine that would be necessary for corning. Instead, after consultation with Teacherman about metals and salts and chemical reactions, I hauled out a biggish stockpot and used that instead.
I put six quarts of water, 2 cups of kosher salt and about 1/3 cup pickling spices into the stockpot and brought them to a boil. (Corned beef spices and pickling spices are so similar that, since I already had a big jar of pickling spices, I didn’t bother to buy the more specialized corned beef spices). I simmered the mixture for a few minutes, watching the salt dissolve and the spices dye the water an odd purplish color. After no more than five of those minutes, I turned off the heat and let the brine cool. When it had come down to room temperature (which took more than the 3 hours I had before I went to work–8 would probably be more like it), I put the whole pot into the fridge to chill.
The next morning I put the brisket into the cold brine. It seemed inclined to stay submerged by itself, but just in case, I filled a freezer bag with some more water and salt — in case the bag leaked, I didn’t want plain water diluting the brine — and put it on top of the brisket. I put the lid on the (VERY full) stockpot and put the whole thing into the fridge. (I was petrified that the weight of the water and pot and beef would collapse the top shelf of my refrigerator, the only place it would fit, but my fears were, thankfully, unfounded).
I left the stockpot there for 5 days, occasionally lifting the lid to make sure that brisket was still submerged and that everything still smelled good. On the morning of the sixth day I removed the brisket from the brine, rinsed it off under the tap to remove any lingering salt, and put it into a zip-top bag, then into another zip-top bag on the outside of that. This package went back into the fridge. It was still five days before St. Patrick’s Day at the time, so I wasn’t sure if I should put the corned beef into the freezer or just leave it in the fridge. After considering history, and throwing caution to the winds, I decided to leave it in the fridge.
At about 12:30 today, Teacherman (who, being a teacher, is on spring break and does not have to work All Week) put the corned beef into the inevitable stockpot, covered it with water and brought it to a boil. He turned it down to a simmer, then left it for 2 hours with the lid on. After this time he checked the broth–it was salty, but not unpleasantly so. When we talked about it ahead of time, I’d suggested that if the broth was horrifically salty at this point, he should toss the liquid and use new water for the last few hours of boiling. As it turned out, he didn’t have to.
At this point, he added two carrots, peeled and cut into chunks, and a small cabbage, cut into eight wedges. He put the lid back on and simmered everything for 2 1/2 more hours. He turned the heat off, removed the corned beef to a plate to rest, and let the vegetables and broth cool down a little bit. After about 20 minutes, we sliced the meat across the grain, and served it up in big bowls with broth, carrots and the cabbage, cooked into silken shreds.
It was, in an overused-by-me word, fabulous.
The broth was saltier than I might have liked, but only a TINY bit, and I have to question whether or not I noticed the saltiness because I was expecting it to be overly so. The corned beef, on the other hand, was perfectly seasoned. It wasn’t too salty at all, but beefy and robust in flavor, with added dimension from all the spices used in the brine. Even knowing which spices were used, I was unable to identify what each specifically added to the flavor, but I was in no doubt that every single one contributed.
The texture was also stellar: the corned beef was tender and melting, but not so soft that it dissolved in the mouth It was meaty and muscular, but yielding to the tooth. We each ate far too much — I think I may have consumed more than half of the entire cabbage — but it was worth it. Even better, we have about a pound of meat leftover. If I can wrest some of it away from Teacherman, I may make hash, but I’m afraid that his spring break freedom speaks of unending, indulgent Reubens. I can probably forgive him. After all, now that we know how to corn beef, there’s nothing to stop us from doing it again.
Note: Some of you, those who have seen other corned beef recipes in the past, may have noticed a significant ingredient missing from the corned beef brine: ‘pink salt,’ or nitrates, the modern equivalent of saltpeter. It’s used to prevent botulism (very important) and provide an apparently appetizing pink color to cured meat (not so important). It’s also incredibly toxic in large quantities.
I’ve tried to use pink salt in cured meats before, and every time I’ve tried it the result has been inedibly salty and chemically tasting. After so many failures, I have no desire to use pink salt, and, luckily, I’ve seen a couple of reputable modern recipes for corned beef that leave it out. Given that we were planning to keep the corned beef in the fridge at all times, and use it in short order, I felt no qualms about not using the pink salt.