I’m a little bit obsessed with making things. Food things in particular. Especially the ones that we’re all used to buying from the grocery store. Bacon, olives, cheese, soda pop, marshmallows — they just turn up on the shelf, in jars and cans and packages, and that’s that — right?
Well, of course not; if you’ve ever planted a garden or cooked a meal you’re aware of that. Most of us (I hope) are. But what we are so often unaware of is the process that goes into making these things. And that’s what I’ve gotten hopelessly hooked on: the process.
When you start making things like cheese or sauerkraut or olives, you become immediately, profoundly aware that these foods weren’t developed simply because they are tasty or go well with a sandwich: They grew out of the age-old need to preserve seasonal foods for the rest of the year. That became particularly clear to me the first time I made a batch of cheese — I had never really thought of milk as a seasonal food, like strawberries or tomatoes, but it most certainly is. Hence, cheese.
(My obsession, so idyllically grounded in exploration of age-old foodways, took a diversion into frivolity over the holidays this year, when I found myself compelled to replicate Hostess Sno Balls — chocolate cupcakes, marshmallow coating, ground coconut, cream filling… the works. They were indeed delicious, although they took me the better part of three days to make! I would guess that the development of Sno Balls was probably in no way linked to the need for food preservation, though you know what they say about the indestructible nature of Twinkies…)
Winter is a lovely time to dip one’s toes in the waters of Making Things — sweet cabbages abound at the farmer’s market for sauerkraut, citrus galore for lemon curd and candied peel, and the cold, wet weather make indoor projects all the more appealing. My current fixation: Corned Beef!
I made my first home-cured corned beef last year, and it looks to be becoming a new tradition around here. What with the horror stories surrounding “mystery beef” and the toxic qualities of nitrate/nitrite, store-bought corned beef looked to be a thing of the past at our St. Patrick’s Day table — and I couldn’t have that!
So, what to do? We checked out the pricey cuts at nearby natural-foods markets, but that seemed to be a bit much for what we thought of, up til then, as a bit of a novelty meal. I consulted a few cookbooks, found several recipes for home-made corned beef, and decided to give it at try. We went to our local butcher shop, picked out a nice beef brisket, and proceeded with the recipe. Five days later, bam — the best corned beef we had ever tasted! Fantastically flavorful, not too salty, spiced just so. A world apart from the store-bought stuff. We raved about it for days.
And the best part is: it’s surprisingly simple to make! A dry-rub of salt and spices is less messy than the usual pot-of-brine method, you only need to check on it once every day or two, and the ingredients (other than the meat) are likely things you have in your pantry already. This post is a bit late this year to have it ready for St. Patrick’s, but don’t let that stop you — it’s fantastic any day!
Best-Ever Homemade Corned Beef
Why “corned?” The name apparently derives from Old English: “corns” of coarse salt were originally used to preserve the meat. We’re using kosher salt, but otherwise, the method here is more or less the same as the one used hundreds — even thousands — of years ago.
Many recipes, as well as most commercial corned beef products, contain saltpeter (potassium nitrate) as a preservative and colour enhancer. This is what gives store-bought corned beef its bright pink hue, but it’s really not necessary — and a Google search will reveal hundreds of articles on the detrimental health effects of nitrates in processed foods. (Besides, saltpeter isn’t exactly something you can just pick up at your average grocery store, and it’s an ingredient in gunpowder! Yum, right?) The good news is that you can make perfectly fine corned beef without it, as we’re doing here.
• Beef brisket — ours was about 5 pounds
• 1/2 cup kosher salt
• 1 Tb freshly-ground black pepper
• 2 tsp paprika
• 2 tsp coriander seeds, crushed, or 1 tsp ground coriander
• 1 tsp mustard seeds
• 1 tsp powdered mustard
• 1/8 tsp ground cloves or allspice
• 2 large bay leaves, crumbled
(This is the spice mix I use — you can certainly vary it to suit your tastes.)
You will also need:
• a large plastic bag, such as a zip-top freezer bag
• a sharp bamboo skewer
• a baking dish large enough to hold the brisket
If you are lucky enough to have a local butcher shop, by all means buy your beef there! We used a lovely brisket from Longhorn Meats here in Auburn — they even cut it to order for us. Ask the butcher to trim off most of the fat, or trim it yourself before you get started. The salt curing tenderizes tough-yet-flavorful cuts, such as brisket; and, of course, it bears mentioning that if you’re going to put in the time and effort on a project like this, it’s worthwhile to start out with the very best ingredients you can find!
1. Combine all spices with the kosher salt in a small bowl.
2. Lay the brisket on a baking sheet, cutting board, or other work surface. With the bamboo skewer, poke holes all over the brisket, about an inch apart, clear through the piece of meat. Turn brisket and repeat on other side.
3. Sprinkle a handful of the salt rub over the brisket, and rub in thoroughly. You’ll want to sort of “massage” the salt into the meat with your fingertips. Repeat until both sides of the brisket are evenly coated, and all the salt mixture has been used.
4. Place the brisket in the plastic bag — you might need an extra set of hands to do this — and seal the bag, squeezing out most of the excess air. Place the bagged brisket in the baking dish.
5. Now, just park the dish in the refrigerator — and don’t forget about it! The salt will draw the juices out of the meat; turn the brisket every day or two so both sides spend equal time in the juices. We leave ours to cure for about five days. If your brisket is particularly thick, say two inches or more, you might want to give it an extra day or two.
When you are ready to cook the corned beef, remove it from the bag and soak in cold water for a couple of hours, changing the water once or twice. This helps to draw out the excess salt. You can now proceed with your favorite corned-beef-and-cabbage recipe — the farmer’s market is a great place to pick up the requisite carrots, onions, and potatoes.
Don’t forget the Guinness and soda bread…
And the leftovers make a sublime sandwich — especially when paired with local marble rye and homemade sauerkraut!