Corning Beef

Corned Beef & Veggies: Served

Text and photos by Catherine Haug

Originally written 9/24/10. Updated to add photos: 10/2 for first rinse, & 10/3/10 for braising.

Earlier this week I purchased a 5-pound frozen locally-raised beef brisket from Meats Supply in Kalispell (400 Kienas Rd; 755-6819). I want to corn half of it for corned beef, and use the other half for braised brisket (without corning). So I thought it might be fun to take photos along the way and write this up as a post.

Just what is ‘corning’?

Corning is an ancient method of preserving meat, either a dry cure by surrounding the meat with coarse salt, or a wet cure by soaking it in a flavored salt brine.  The term ‘corn’ comes from the old English term for grains of salt.

The salt brine draws moisture out of the meat, making a less favorable environment for bacterial growth.  As the moisture is drawn out, salt is drawn in, deeper and deeper into the meat, drying it out and preserving it.  Do NOT use iodized salt–the cured meat will taste bad.  Your best choice is Koshering salt (Kosher Salt).

While some recipes indicate using a large metal saucepan, my preference is a porcelain-coated stock pot, large glass bowl, or stoneware crock or casserole dish (non-lead glaze) for the brining.  A heavy stainless steel pot in good condition will work in a pinch. Do not use an enameled pot that is chipped, nor an aluminum pot.

Read on for list of ingredients and instructions with photos to corn a brisket:

Ingredients & Equipment for brining

  • 4.5 – 5 pounds of beef brisket, cut into 2 or more pieces
  • 4 quarts filtered water
  • 3 cups kosher or pickling salt, plus extra for rubbing the meat
  • 2 Tbsp Rapadura sugar, or maple syrup
  • 1/4 tsp saltpeter (optional; see Saltpeter Dilemma, below)
  • 2 bay leaves, crushed
  • 8 peppercorns
  • 2 1/2 tsp pickling spices (see below)
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped and crushed with flat blade of knife
  • 1/2 large onion, rough-chopped (optional)
  • additional herbs & spices as desired

Cat's gas range

For equipment you will need:

  • large pot for warming the brine (to dissolve salt & sugar)
  • large bowl or pot for curing the meat
  • heavy plate for weighting down the meat in the brine
  • refrigerator or root cellar below 45° F


[NOTE that for this demonstration, I cut the above recipe in half]

Method of Curing

1. Sept 25, 2010: Assemble and measure brine ingredients: salt, sugar, spices, garlic and onion.

Brine Ingredients

2. Trim all but 1/4 inch of fat from meat; cut into 2 or more smaller pieces so will all fit in brining bowl. (Note that I’m making a half-recipe for this demonstration; my brisket weighs about 2.25 pounds).

3. Wash and pat dry. Rub with 1/4 cup salt (2 Tbsp for half-recipe).

Salting the Brisket

4. In large saucepan heat water, salt, & sugar; stir occasionally, until dissolved. Test for amount of salt (see ‘egg test’ below).

Heating the Brine

5. Place brisket in a large bowl; pour salted water over. Add herbs, spices, garlic and onion (if using).

Adding brisket, herbs & spices to brine

6. Place weighted plate over, to keep meat completely immersed.

Brisket in Brine, with Weighting Plate

7. Refrigerate 4 – 12 days, turning brisket over, every 2 days (thicker briskets need longer time).

Brining Brisket in Fridge

8. October 2, 2010: Remove meat and rinse thoroughly.  If meat is rubbery (stiff and hard to penetrate with a fork), it has absorbed sufficient salt for safe storage, if desired. However, before cooking, you must remove excess salt or it will not be palatable. To de-salt, soak in several changes of cold water, up to 24 hours or more (changing water every 2 – 3 hours).

If you plant to cook it within a few days, you don’t need to let it brine that long; just long enough to absorb some salt and flavors. A standard brisket would need about 4 days.

For this brisket, I wanted to test what happens when it gets rubbery, and how well the fresh-water soaks work. After 6 days in brine (10/2), I decided it had been long enough; the meat was stiff and rubbery (hard to bend, hard to insert a fork). I gave it a good rinse, then put it to soak in fresh cold water, in the fridge, for overnight. Changed the water that evening, and again the next morning. At 2 PM that afternoon (10/3), after 28 hours in fresh water, I prepared it for cooking.

First fresh-water rinse after brining

Braising the corned brisket

Braising is a very old method of slow-cooking meat in water and flavorings. I like to add cabbage and potatoes to the braising mixture toward the end of the cooking time; sometimes I also add carrots and/or parsnips. You can braise on top of the stove, or in a crock pot, but I prefer to use my oven.

As it cooks, the water coaxes the salt back out of the meat, allowing the hot moisture to penetrate and cook the interior. Nevertheless, the size of the cut shrinks considerably during cooking.

Braising corned beef can be a messy prospect when it comes to clean-up, because the cooking liquid is fatty and just plain yukky. But a sink-full of hot soapy water is up to the task.

1. (October 3, 2010) After the fresh-water soaks, remove the brisket from the water and rinse well. Place brisket in casserole or ovenproof Dutch oven and cover with boiling water. Add fresh bay leaves, peppercorns, spices, garlic and onion (if using). I used the same amounts as used for the brining. Or you can use a different spice/herb mix for the braising. [NOTE: warm glare in photo, below, is not flame, but rather reflection of camera flash off foil on oven floor.]

Corned beef - going into the slow oven (275 F)

2. Cover and braise (cook in slow oven, 275 – 300° F), about 1.5 – 2 hours or more per pound, until meat is fork tender. This brisket cooked for 6.5 hours total, which is a bit long for 2 pound piece. In retrospect, I think I kept it in the brine too long (4 days would have been better), or I should have given it a few more changes of fresh water over another 12 hours, because the final product was a bit too salty.

3. Meanwhile, if you want to add veggies, cut cabbage head into wedges. Cut large potatoes in halves or quarters; small potatoes can be used whole. Cut carrots or parsnips into 1″ lengths. [NOTE: cabbage is from this year’s CSA bounty; carrots and potatoes are from my own garden.]

Prepped cabbage, potatoes and carrots

4. Add all veggies during the last 20 minutes of cooking. However, I will not add all my cabbage, as this meat will provide at least 4 meals for me, and I’ll add the remaining cabbage when reheating.

5. To serve, slice thinly and arrange on platter with veggies around the meat. Garnish with sprigs of parsley, if desired.

Corned Beef: Carved

6. Before sitting down to eat, pour out the cooking liquid, rinse casserole dish and put to soak in hot soapy water.

7. Because this batch was a bit salty after braising, I gave it another overnight soak in two changes of fresh water, and then reheated in fresh water for dinner the second day. Much, much better. Not too salty, and very fork-tender.


Saltpeter Dilemma

Saltpeter (Potassium nitrate, KNO3) gives commercial corned beef its red color, and acts as a preservative. It is not a required ingredient, but without it, the meat will be brownish-grey (like a regular pot roast) instead of red.

Its use is a must if you plan to store your corned meat in a root cellar, as it helps prevent botulism. However, if you intend to refrigerate then cook it within a few days, or freeze it for later use, the saltpeter is not necessary.

Saltpeter is considered by some to be toxic. Nitrites, which are used to preserve bacon and other cured meats, have been implicated in certain cancers, especially when the meat is cooked over high heat, such as grilling or frying. However, saltpeter is a nitrate, not a nitrite, and if you braise the corned beef (cook in water at low temperatures), it will not be converted to the same toxic substances that result from cooking nitrites over high heat.

I did not use saltpeter for this demonstration, because I intend to braise it as soon as the curing is completed, and I don’t find the red color appealing.

Pickling Spices

You can use a commercial pickling spice mix, or make your own from a favorite recipe. For example (makes more than you need for this recipe): 2 Tbsp each whole mustard seed and whole coriander seed, and 1 Tbsp whole cloves. 1 Tbsp juniper berries, or 1 tsp red pepper flakes can also be added. Feel free to experiment with additional herbs for different flavors, but the combination given here produces the traditional flavor of corned beef crushed bay leaves, mustard and coriander seed (as in pickling spice, and black peppercorns..

Egg test (for brine strength)

Place an uncooked egg (in the shell) into the cooled brine.  If it floats, there is enough salt.  If it does not float, add and dissolve a half-cup of salt at a time, testing with the egg after each addition.

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