“Corning” beef is actually a method of pickling. The raw beef is soaked in a salty brine for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, depending on the recipe you use. (I opted for a few days, because that’s the way I am.)
Salt inhibits the growth of bacteria. When the brining is done at a cool temperature (in this case, in the refrigerator), it acts as a preservative. Corned beef will store longer than raw beef.
Corned beef gets its name from the salt. When salt was commonly used in homes as a preservative, the kind of salt used was very coarse, with grain-size granules. In Old English, these granules were called “corns” of salt.
It’s name might also refer to “corns” of saltpeter, which was often used as a preservative ingredient, too. Saltpeter (which is also an ingredient in gunpowder) is potassium nitrate. Alton Brown, popular Food Network chef, still recommends using saltpeter in making corned beef, but many people now use pink salt instead.
Pink salt used for brining is also called “curing” salt or Prague powder. It is not the same as Himalayan pink salt, which gets its color from minerals found near the salt. Curing salt contains sodium nitrite, which is a preservative similar to saltpeter.
Curing salt is an optional ingredient in the recipe I gave you last week. If you use it, it will give your corned beef the distinctive pink color that many associated specifically with corned beef. Curing salt is available at Yeagers Sporting Goods (3101 Northwest Ave., Bellingham) in the section where their smokers and supplies are located.
In my corned beef, I chose not to use curing salt, so the color of the meat was grayer (the usual color of cooked beef) instead of the more traditional pink. The gray style is commonly called “New England” corned beef. Because the curing salt contains nitrites, and nitrites are somewhat controversial in terms of health, I tend to look for alternatives whenever possible.
The Homemade Corned Beef recipe below is part one of two created in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. “Marco Polo rules” were applied, which means the use of non-local spices was considered an acceptable exception to strict locavorism. After all, Marco Polo marched across the Himalayas to get them, for heaven’s sake, opening a whole new trade route just to get Asian spices.
Marco Polo rules are an exception I invoke rarely, and mostly for holiday dishes. On a regular basis, the only exceptions I use are for salt (not energy efficient for me to make myself), baking powder, baking soda, coffee, and chocolate. (Read more about how I choose food to eat.)
Since no one (as far as I know) makes corned beef locally, I used some of the wonderful grassfed beef I purchase in bulk every year from Second Wind Farm in Everson. Brisket is the cut most often used for “corning,” but a round roast will work just as well, and that’s what I used when I tested this recipe. I cut the roast in half so it was about the thickness of a brisket (roughly three inches thick).
A week after I prepared this recipe, I cooked the finished Crockpot Corned Beef and Cabbage, and offer that as part two of this pair of recipes.
- For Pickling Spice Mix (enough for two corned beef batches--see photo):
- 2 Tbsp black peppercorns, freshly cracked
- 2 Tbsp ground allspice (or allspice berries)
- ¾ tsp ground coriander
- 4 bay leaves, crumbled
- 2 cinnamon sticks, broken into chunks
- 12 whole cloves
- 2 Tbsp mustard seeds, slightly crushed
- 2 inches smoked cayenne pepper, finely minced (Rabbit Fields Farm, Everson)
- 1 Tbsp finely grated ginger (Terra Verde Farm, Everson)
- Optional: 4 tsp pink salt (curing salt--sodium nitrite--not Himalayan pink salt)
- For Brine:
- 1-1/2 cups kosher salt or pickling salt
- ½ cup honey (Guilmette's Busy Bees, Everson)
- 5-6 lbs. grassfed beef brisket or round roast (Second Wind Farm, Everson)
- Mix the pickling spices. Since this recipe makes enough pickling spices for corning two pieces of beef, you can either add the grated ginger now and freeze half the pickling mix, or add the ginger later when you make the brine and keep half the spice mixture dry in a jar.
- In a large non-reactive pot (stainless steel, ceramic, or glass), put two quarts of water, ½ of the pickling spice mix, the salt, and the honey. If you want your corned beef to have a pink color, you can add the pink curing salt. (I didn't use it, so will get the gray New England style of finished corned beef)
- Bring pot to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to simmer, stirring until the salt and honey are fully dissolved. Remove from the heat and add another two quarts of cold water. Set aside until completely cool.
- Put the beef in the cool mixture, and make sure it is completely submerged. Use a plate or filled jar to weight down the meat, if necessary. Place in the refrigerator for 5 days.