Corned Beef, Brined & Braised

Sliced corned beef

Sliced corned beef

by Cat, 2014 (Photo, right, by Cat)

Corned beef and cabbage has become a St. Patrick’s Day tradition all across America.  But corned beef is good any time of the year! Or, for a change, after corning the brisket, smoke it to make pastrami!

Corning meat 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.

Fine Cooking suggests serving a Guinness & Chocolate bundt cake (8) as dessert with this traditional Irish dinner.

Four Recipes

Corning the Beef (Brining): Soaking the beef in a flavored brine, as to preserve the meet and give it that classic corned beef flavor.  This recipe includes instructions for the salt brine, and how long in the brine.

Braised Corned Beef Brisket is the classic corned beef preparation.  This recipe includes instructions for braising the cured brisket with or without cabbage and potatoes in the pot. [My own recipe].

Lacto-Fermented Corned Beef is a very tasty way to add raw meat to your diet.  Just be sure to freeze the meat for at least 14 days to kill any parasites that might be hiding in the meat.  Then thaw before brining. This recipe includes instructions for the salt brine with added whey or a powdered culture to jump-start the lacto-fermentation that resists spoilage, and how long in the brine. See Raw Corned Beef.

Corned Beef Hash is a great way to use leftover corned beef.  Serve it with an egg or two, cooked sunny side up.  This was one of my Dad’s favorite late-night breakfast dishes, after a long night at the bar. See Corned Beef Hash.

Cuts of meat for corning

Traditionally, brisket is used, and is what I prefer. However, bottom round (rump roast) can also be used, but it is a fairly thick cut so you may wish to cut it in half. See Testing, March 2014 (below) for testing a rump roast. Turns out, I prefer the rump.

Using a salt brine for meat

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, I would suggest using a porcelain-coated stock pot, large glass bowl, or stoneware crock (non-lead glaze) for the brining.  A good heavy stainless steel pot in good condition will work in a pinch.

The Saltpeter Dilemma: Saltpeter is what gives commercial corned beef its red color, but it is an optional additive if you intend to use cook corned beef right away, store it in the refrigerator up to a week, or freeze it. See Curing Beef and Other Meats (scroll down to section on Alternatives to Saltpeter) for lots more on this topic, including vegetable alternatives to saltpeter such as celery seeds and/or celery juice which contain potassium nitrate naturally.

Rule of Thumb for Amount of Salt in Brine: The amount of salt is dependent on the amount of water used to completely cover the meat, and on the type (grind) of salt used.  However, if you weigh your salt in grams or ounces, you don’t need to be concerned with the type of salt; however, if using ounces, the amount is dependent on the altitude above sea level where you measure the salt.

The first step is to determine how much water is needed, then use the chart, below to determine amount of salt (see also a printable pdf version of the chart): Brine chart (salt-to-water). See below the chart for how much sugar to use.

Sugar in Brine: The general recommendation is up to 2 cups per gallon, or ½ cup per quart of water. I recommend using minimally-refined sugar such as Rapadura dehydrated sugar cane juice.

Egg Test for Correct Amount of Salt in Brine

After dissolving the salt (and sugar) use the egg test, left, to determine if more salt is needed. However, in my experience, it is not as accurate as I would like.

How Long in the Brine? This varies with the size & thickness of the cut of meat. The smaller/thinner the cut, the less time it takes for the salt to penetrate to the core and remove moisture from the cut (removing the moisture is the key to salt preservation, but depriving pathogens this medium for growth).

If you plan to cook it within a week of brining, 4 – 6 days should be long enough to get the desired flavor and texture. But if you plan to keep the corned meat for a longer period of time – as a preservation method – you will want to corn it longer, up to 3 weeks. It will get quite rubbery. When you are ready to use it,  soak it in several changes of fresh cold water to remove some of the salt and restore texture, before cooking.

No worries if you corn it too long (it gets really rubbery). A day or so before you plan to cook it, soak it in several changes of fresh cold water, to remove excess salt, over a 24-hour period (or less).

Keeping-Time: Corned beef (not cooked) with its pickling juices will keep in the refrigerator 5 – 7 days.  If you drain off the juices, it will keep up to a month, according to several sources.  However, in older times before refrigeration, salting and corning was used to preserve meat for longer periods of time; in colder areas it would keep all winter (brine juices must be drained off first).  A Texas website (6) indicates salt-cured meat will keep outdoors in a Texas summer for at least 5 days; up here in Montana, it may even keep longer. (This same website (6) has lots of good tips).

According to Sally Fallon (author of Nourishing Traditions (1)), the Raw Corned Beef recipe (lacto-fermented) will keep without refrigeration (but in a cool spot) up to a week; in the refrigerator about 10 days, not more than 2 weeks. (per email 7/21/08).

Braised Corned Beef Brisket: Corning and braising at home

The thicker the cut of brisket, the longer it takes to cure (see above). 4 days is good for a thinner cut.

The cooking process must include fresh, filtered and unsalted water, which then draws the salt back out of the meat and replaces the moisture that was removed during the curing process, with flavorful juices.

I prefer to braise it in the oven (slow oven is my preference, if I have the time), but you could also braise it on stove top. However, I’ve never done it on stove top, so don’t know how many hours per pound to braise it that way.

Notes on corning and ingredients:

  1. Saltpeter (Potassium nitrate, KNO3) gives commercial corned beef its red color, and acts as a preservative against botulism. It may be carcinogenic, especially if you consume it regularly or in large amounts.  It is not necessary to use it if you have refrigeration (or a freezer for long-term storage), but without it, the meat will be brownish-grey instead of red.
  2. You can use a commercial spice blend called “Pickling Spices.” Alternately, you can make your own pickling spice mixture; for example (makes more than you need for this recipe):
    • 2 Tbsp whole mustard seed
    • 2 Tbsp whole coriander seed, and
    • 1 Tbsp whole cloves.
    • 1 Tbsp juniper berries can also be added.

See below for testing.

Brining (Corning) the Brisket

  • Ingredients
  • 4.5 – 5 pounds of beef brisket, cut into 2 or more pieces (or other cut such as bottom round)
  • 4 quarts filtered water (or enough to completely cover the meat in the brining container)
  • 3 cups Kosher Salt (Unrefined sea salt is too expensive for this use; however, if you choose to use it, you will need a different amount, depending on the coarseness of grind). If you use more or less than 4 quarts water, you will need more/less salt. See Rule of Thumb for Amount of Salt in Brine, above.
  • 2 Tbsp Rapadura sugar, or maple syrup
  • ¼ tsp saltpeter (optional; see NOTE (1) above)
  • Herbs & spices (use half quantity for brine, half for cooking):
  • 4 bay leaves, crushed
  • 16 peppercorns
  • 4 – 5 tsp pickling spices (see NOTE (2) above)
  • 4 garlic cloves, crushed and halved
  • 1 onion, rough-chopped (optional)
  • Equipment:
  • large saucepan
  • large glass or ceramic bowl into which you can fit a weighted plate (weight with canned goods)
  • covered casserole dish

Method of Corning:

  1. Trim all but ¼ inch of fat from meat. Test for volume of water required to cover the meat in the brining container.
  2. Wash and pat dry.
  3. Rub with ¼ cup Kosher Salt (for 4.5 – 5 lb meat)
  4. In large saucepan, heat water, salt and sugar; stir to dissolve. Test for amount of salt (see ‘egg test’ above).
  5. Place brisket in a large bowl; pour salted water over.
  6. Add half the herbs & spices.
  7. Place weighted plate over, to keep meat completely immersed.
  8. Refrigerate 4 – 12 days, turning brisket over every 2 days (thicker briskets need longer time).
  9. Remove meat and rinse thoroughly.  If meat is rubbery, you may want to de-salt by soaking in several changes of cold water, up to 24 hours.

Cooking the Corned Brisket

LeCreuset French Oven

  • Ingredients:
  • 2 – 2.5 lb corned brisket (or other cuts such as rump roast)
  • 1 or more heads of cabbage
  • carrots
  • parsnips (optional)
  • boiling potatoes
  • Leftover herbs & spices (from corning the meat, above), or as follows:
    • 2 bay leaves, crushed
    • 8 peppercorns
    • 2 – 3 tsp pickling spices (see NOTE (2) above)
    • 2 garlic cloves, crushed and halved
  • Equipment:
  • Ovenproof casserole dish, or Dutch/French oven (image, above-right, from LeCreuset (9))
  • Saucepan (only if not cooking veggies with the meat, or if you parboil some of the veggies)

Method of Cooking: 

  1. Place meat in casserole and cover with boiling water.
  2. Add remaining herb/spice mix (from corning the beef, or as listed in Ingredients for  Cooking the Corned Brisket)
  3. Cover and braise in oven until meat is fork tender.  Total cooking time depends on oven temperature. NOTE: I have updated time estimates, per testing:
    1. Slow oven: about 2+ hours per pound at 300°F, or 3+ hours per pound at 275°F, or a bit less at 300°F (originally 1 – 1.5 hr/pound);
    2. Regular oven: 60 – 90 minutes per pound (or more) at 350°F (originally 50 min/pound).
  4. Prep veggies while meat is braising: cut cabbage and potatoes into wedges, and carrots into 1″-2″ lengths. Parboil at least the carrots and parsnips, if using, about 10 minutes.
  5. 20 minutes before meat is done, tuck veggies around the meat, to cook them. Alternately, you can steam or simmer the veggies in boiled water instead of with the brisket.

Assembly or Serving Suggestions

  • Serve cabbage, carrots. parsnips (optional) and potatoes on the side.
  • Instead of boiled cabbage and potatoes, try Culcannon (mashed potatoes and cabbage or kale) for a side dish.
  • Chill in cooking liquid, then slice thinly for sandwiches, with rye bread and mustard.

Testing

Testing Brisket, 3/17/2008: I selected an all natural 1.75 pound brisket (trimmed of most fat); cured it in brine for 4 days (without saltpeter, to see how appetizing it would look when just grey).  Then rinsed and bathed in one fresh-water bath for 4 hours before draining & storing in air-tight bag for 2 days before cooking.  Cooked, covered in water bath with onions and spices in 275° oven.  After 2.5 hours; still not fork tender.  Continued cooking for total of 4.5 hours and it was finally tender.  Result:   Smelled wonderful after two days brining in refrigerator; smelled even better while cooking.  It was not really rubbery after brining, so I did only one change of fresh water. Color not bad, similar to pot roast.

Testing 10/3/10: Did photo-essay for the ESP website: Corning Beef. Brined half a brisket, a little less than 2 lbs when trimmed of most fat. Made too much brine, so had to pour out some of it. Cured 6 days, turning every 2 days, then soaked overnight in 2 changes of fresh water because it was too rubbery (too long in brine). 4 days would have been better. Cooked with fresh spices in fresh water, in oven at 275° F. Took much longer than last time; I think perhaps I should have given it another day in a fresh-water bath, to remove more salt. After 5.5 hrs and still pretty solid, I added carrots & potatoes anyway. After 6 hours total, meat was starting to show signs of tenderness, so I added cabbage and cooked 15 minutes more; total 6.75 hours for the meat.

However, it was not quite as tender as I like, and was too salty. I should have soaked it in a few more changes of fresh water over a second day. So, I put the rest of it to soak in fresh water overnight; will make 2 more changes of water, then reheat in fresh water. That did the trick – much less salty, and much more tender.

In retrospect, I think for this size brisket, 4 days in brine is enough. It was already starting to be a bit stiff and hard to poke with a fork after 4 days.

Testing rump roast 3/8/14: Could not get a brisket so used 2 ¾ lb bottom round (rump), cut into 3 pieces to fit in my oval pyrex casserole with lid. Rubbed pieces with 2 – 2 ½ Tbsp kosher salt.

  • Brining: Requires about 5 cups brine to cover meat in casserole; the lid can can be urned upside down to weight the meat below the brine surface. For 5 c brine, used 8 Tbsp kosher salt (½ cup) and 2 Tbsp Rapadura. However, needed to add another 6 – 7 Tbsp kosher salt before the egg would float (14-15 Tbsp total). Added to brine: 1 bay leaf, 5 peppercorns, 1 ½ tsp pickling spices, 1 crushed garlic cloves, ¼ onion. Into fridge to begin curing at 5 PM, 3/8/14. Turned after 2 days, on 3/10, 4 PM; starting to turn gray. 3/12, 5 PM, turned again. Removed and rinsed  3/13, 10 AM, total 4 ½ days in brine. Then placed in fresh water bath for a few hours; removed at 3 PM 3/13. It was not hard to poke with a fork, so perhaps not long enough in brine. We’ll see. Froze largest piece for another time.
  • Braise, 3/17/14: weighed roast at 2 lb, so will take about 3 hours or so to cook. Added spices, garlic and onions, then poured boiling water over and put in preheated 300 oven with lid on, at 4 PM. Added cabbage wedges, yukon gold potatoes, and cut-up carrots at 7 PM. Checked at 7:30; veggies were done but meat not tender; removed veggies to keep warm and continued with braise. At 8:15, smaller piece was fork tender, so added 1 serving of cooked veggies to rewarm them for about 10 minutes. Larger piece not yet tender; will cook more when reheat in couple days. Small piece cooked in 4 hrs, 15 min.  Result: delicious, and I like texture better than with brisket, plus the pan is easier to clean. 3/22/14: Reserved meat and cooking liquid into 300 oven at 5:45 PM, and out of oven at 6:45.
  • Result: Meat was wonderfully tender, and very delicious. But overall, I think it could have brined longer since was thicker than brisket.

Testing rump roast 3/6-11/15

Brine: Used same size rump roast (2 ¾ lb) as last year; cut into 3 pieces to fit in my oval Pyrex casserole (the lid, used upside down, serves as the weight). Only needed 4 ¼ cups brine, so reduced salt a bit to 13 Tbsp, but used same amount of other ingredients. Into fridge, with lid as weight, about 5 PM on 3/6. I plan to brine it for 4 days. 3/8 at 4 PM, first check/turning: looks good so far; 3/10 at 4:30 PM, second check/turning: mostly grey but I think it needs another half day (or more). 10 AM 3/11 third check/turning: smaller two pieces are ready so rinsed and transferred to another container. Larger piece needs more time; transferred it to another container because brine wouldn’t cover it after the smaller pieces were removed, and covered with plate and lid. Both containers back in fridge. I won’t be able to cook and eat this on St. Patrick’s Day because I’ll be doing the juice fast, so will cook the two smaller pieces on 3/11, and freeze the larger one after it has brined a bit longer. Removed larger piece at 9 PM, drained and let rest in rinse water until 9:15. Drained and refrigerated overnight before freezing.

3/11 Braise: as instructed (300°F oven), with cabbage, potato, carrot and parsnip. Into oven at 4:30 PM. should be ready between 1 hr 45 min (6:15 PM), and 2 hr, 30 min (7 PM); checked meat at 6:15 but not ready to add veggies yet. Added at 7 PM. Tested at 8 and 8:30; potatoes and cabbage are ready but carrots and parsnips need more time. Meat is tender enough to serve, but is not fork tender. So I let it cook until 9:30, then removed from oven.

3/16-17/18: I had set aside part of my 2015 corned beef (uncooked, larger piece) in the freezer, so I will use that this year. Thawed it overnight, then weighed it:  1.13 lb (18 oz).

  • Veggies: parboiled small yellow-Finn potato wedges and carrot sections (1o min), and added half a small green cabbage cut into 4 wedges.
  • Spices: 2 ½ tsp homemade pickling spice mix, 3 small bay leaves, crushed, 8 peppercorns, 2 garlic cloves (crushed and halved), and ½ onion, rough-chopped.

Placed corned beef in enameled cast iron French oven with lid; covered with filtered water, added spices, and into oven at 3:05 PM.  At 5:15 PM (2 hours, 10 min of cooking): I could detect the wonderful smells and discovered I’d mistakenly set the oven at 375°F instead of 275°F. Fortunately, It’s not fork-tender yet, so I added the veggies. Veggies are tender at 5:45 PM (after 30 min), so removed them to keep warm while I continue to cook the corned beef since it is not yet fork-tender. Checked again at 6:15: done. Total cooking time: 3 hours, 10 min for meat, 30 min for veggies (including the parboiled carrots). Result: delicious, as always. And I have enough left for another night!

3/16/19: Used 1.85 lb commercially corned beef brisket that came with its own seasoning packet which I rubbed onto the meat, and I added some crushed bay leaves, whole peppercorns, and my own pickling spice mix, and minced/pressed fresh garlic to the braising mix. Into preheated 350°F oven at 3 PM. Parboiled carrots and parsnips too long (they are done); cooked potatoes separately. Added cabbage at 4:10 PM; done by 4:45 so removed from pot. Will warm carrots/parsnips/potatoes just before serving. Meat not yet done at 4:45, nor at 5:30; almost done at 6:20 so started reheating of veggies. Removed from oven at 6:45; not quite fork tender, but close. Result: I don’t think the corned beef is as good as when I corn my own brisket, and it could have used more salt, but it tasted like corned beef and upon reheating (leftovers), it is much more tender. The veggies are delicious.

References:

  1. Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig, Ph.D.. See Beloved Cookbooks for more about this book.
  2. recipezaar.com/85332
  3. associatedcontent.com/article/153893/how_to_make_corned_beef_and_pastrami.html
  4. ct.essortment.com/howtomakecorn_rlgm.htm
  5. texascooking.com/features/mar2002cornedbeef.htm (lots of good info)
  6. 6thtx.org/Salting%20Meat.htm (more good info)
  7. essentialstuff.org/index.php/2010/09/29/Cat/corning-beef
  8. Chocolate Stout (Guinness) Cake recipe (finecooking.com/recipes/chocolate-stout-cake.aspx)
  9. Le Creuset photo: http://cookware.lecreuset.com

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