How To Scale Down Corned Beef

Corned beef is meant to serve a crowd. But what if you only want enough for two or three people?

Published Mar. 9, 2023.

Corned beef is meant to serve a crowd. But what if you want to scale it down this year? You shouldn't have to skip this St. Patrick's Day staple just because you're only cooking for two or three.

Fortunately, you don't have to. Though we haven’t put the concept to the usual test kitchen rigor, I posed this scaling-down question to two people who have prepared their fair share of corned beef: Test Cook Lan Lam, who developed Cook’s Illustrated’s recipe for Home-Corned Beef with Vegetables, and Executive Food Editor Dan Zuccarello, who oversaw the development of the Slow-Cooker Corned Beef and Cabbage Dinner recipe from The Complete Slow Cooker.

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The good news is that corned beef is one of those dishes where if you want to make half of it, you can just halve the ingredients. (Might seem obvious, but have you ever tried to halve a rice recipe?) 

But there are things in the prep, corning, and cooking steps to consider if you’re setting out to make a smaller quantity. Here’s what you should know.

Tips for Scaling Down Corned Beef

  • Unless your butcher lets you buy the exact weight you want, you probably won’t be able to find a flat-cut brisket that’s any smaller than three or four pounds. If you don’t want to cook it all, you have two options: You can cut the amount you want and freeze the rest; or you can cook the whole amount and freeze it. (We haven’t tried this but some of our home cooks have commented that they have successfully.) In both cases, be sure to wrap it tightly or vacuum seal it (our favorite vacuum sealer is this one from NESCO) to prevent freezer burn.
  • If you’re looking to serve two people, two pounds of meat should be plenty. That’ll give you enough for a hearty meal, plus enough for leftovers the next day. (If you do have leftovers, may we recommend our recipes for Corned Beef and Cabbage Hash or Best Reuben Sandwiches?)
  • Even if you’re using a smaller brisket, make sure it’s the thickness specified in the recipe. Thinner is OK, but thicker might mean that the cure won’t penetrate all the way to the center of the meat.
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  • If you’re corning your own beef, it’s OK to halve the brine ingredients. But it’s important to use the right-size container. Your brisket should be fully immersed in brine; otherwise, it won’t cure evenly. If it turns out that there isn’t enough brine to fully submerge your brisket, don’t add water! That dilutes the brine and introduces food-safety risks. Instead, find a different container for brining the brisket or make more brine.
  • The curing time won’t change with a smaller brisket. In this case, the shape—not the weight—of the brisket is what determines how long it takes for the cure to penetrate the meat. So even if you’re using a smaller brisket than what your recipe calls for, if it’s the same thickness (and it should be) it will need to cure for the same amount of time.
  • When it comes to cooking the corned beef, you can scale down the amount of water and add more during cooking if it looks like it needs it. Keep in mind that too much water will pull salt and flavor from the beef, so don’t use more than you have to to keep the brisket submerged.

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