What exactly is corned beef, and how is it made?
“Corning” is an old English term that refers to the “corns,” or kernels of rock salt, used to cure meat for preservation. The cut used for corned beef is brisket, the large slab of muscle from the cow’s chest. Although you can make corned beef from either the point or flat cut of brisket, it is most often made from the leaner, more uniformly shaped flat cut (which is easier to find in markets). There are two ways to “corn,” or salt-cure, beef brisket: dry or wet. In dry curing, you rub the meat with salt and seasonings, wrap it in plastic wrap, and weigh it down for a few days. As the meat sits, the salt draws out water, creating a concentrated brine on the meat’s surface. In wet curing, you submerge the meat in a seasoned brine for a period of days. Today, both methods use table salt and curing (or “pink”) salt, a specialty product dyed pink to distinguish it from conventional salt. It contains sodium nitrite, which prevents bacterial growth and gives cured meats such as corned beef their pink color.When the brisket is fully cured, it is seasoned and preserved, but it’s still raw; this is how you purchase corned beef at the grocery store. Since brisket is a tough cut loaded with connective tissue, it needs low, slow, moist cooking to become tender; thus, corned beef is usually simmered for hours in a covered pot.In the test kitchen, we prefer to simmer the brisket in the gentle, even heat of the oven. When it is fork-tender, the corned beef is ready to serve, typically with carrots, potatoes, and cabbage, but it can also be thinly sliced and packed into sandwiches, made into hash, or smoked for pastrami.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Corned beef is simply salt-cured brisket; the curing was originally a method of preservation.