Well-Seasoned, Evenly Cured Meat
Easy, Hands-Off Preparation
Flavorful, Crisp-Tender Vegetables
You can make a decent corned beef dinner by buying a corned beef brisket, simmering it in a big pot of water for a few hours, and adding carrots, potatoes, and cabbage at the end of cooking so they soak up some of the seasoned liquid. But you can make a superb corned beef if you skip the commercially made stuff and “corn” the meat yourself. (The Old English term refers to the “corns,” or kernels of salt, used to cure the meat for preservation.) When this curing process is done properly, the meat isn’t just generically salty (or overly salty, as commercial versions often are). It’s seasoned but balanced, with complex flavor thanks to the presence of aromatics and spices. And although the process takes several days, it’s almost entirely hands-off.
I’d never corned beef but had always wanted to try. In addition to having an easy one-dish meal for serving a crowd, I could use the leftover corned beef in sandwiches and hash. The trick would be figuring out just the right curing formula and length of time to produce tender, well-seasoned meat.
In Search of a Cure
I knew I’d be using a flat-cut brisket, the most common cut for corned beef. As for the curing method, I had two options: wet or dry. Wet curing works much like brining: You submerge the meat in a solution of table and curing, or “pink,” salt (more on that later) and water along with seasonings. Over time, the salt penetrates the meat, seasoning it and altering its proteins so that they retain moisture. Dry curing works more like salting: The meat gets rubbed with the salt mixture and seasonings, wrapped in plastic wrap, and weighed down with a heavy plate or pot. As the meat sits, the salt draws water out of it, creating a superconcentrated brine. To expose all of the meat to the brine, the meat is flipped daily. Whichever approach you use, the cured brisket gets simmered in water to break down its abundant collagen, the connective tissue that converts to gelatin during cooking and coats the meat fibers so that they appear more tender and juicy.
I tried both methods, wet-curing one 5-pound flat-cut brisket for seven days and dry-curing another for 10, the average length of time for each method that I found in recipes, to see how the flavor of the cured meats would differ. (For now, I left out the pink salt and seasonings.) I placed each in a Dutch oven with water and simmered them for 5 hours, which was a bit fussy since I had to adjust the stove dial to ensure gentle heat. The briskets tasted virtually the same, so I moved ahead with the wet cure, which was considerably faster and easier, with no need for daily flipping.
(Not Just) Pretty in Pink
Now for the pink salt. This specialty product (which is dyed pink to distinguish it from conventional salt) is a mixture of sodium chloride (table salt) and sodium nitrite. Only a small amount, combined with conventional table salt, is needed for curing. Nitrites prevent the oxidation of fats, which would otherwise lead to off-flavors and certain types of bacterial growth, especially Clostridium botulinum. Hence, their preservative effect. They’re also responsible for the attractive pink color of cured meats.
Since I wasn’t relying on the pink salt for preservation, I wanted to confirm that it improved the flavor of the brisket, not just its color. I cured one with pink salt and one without and then offered both up to blindfolded tasters. The results were close, but the majority of tasters preferred the flavor of the pink salt batch. Plus, once the blindfolds came off, every single taster preferred the rosy-hued meat. With that, I knew pink salt was a must.
Can You Taste the Pink?
Pink salt (a mixture of table salt and sodium nitrite and, depending on the type, also sodium nitrate) has been used since the early 1900s to cure meat and is also what gives the meat its rosy color. (Prior to this, saltpeter, or potassium nitrate, had been used for curing since the Middle Ages.) But does it make the meat taste better? When we blindfolded tasters and asked them to sample briskets that had been cured with and without pink salt, most preferred the pink salt sample. Its flavor was “cleaner,” whereas the other batch tasted more like plain “boiled beef.”
About the safety of pink salt: Nitrites have gotten a bad rap in recent years for being unhealthy. However, the Centers for Disease Control reports that more than 90 percent of the nitrates we consume (which convert to nitrites in the body) occur naturally in vegetables and our drinking water.
Finally, the seasonings: garlic cloves, allspice berries, bay leaves, coriander seeds, and brown sugar— the flavors of which truly put the meat a notch above commercial corned beef.
As for how long to cure the meat, I’d been following recipes from my research that called for seven days, but others called for as few as four—and both seemed rather arbitrary. I wanted a more precise method to determine when the meat was thoroughly cured, and I realized that the pink salt could help.
I started another batch and removed a sample of the core from the brisket each day, simmering them (the meat’s color only changes when it’s cooked) and looking for the point at which the center of the meat turned distinctly pink. The pink crept inward about ¼ inch per day. For the 2½- to 3-inch briskets I was using, that meant a six-day cure was the answer.
Calculating a Cure to the Core
By removing and simmering a core sample of the brisket each day, we learned that the pink color—the indication that the meat was cured—moved inward ¼ inch per day on all sides. Thus, a brisket that was 2½ to 3 inches thick required six days to thoroughly cure.
Slow and Steady
I wanted to try simmering the brisket in the oven, a method we often use when braising meat because the heat is more gentle and even. Waiting for the water to come to a boil in the oven would greatly prolong the cooking time, so I added the meat (rinsed first to remove the loose spices) and brought the water to a simmer on the stove before moving the pot to a 275-degree oven.
Three hours later, the brisket was fork-tender, at which point I transferred it to a platter to rest, ladling over some of the cooking liquid to keep it moist. Then I moved the pot back to the stove and cooked the vegetables in the meaty liquid: carrots and red potatoes (added first so they cooked through) as well as cabbage wedges. As they simmered, I sliced the brisket thinly against the grain to ensure that each bite would be tender.
Texturally, the meat and vegetables were spot-on, but both components tasted a tad washed-out, so I added a cheesecloth bundle of more garlic and curing spices to the cooking liquid (the cheesecloth meant I didn’t have to pluck out any stray spices). This added subtle but clear depth to the dish, which was as impressive-looking as it had been easy to prepare—and so very worth making from scratch.
Keys to Success
Well-Seasoned, Evenly Cured MeatThe brisket cures in a mixture of water, table salt, pink salt, brown sugar, garlic, and spices for six days, which gives the seasonings enough time to penetrate to the center.
Easy, Hands-Off PreparationUnlike a dry cure, which requires flipping the meat regularly to expose it to the small amount of brine, a wet cure doesn’t require daily maintenance.
Flavorful, Crisp-Tender VegetablesWhile the corned beef rests, we briefly simmer cabbage, potatoes, and carrots in the meaty cooking liquid, which seasons them thoroughly.