It’s almost March and I am thinking about making corned beef from scratch. I don’t mean buying a slab of gelatinous prepackaged stuff and throwing it in the crock pot either. I am thinking about brining my own! “Why bother?” And the answer is simple: Homemade corned beef is better. The commercial stuff, especially the cheap stuff mass marketed for St. Patrick’s Day for Irish wannabes, is usually made by taking shortcuts that result in odd flavors, and pricy!

Homemade corned beef can also be cheaper. And it’s easy. And you can customize it. Once you’ve had the real deal, you can’t go back. It just takes time. So start now. Corned beef has no corn. Okay, technically the steer ate corn, but no corn is harmed in the process of corning beef. Actually, to be precise, corn was the old British name for grain before corn on the cob was discovered in North America and usurped the name. “A corn of salt” was as common an expression as a “grain of salt” is today. So corned beef is really just another name for salted beef. So corning has become another name for curing or pickling. Yes, we are pickling this beef! These are ancient processes invented for preserving meat by packing it in salt or soaking it in a concentrated brine, long before refrigerators. In recent years, curing is also done by injecting meat with salt. The process was probably discovered when some ancient hunter speared a deer and it fell into the ocean and washed ashore a couple of weeks later. Surprisingly instead of bloating and turning foul, the meat had been preserved, and tasted pretty good. Now that you are so much smarter- lol let’s move on to the brine.

The salt concentration for curing is higher than the typical 4 to 6% brine used to moisten chicken, turkey, and pork before cooking. The salt is usually a blend of plain sodium chloride and Prague powder #1 or curing salt. You can often find it at groceries, butcher shops, or online. It is not the same as Himilayan pink salt, so do not try to substitute. The cure kills bacteria, especially the botulism bug, and it is needed for the bright pink color we associate with corned beef. There are three ways to apply the cure. You can inject and this is the way most commercial manufacturers do it. You can do it the old fashioned way and mix up the ingredients and sprinkle it on by hand, but it is hard to get the right amount on this way. It is easy to apply too much or too little, and thick sections of meat need more than thin sections. Apply too much and it could make you sick. OR… you can use a wet brine because the ingredients are all dissolved and dispersed evenly, and they enter the meat evenly. No hot spots. As they move through the meat the seek equilibrium, so thick and thin get the same cure.

This is a two-step process. One step is to cure or corn the beef, and the next step is to cook it. You can make traditional corned beef and cabbage boiled dinner, you can make corned beef hash, you can make Reuben sandwiches. If you want, you can add two extra steps, smoke it and steam it to turn it into incredible pastrami. Mmmmmmm pastrami on rye…

Ingredients

  • About 8 pounds of beef brisket
  • 1 gallon water
  • 8 ounces salt, by weight
  • 3 teaspoons Prague powder #1
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 5 tablespoons pickling spices
  • 4 cloves garlic, smashed or pressed

Directions

1) Find a container large enough to handle 1 gallon of brine and the meat (you can cut it into pieces as small as 2 pounds). It must be non-reactive (stainless steel, glass, porcelain, Corningware, or food safe plastic). It cannot be made of aluminum, copper, or cast iron. Food grade zipper bags or Reynolds Easy Brining Bag for Turkeys work fine.

2) To make the cure/brine, mix all the ingredients except the meat in 1 quart very hot water. Add 3 quarts very cold water.

3) Take the meat and remove as much fat as possible from the exterior unless you plan to use some of it for pastrami. In that case, leave a 1/8″ layer on one side. Because corned beef is cooked in simmering water, the fat just gets gummy and unappetizing. But if you plan to then make pastrami from it, you will be smoking the meat and in that case the fat gets succulent and lubricates the sandwich.

4) Add the meat to the brine. It will float, so put a plate or bowl or another non-metallic weight on top of the meat until it submerges. The meat will drink up brine so make sure there is enough to cover it by at least 1″ or else you’ll find the meat high and dry after a few days. Refrigerate. Let it swim for at least 5 days, longer if you wish, especially if the meat is more than 2″ thick. You will not likely need more than 7 days, but once it is well cured, it can stay in the brine for several weeks. I don’t know the limit, but I’ve left it in there for a month. Move the meat around so touching parts get exposed to brine for the first week, and then you can ignore it. When you are done, the exterior of the meat will be pale tan or gray and if you cut into it, it should not look too different than normal raw meat, just a little pinker.

5) Now decide which path you want to follow. You can make traditional corned beef and cabbage boiled dinner, you can make corned beef hash, you can make Reuben Sandwiches, or turn it into Pastrami.