Homemade Corned Beef

Corned beef might seem like a difficult undertaking, but, really, it is very easy to make. It just takes a little time and most of that does not require much more than flipping the beef over every day. Corned beef is a chunk of beef that is brined in a salt solution with some added spices for about ten days or so before actually being cooked. It gets its name from the corns of grainy salt there were originally used in the brine that would preserve beef in the days before refrigeration. In the old days beef was corned for much longer periods of time and was often very salty and just as often rotten. It had a bad reputation that need not be continued today.

Corned beef and cabbage was a favorite with Irish American immigrants and is still eaten today on St Patrick's Day around the country. Under British rule the Irish countryside was used to produce beef that was corned and then shipped around the world in barrels. By the late 17th century huge numbers of cattle were processed and packed in Irish coastal cities for this market. It was a poor man's meat and used to feed slaves, seamen, soldiers and colonists, but the Irish themselves rarely got a taste as it was too expensive in Ireland for most to afford. When they began immigrating to America the Irish adopted it with relish. They were finally rich enough.

New Englanders also favor the meat, and the cultural dish has gained renown as the New England Boiled Dinner. In his book Trending Into Maine, Maine author Kenneth Roberts waxes nostalgic about corned beef hash made from the leftovers of a boiled dinner perhaps with the addition of some pickled beets to tint it into red flannel hash. John J. Pullen who wrote The 20th Maine also penned a comic piece on the correct preparation of the dinner in his The Transcendental Boiled Dinner. Its full of do's and don't's, history and scandal, and a strict time schedule for cooking each item on the list - which, by the way, cannot include onions.  Go figure. Mainers and New Englanders apparently do battle over boiled dinner recipes just the same as they do over chowder.

To make your own corned beef, first realize that you must start nearly two weeks before you expect to cook your dinner! Begin by shopping for a five pound chunk of beef. Brisket is commonly called for, but I've used about anything I could find that was cheap- brisket, eye of the round, rump- it has all been good. The Australians and Irish are partial to silverside or what we Americans' call a rump roast. Its hardly a premium cut; it has a tendency to be tough if not properly cooked and is often used for minute steaks. The silverside refers to a tough white connective tissue on the side. This would be my recommendation if you were shopping for beef to corn.

For the spice mix you will need small amounts of a variety of spices not commonly found in the modern spice cabinet. I pick up what I don't have on hand at my local health food store in the bulk section where I can measure out what I need in small quantities. 

3 bay leaves broken into small pieces
1 cinnamon stick also broken into pieces
1 1/2 teaspoons of mustard seed
1 1/2 tsp of black peppercorns
12-15 whole cloves
12-15 allspice berries
12-15 juniper berries
1/2 tsp ground ginger
a couple of smashed garlic cloves and 1 hot small pepper (I use Thai peppers) 
I use most of this mix and all the garlic in the brine but reserve about 1/4 of the spices for the actual cook pot.

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To make the brine, put 2 quarts of water in a cooking pot and add a cup of salt (Kosher or sea) and 1/2 cup brown sugar. Heat on high stirring until sugar and salt are dissolved. Cool until the brine reaches room temperature then chill in the refrigerator.

Some people add saltpeter or the pink fancy salt. This will give your beef the red hue that is prized by many. My version contains neither; nor does it contain any preservatives (other than the salt). However don't be surprised that your corned beef is grey not red.

Now you are ready to begin brining your beef. Put your spices in a 1 gallon ziploc bag, and put the bag in a large bowl or pan. This is very important! The bag loaded with meat and brine will be about as unwieldy as a water balloon with an opening from which brine can explode all over your kitchen. Take it from me; a container is necessary for support and corralling leaks and drips.

Rinse off your chunk of beef and put it in the bag. Next add the brine carefully. Keep the bag standing up right. Do NOT let it flop. Seal the bag and put the whole thing including the support vehicle in the refrigerator. The meat should remain submerged in the brine for the next 10-14 days. Turn it over everyday to mix things up a little.

Cooking your corned beef dinner is easy. Rinse the meat to remove some of the salt. Put it in a large pot and add water to cover, plus the remaining spice mix and a couple of smashed garlic cloves. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to a simmer for 3 to 3 1/2 hours. At two hours add a couple peeled onions. Later add a dozen peeled carrots and some turnip both cut into large pieces. Peel 6-8 smallish potatoes (or halve some larger ones) and add in the last 40 minutes or so. Finally add some cabbage cut in wedges to steam on the top for 20 minutes. I sometimes take the meat out a half hour early to make room for all the vegetables to finish cooking.  Cover and keep it warm.

Slice the meat thin across the grain. Serve with grated horseradish (not the saucy stuff) or mustard if you must. Pickled beets and Soda bread on the side are good. 

Some people cook their corned beef dinners in a roasting pan in the oven or, if they have one, a very large slow cooker.