Monday, March 18, 2013

Aye and Begorrah – Corned Beef from Scratch

Welcome, again, Guest Blogger No Handle with a seasonal delight:

Irish Corned Beef

Corned Beef is an iconic Irish dish, and since I am more than half Irish, and have Grandparents who literally came over on “the boat” from Ireland, it is a bit odd that I haven't attempted this before. My (Irish) uncle John made it every year. The recipe I used, and one of the harder-to-find ingredients, comes from a family friend who is more German than anything, and who prepares it for Christmas parties. The Celts passed through German territory on their meandering migration that ended in Ireland, so maybe that's it. She owns the Back Forty bar in Mountain Home, AR where several of my distant relatives also live. Stop by if you are in the area (Branson is just up the road). Thanks Opal!

Aside from obtaining one ingredient, this is not at all a difficult dish to prepare, but it does take some time (about 2 weeks, although another recipe from the Food Channel says it can be done in 10 days). To drop the suspense, the one ingredient is called salt peter, or potassium nitrate. It preserves the color of the meat over its long stay in the corning solution, which is essentially a brine. See my earlier blog on brining a turkey for a shorter brining effort. Where that brine used separate spices, this one calls for Pickling Spices (the salt peter was (inaccurately) labeled Pickling Salt, when I finally found it in a spice store in Boulder, CO had a nice pink color) which includes many of the spices from brining, plus a few more that deliver a wonderful aroma that fills the house when they are being heated. It is a delightful promise of things to come.

There are five ingredients that go into the corning solution, including the Pickling Spices and Salt. While they are heating, chop the garlic cloves into slivers, and insert them at intervals into the beef; puncture the meat with a paring knife to make it easier. I'm not sure that the Irish are that big on garlic, but I am so the recipe suites me fine. Once the solution has cooled somewhat (The Food Channel recipe calls for addition of ice. I am more patient and just let it sit on the counter for a while.) place the beef and solution into a 2-gallon plastic zipper bag or shallow pan.

The recipe calls for weighting down the beef in a shallow container and covering it with muslin, but the plastic bag approach is easier. In either case, the mixture goes into the refrigerator for about two weeks. Since corning is an old method of preserving meat, I suspect it could stay for months with no ill effect.

…. time passes ….

The big day has arrived, so remove the beef from the solution, which you can discard, and rinse it thoroughly. Remove the garlic slivers too. The spices have already been soaked into the meat, and the salt is mostly on the outside. It was needed for osmosis (encouraging the spices to enter the meat tissue), kind of like the way a water softener works. Put the meat in a largish Dutch oven. Le Creuset is nice, but there are good enameled cast iron pots out there for a more reasonable price. Check Macy's and Costco.

Cover it with fresh cold water, and add the vegetables.

I included carrots, even if the recipe doesn't call for them (another did). Put the pot, covered, on the stove on a back burner and bring to a boil, then reducing the heat to medium low to simmer for a few hours. Your patience will be rewarded. After three hours the meat should be falling-apart tender (no bones, so falling-off-the-bone tender doesn't apply), and ready to serve. Slice thinly across the grain and plate.

As the big day approached, I decided to go the distance and cook the full "boiled dinner" of corned beef and cabbage. It meant getting a few more vegetables and adding some pickling spice to the water, to season the vegetables. This requires adding the vegetables in stages, with potatoes, carrots, onion, and celery going in first, followed closely by the cabbage.

I removed the vegetables and cooked the beef a little longer because it didn't seem tender enough. I also transferred the beef and vegetable mixture to a larger pot when the cabbage went in, because my Dutch oven was a bit small (6 quart) and the mixture need a lot more space. Without the cabbage it was just big enough. The end result was delicious, and by adding the pickling spices at the beginning of the boil, the aroma filled the house. Yum! As you can see, adding salt peter did retain a lovely red color throughout the corning and cooking period.  

There seems to be a tradition of rewarding your salt peter provider with a serving, since he or she is a local, and the stuff is so hard to find that you are grateful, and want to show that gratitude. Also, it's just nice to share. So, pass on the green beer and enjoy this Irish (and sometime German) specialty.

Irish Corned Beef - The Recipe
4 quarts water
One half cup kosher salt
1 Tablespoon sugar
2 Tablespoon pickling spice [I used McCormick]
One half ounce salt peter
8 bay leaves
5 lb beef brisket
8 cloves garlic
2 onions
2 stalks celery
Combine first 6 ingredients in saucepan (or large kettle). Bring to boil and cook for 5 minutes. Place brisket (trimmed of as much fat as possible) stuffed with the garlic, in a non-metallic container. Cover with cooked broth, and weigh down to keep covered. Cover with muslin (or plastic wrap) and refrigerate for 2 weeks. An alternative is a two-gallon plastic zipper freezer bag; press the air out.
To cook: Rinse thoroughly to remove brine. Place in kettle with onions [carrots] and celery. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and cook for about 3 hrs until tender. Drain and slice crosswise.
Salt peter maintains the color, and may be gotten at the pharmacy. [If you have a “corner drug store"], else at your local spice shop, or search for Humco Saltpetre granular on the web (more expensive). The Humco product is white. Farm stores are another possibility.

Additions (Corned Beef and Cabbage)
1 Tablespoon pickling spice
2 lbs. Potatoes (I used reds, peeled and cubed)
2 lb head of cabbage (I used about 3/4ths of it; cole slaw anyone?)
3 medium carrots, sliced
3 bay leaves (I cheated and used the ones from the corning solution)
After the beef has cooked about 2 1/2 hours, add the onion, celery, carrots, and potatoes. Bring to a boil again, and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the cabbage, return to a boil, and simmer for an additional 15 minutes. Remove the bay leaves and serve immediately.

Thanks No Handle! Will have to try this myself sometime. Dear Reader, it would be so nice if you would comment so that No Handle, our Denver favorite, gets some feedback. I think he did a grand job.


  1. WOW. Wow, wow, wow.
    All of those steps - and weird chemicals. Who knew!? I thought it was just red because... it was, cured. Like salami or something. (Clearly, I do not know much from beef.)

    This is clearly a labor of love.

  2. Anonymous6:42 PM

    Lots of steps, but dead simple. And yes, a labor of love. Thanks for your thoughts, NoHandle.

  3. Anonymous8:16 PM

    Dark rye bread, homemade corned beef, swiss cheese, sauerkraut, mustard .... yum!