We love house made corned beef and pastrami, fine examples of easy to make and highly satisfying charcuterie. I was somewhat dumbfounded when a reader noted “Why bother? It’s cheap to buy at the store?”
Weeeellllllll, the why bother part is because what you make at home will always, with a bit of practice and patience, be far superior to anything store bought. As for the cheaper part, I seriously doubt it, given that you can use very inexpensive cuts of meat, and the processing cost comes from your hands, not your pocket.
House made provides you the luxury of choosing the cut and origin of meat to use, as well as customizing your spice/pickling/corning blend. Just because the common version is corned beef doesn’t mean you can’t use venison, pheasant, moose, or elk; you can and should, in fact, and if some purist insists that what you made isn’t the real thing, well, all the more for us… And just as we all have favorites for BBQ rubs, you’ll develop a similar hankering for your own special spice blends for corning.
We hear a lot of questions regarding the term ‘corned’; it came into common use in the 16th Century and stems from the Anglo-Saxon word for grain or granule, referring to the salt used to cure or pickle. It’s a bit of a stretch, I know, but suffice it to say that ‘corn’ was a catch-all term for any local grain, and in a pinch, salt would qualify, (Sorry, couldn’t resist…)
The next most common question we hear is ‘What’s the difference between corned beef and Pastrami?’ The answer is, not as much as you might think. It has to do with the most common cuts used and the curing process. While either variety can be made with brisket or round, pastrami is sometimes made from the plate cut as well. As for process, either can be made by wet brining, though pastrami is fairly often done with a dry rub in the first stage of curing, then pepper crusted and lightly smoked. These are generalizations, of course; the end product varies as widely as the fancy of the makers.
Having grown up in Massachusetts, I am very fond of New England Boiled Dinner, that ethereal combination of corned beef, cabbage, potatoes and carrots, daubed liberally with fresh horseradish. If you’ve never tried it, you should. I also absolutely adore the Reuben sandwich, which, as blasphemous as it may sound, I make with either corned beef or pastrami.
If you get interested in the art of meat curing, AKA charcuterie, you’ll find a myriad of resources online and if you’d like a great reference volume to add to your cookbook library, check out Ruhlman and Polcyn’s Charcuterie.
So, all fact checking and history aside, how do you make this stuff? We’ll focus on corned beef this time and save pastrami for another day.
You’ll need a brine solution and a spice blend. If any or all of this seems overwhelming, go the easy route and grab a pre-blended pickling spice from one of the suppliers listed in our links; down the line, for all things pickling, you can and should do a bit of study and build your own signature blend.
The recipes here will work for a 2 to 3 pound corned beef; you can scale up or down as you like, but this is a very manageable starter size.
For the Brine:
1/2 Gallon nice, clean water
1 Cup Sea Salt, (Do not use iodized!)
1/4 Cup Dark Brown Sugar
3 teaspoons Curing Salt (AKA Pink Salt, or sodium nitrite)
2 Tablespoons Pickling Spice
Set water in a saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil. Toss in salt, sugar, curing salt and spices and boil until all granules are dissolved. Remove from heat, transfer to a mixing bowl and set over an ice bath for a rapid cool.
Once the brine has cooled to room temperature, place your meat in a glass container big enough to have it covered by at least an inch or two of brine. If you just don’t have a suitable container, you can use a doubled large zip lock bag.
Cover the meat with brine as noted above, at least an inch or two above the meat. If your cut tries to float, you’ll need to weigh it down so it remains completely submerged. If you go the ziplock route, squish all the air out and put the bags in a pan in case of a blowout.
Put your bounty into the fridge where it will live for the next 6 or 7 days. Make a note to self to flip the meat daily, to make sure everything gets a nice, even brine soaking.
On the appointed day, pull your corned meat out of the fridge, and rinse it gently in very cold water.
Put the meat into a pan just big enough to hold the cut. Cover with water to about 2″ above the meat. Add another tablespoon of your pickling spices to the pot, bring the heat up to high until you reach a rolling boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until fork tender, about 2 to 3 hours.
Remove the meat from the pot, set on a cutting board and allow to rest for at least 10 minutes before slicing. Your finished product will last a good 5 to 7 days in the fridge, (As if it’ll survive that long…)
Toss potatoes, onions, carrots and cabbage into your reserved boiling liquid until they’re just fork tender, and then enjoy that New England Boiled Dinner!
E & M