A Century ago, New Englanders had practical reasons for making corned beef. As winter approached they'd butcher a whole animal--and then they'd have to do something with all that meat.
Corning meat (the term arose because salt appears in grains or corns) really means pickling it, not with vinegar but with salt and seasonings. Corning made tough meat edible and it made it last, so meat from an animal slaughtered in November could be savored by the family in March.
These days, with our meat grinders and meat tenderizers, toughness is not a problem, and with just about any cut we want from animals freshly butchered every day, there's not much motivation to preserve beef. Economy as well as preference might make one choose a brisket, the cut traditionally used for corned beef, over a more tender steak or roast of beef, since briskets can cost $1 per pound less than, say, round steak. But to corn that brisket takes time. And ironically, you can buy packaged corned beef these days--cuts that have been pickled but still need cooking--for as little as 10 cents a pound over the price of the fresh brisket for sale at the same store.
So why corn your own beef? For the fun of it, and for the flavor. And for the healthfulness, because any beef bought already corned by a processor has been packed with sodium nitrate, which has been found to combine with proteins to form carcinogenic nitrosamines. But despite the fact that many cookbook recipes for home-corned beef call for saltpeter (potassium nitrate), a piece of beef carefully corned, cooked and eaten in a matter of weeks won't need that treatment, says Virginia Tech food technologist Robert Kelly.
In days gone by, when beef would stand in pickling juices for months, nitrates had a purpose. Settlers would use them in the form of saltpeter, potassium nitrate, readily available since it was essential to gunpowder. Since nitrates are anti-oxidants, they prohibit rancidity and discourage botulism from developing. When beef was cured in a crock in the shed, where it stood through months of uncontrollable changes in temperature, such precautions had their value. But nowadays, if a cook stores corned beef for a week or two in the home refrigerator, the dangers against which nitrates were used should not arise.
Meat packers still use nitrates today, as they should, according to Kelly, to guard against spoilage that might arise from inconsistent handling, temperatures, and aging over which they have no control. They also use nitrates for cosmetic reasons: nitrates keep meat looking red. And some people feel they improve the flavor of meat.
But a home test, corning a brisket with and without saltpeter, following the very same recipe otherwise, resulted in no perceptible difference in flavor and texture between the two pieces of meat. The nitrate-treated beef did show a shade more red than did the meat corned without it, but that red wasn't compelling enough, nor was the other meat's gray repulsive enough, to warrant using a substance potentially dangerous in other ways.
To corn your own beef, first find a good brisket. This is a flat, thick piece of meat, cut from the animal's lower front ribcage. The entire brisket runs to eight or nine pounds in weight, but trimmed of fat it might weigh only four or five. Many groceries now cut their briskets into one- to two-pound pieces, since the larger ones are in less demand. A two-pound brisket will feed two to four people; you may have to special-order a larger brisket for more.
Choosing the right dish in which to corn your beef is important, because you must find a way to keep the meat from floating and keep the top relatively airtight. Depending on the size of your brisket, a stainless steel mixing bowl or a covered glass casserole can work well. The top of the casserole may be inverted so that its handle helps hold the meat down; the mixing bowl should be fitted with a plate and, under that, a cup or saucer that pushes down on the meat but lets the plate sit flat upon the bowl, sealing tightly. Choose dishes that are impervious to salt and bacteria--glass, uncracked enamel, stainless steel, but not aluminum or other corrosive metals. Use the same care and cleanliness that you would in canning food.
The brisket usually has a coating of fat, but the less fat, the better the corned beef. Trim off most of the fat and rinse off the meat. Pierce it with a large fork to open up channels for the salt to penetrate. Coat the meat thoroughly with coarse, food-grade salt (not rock salt) all around.
The salted meat can stand covered in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours, or you can use it right away. A pickling solution of warm water, more salt, sugar, garlic and spices will flavor the meat. Submerge the meat completely, cover tightly and refrigerate. Some recipes, dedicated to corning as a storage process, will tell you to leave the meat thus submerged for many weeks, even months. But if you're just interested in flavor (and if you want to taste it as soon as you can), leave the beef to corn in the refrigerator for anywhere between five and 14 days.
The longer you leave it, the saltier and more tender it will become. Seven to 14 days seems to produce the best-tasting corned beef. Leaving it longer than two weeks will require more careful attention to potential spoilage; leaving it less than one week doesn't give the solution time enough to change the flavor and texture of the meat.
When you've let the meat pickle long enough, take it out of solution, discard the liquid, and rinse the meat thoroughly. Let it stand in a pan of cold water for 15 to 20 minutes. Put it into a saucepan or kettle and pour boiling water over it, more than needed to cover it. Bring the water to a simmer, then leave it barely simmering, covered, until the meat feels tender to a fork. Larger cuts will of course take longer, and the longer the meat's been corning, the less cooking it seems to need. A two-pound brisket needs one and one-half to two hours; a four-pound brisket needs at least three.
The broth produced by this final simmer will have a wonderful, rich, rather salty flavor. Traditionalists will want to use it to boil potatoes, carrots and cabbage for New England boiled dinner. Those who would rather use the meat on its own, for sandwiches or an entree served otherwise, can freeze the tasty stock for soup later on. NEW ENGLAND BOILED DINNER (4 servings) Corned beef (recipe below) 5 potatoes 8 carrots 4 turnips (optional) 4 parsnips (optional) 1 head of cabbage, cut into wedges Hot horseradish for serving
Follow recipe for corned beef below. When meat is tender, remove it from liquid. Cover and keep warm. Scrub or peel potatoes and carrots, turnips and parsnips if desired. Cut into middle-sized chunks and add to simmering corned beef broth. When potatoes are almost done, bring smaller pan of water to a boil and add wedges of cabbage. Bring to a boil and cook until barely tender. Drain all vegetables, saving stock, and arrange them, along with corned beef, on a serving platter. Serve with horseradish. HOME-CORNED BEEF (4 servings) 2-pound beef brisket 2/3 cup coarse, food-grade salt 1/2 cup brown sugar 3 to 5 garlic cloves 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper or black peppercorns 1 teaspoon pickling spices
Rinse and pierce meat. Roll in salt to cover thoroughly. Line bottom of dish chosen for corning beef with salt. Place meat in it, then sprinkle more salt on top. Dissolve remaining salt and sugar in 1 quart lukewarm water. Sprinkle crushed garlic cloves, pepper, and spices over meat. Pour salt and sugar solution over meat. Add more lukewarm water if needed to immerse meat totally. Secure dish cover, being sure that meat lies well beneath surface of liquid. Place in refrigerator for 5 to 14 days (optimal length of time: 10 days). Remove meat from pickling liquid, rinse and soak in cold water 15 to 20 minutes. Place in large saucepan, cover with fresh boiling water and keep at low simmer approximately 2 hours or until meat is tender to the fork. END-OF-WINTER VEGETABLE SOUP
Save the remaining stock from the vegetables and cabbage cooked for the New England dinner above. Either chop leftover vegetables and meat into broth or, if none is left over, add bite-sized chunks of vegetables to stock and simmer until tender. Might need pepper, but doesn't need salt!