First published Oct 2014 on The History Girls.
Tinned meat has always been high on my ‘not on your nelly’ list and corned beef sat right at the top. But I stumbled across corned beef brisket while researching traditional Irish recipes and have wanted to have a go ever since.
For years I’ve been describing corned beef brisket as a typical Irish dish, then exported to the British and American navy and finally turned into the high salt/high fat tinned meat we see today. The name seems to originate from the ‘corns’ of salt used in the brine to preserve the beef. It is very important to make sure the basic components of this solution are correct but with the right proportions of water/salt and nitrate the rest – as they say – is up to you. Most of the recipes found online are American and I adapted one from Mr Alton Brown.
The science-ey bit.
The salt and saltpeter in this recipe have a curing effect on the beef, changing the texture and flavour of the meat. This is NOT a method of preservation which allows long term storage and brining should always be done in the fridge. PLEASE NOTE : saltpeter is highly toxic in large amounts and should be stored with this fact in mind.
Mothership recipe for brining meat
2300ml fresh water
11/2 cups of large flaked salt (I used Maldon salt)
1/2 cup of soft brown sugar
2 flat tbsp of food grade saltpeter
Any combination of spices you fancy trying. Suggestions might be cinnamon, mustard seed, peppercorns, clove, allspice berry, juniper, bay and ginger. Whole spices work best.
Mix all of the above in a large pan, bring to the boil and simmer, stirring until everything has dissolved. Take off the heat and stir in 2lb of ice. Place the whole thing in the fridge and chill right down. It can be left overnight if desired.
And now for the beef. This is where the cross cultural reference comes in. The red meat was expensive and in short supply in the 18th century. As an average peasant the only meat you were likely to get your hands on was pork. Then the opportunity came for a new life in North America and Irish citizens took their penchant for salted pork with them. Once in America Irish immigrants found themselves lacking in pork and rubbing shoulders with Jewish neighbours who were producing a Kosher salt beef brisket. Due to a proliferation of beef herds in Ireland at about the same time, the British started producing the same product back in the Emerald Isle and so the relationship with Navy ships began!
Meat for corning
For my first attempt I decided to stick with beef, but shall be trying this process with pork next time. You need a joint of around 4-5 lb and cut into two. Place each piece of meat in a large resealable freezer bag and divide the brine between the two bags. Ensure the meat is totally covered and press all of the excess air out before sealing. Stand in a suitable container and cure for a minimum of 10 days, giving the bags a good squish around everyday to keep the solution circulating about the meat.
So now you have a piece of cured salt beef! But what to do next? Cooking instructions are exactly the same as any other piece of brisket. Add whole small carrots, cabbage quarters and potatoes into the broth at the end to serve in a traditional sense. Or for an American sandwich serve cool, shredded and stuffed between doorstop chunks of bread and lots of mustard.