Corned Beef from Scratch (Slow Cooker Instructions)
On my food bucket list has been a want to make corned beef from scratch. Wandering the aisles of grocery stores in the months preceding St. Patrick’s day, the pink briskets soaking quietly in their own juice hugging a small packet of pickling spices in Cyrovac pouches mystified me. I wondered how they were made, if I could do it myself, and if I could somehow improve upon their flavor. The answers: patiently, absolutely, and yes!
Corned beef : A Jewish Meat?
I begin with a little history on corned beef and why I argue it’s not strange for me to make it in September. The corned beef that Americans typically associate with Irish cuisine is actually Jewish. Yes, that’s right! While “corned beef” is a dish in the UK, it is not the pink brisket marketed with green beer of St. Paddy’s day tradition. It’s a salted beef with a gray color out there. American-style corned beef can be found in Ireland, but it’s marketed toward tourists looking for their familiar idea of “Irish.”
How did the Jewish corned beef get associated with the Irish? The Irish immigrants were faced with prejudice (much like many ethnic immigrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries). They settled into urban areas like New York City nearby other the other immigrants faced with many of the same challenges: the Jews. Being both Jewish and of Irish descent, I love this!
Traditionally, the Irish of that time had eaten a lot of pork. However, upon arrival in New York City and settlement near the Jews, the Irish began to buy their meats almost exclusively from kosher butchers. Clearly their preference for pork was problematic so the Irish began to eat more beef. The Jewish answer to ham, Corned Beef, was flavorful and made for a great treat for the Irish-American’s celebratory meal on St. Paddy’s day. Back in Ireland, the Irish feast on St. Paddy’s has a religious connotation, together with a meal of lamb or bacon. In America, the Irish celebrate the day as an honor to their heritage. Their feast is crowned with their new splurge, Corned Beef, together with their culinary symbol–the potato.
Now to share the process of how beef becomes “corned!”
Making corned beef from scratch : 5 tips
Corned beef is simply a pickled, brined beef. The word “corned” refers to the process of preserving meat in salt water. Corned beef is usually a brisket cut (is there any meat more Jewish than brisket?). Traditionally, the brine contains kosher salt, brown sugar, Prague power or saltpeter (a nitrate), cinnamon, mustard seeds, black peppercorns, cloves, allspice berries, juniper berries, bay leaf, and ginger. Goodness, no wonder it’s so flavorful! Perhaps, however, you stopped over the word “nitrate” above. In today’s conscious eating trends, I wouldn’t doubt you thought to yourself, “that cannot be good for you.”
And you’re right. Nitrate is not good for you. The container itself warns to use it with caution. You will not get ill from it, however, unless you eat it in high doses. This is true of many foods and, if you are one who enjoys the occasional glass of wine or alcoholic drink, you have no reason to fear nitrate any more than your libation. However, if you are really concerned about nitrates in your food, you can certainly leave it out. Your corned beef won’t suffer in flavor. The nitrate is used as a preservative and results in the classic pink color we associate with corned beef. With that, here are my five tips:
1. For a satisfying-ly pink brisket, don’t skip the nitrates.
The Prague powder (nitrate) is, contrary to popular misunderstanding, not bad for you if used in small doses. If you, like me, envision corned beef as a magically pink color you cannot skip this ingredient. However, if you’re thinking to yourself that you don’t give a d*%& about the color and are worried about potential health effects of ingesting nitrate–even at safe levels–leave it out. It will not affect the taste, but you will have a gray colored brisket. While you’re at it, definitely pour that beer down the sink too, as it’s just as dangerous at high levels as the nitrate. If you buy your brisket instead of making the corned beef from scratch and it’s pink–surprise!–it contains nitrates.
2. Be patient: brine the beef for at least 10 days (maybe 5).
You could brine it for just five days (no less!), but 10 days is the best amount of time to ensure even coloring and to get the flavor all the way through your brisket. For a smaller brisket, however, five days would have the same effect.
3. For Paddy’s sake, do not use that brine for cooking.
I made the mistake of taking my brisket out of the brine, placing it in the slow cooker, and pausing before I added water to the pot. I thought, why would I pour this brine with all the seasoning down the sink? Wouldn’t it be better to use this as my cooking liquid? I thought I was so smart. WRONG. Oh, so wrong. The resulting meat was much too salty and tasted something akin to a swimming pool. Not appetizing.
4. Do cook your vegetables in the pot only at the last 1-2 hours of cooking.
Unless you like mushy vegetables, cooking the carrots and potatoes for the entire 4-5 hours is not advised.
5. Serve your corned beef sliced very thinly, whether you decide to serve alone or in a sandwich.
Sharpen your knives, folks, because this brisket is best served thin. Trust me on this, the texture is so much more pleasant! Mmm, yum!
So, fear not if you find yourself with a craving for corned beef before St. Paddy’s Day rolls around. Not only does it make a perfect fall stew, it’s perfectly Jewish. Plus it’s totally rewarding to make your corned beef from scratch! Eat your Rubens and “Irish Stew” with reckless abandon and find yourself in the good company of many others.