Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Corning the beef

Saint Patrick's day is coming up next week on March 17th.  Traditionally, we have corned beef and cabbage on or around this day.  This year we decided to do something a bit different, we are making our own corned beef.

Linda was inspired by a recipe in the 2009 Spring Entertaining edition of Cooks Illustrated magazine.  I was inspired by an Alton Brown episode.  So, the question was:  Which recipe would we use?

Making corned beef is really pretty simple.  There are two basic methods:  
  1. A wet method where the meet is soaked in a brine with herbs and spices for a week to 10 days.  This is the method that Alton Brown used.
  2. A dry method where the meat is coated with a rub consisting of salt with herbs and spices for a week to 10 days.  This is the method that Cooks magazine used.
Other than wet vs dry, the biggest difference in the two recipes was the amount of herbs and spices.  Cooks magazine used 
  • salt
  • black peppercorns, cracked
  • dried thyme
  • ground allspice
  • paprika
  • bay leaves
Alton Brown included all of these, except the paprika, with the addition of
  • sugar
  • saltpeter
  • cinnamon
  • mustard seeds
  • whole cloves
  • juniper berries
  • ground ginger
According to the Cooks magazine, the taste testers liked the red color that the saltpeter imparts - but did not like the chemical aftertaste.

Both recipes called for a 4-6 pound piece of beef brisket.  Unfortuantely, this is not the time of year to buy brisket.  Memorial Day is when beef brisket tradionally goes on sale here in Texas - since it is the meat of choice for BBQ.  So, my choices were limited.  I couldn't find a single brisket that was in the 4-6 pound range - all of the briskets I found were either much larger or much smaller.  So, I opted for two smaller briskets - one about 2 pounds and the other about 3 pounds.

Having two briskets opened up a new possibility - I could try both recipes.  I started with the Cooks magazine recipe and mixed together
  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 1 Tbl ground black pepper
  • 1 Tbl dried thyme
  • 2-1/4 tsp ground allspice
  • 1-1/2 tsp paprika (I used a smoked hot paprika)
  • 2 bay leaves
I started grinding my own pepper using the pepper mill; but, my hand was getting tired.  So, I used about half fresh ground and half pre-ground black pepper.  Also, I picked the bay leaves fresh off of our bay laural tree; so, I couldn't crumble them.  Instead, I chopped them up finely with a knife.

Using a digital kitchen scale, I measured how much the rub weighed and then reserved 40% of it in a separate bowl.  The other 60% I rubbed onto the 3 pound brisket, after poking a bunch of wholes in it with a meat fork.  I then put it in a 1 gallon zip lock bag and squeezed out as much air as I could.

To the reserved 40% rub, I added
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 5 juniper berries
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger
I used the blender to grind the mustard seeds, cloves, and juiper berries and then added the other spices (including the reserved rub) to the blender to mix it all together.  I then rubbed this onto the 2 pound brisket, after poking it with holes, and put it in a 1 gallon ziplock bag.  This isn't quite like Alton Brown's recipe - since he used the wet brine method; but, I figured it should be very similar

Now my two briskets are sitting in our refrigerator - corning as we speak.  I will note that the additional spices in Alton Brown's recipe smelled more like what I think of with corned beef.  Not saying the Cooks magazine recipe won't be good - but I expect Alton Brown's version to taste more traditional.  Anyway, time will tell - I can't wait until this weekend when we can feast on our corned beef.

Cooking will be straight forward; although, I'm going to use the method in Cooks magazine.
  1. rinse the meat and pat dry 
  2. boil in water, covering the meat with about 1 inch of water (at least 8 quarts) for 2-3 hours
We've always cooked the cabbage and new potatoes along with the meat, adding them during the last 30 minutes of cooking.  But, the Cooks magazine testing noted that doing so makes it difficult to judge when the vegetables are done.  So, they recommend boiling the corned beef then removing it to a platter in a warm oven and cooking the vegetables in the reserved liquid.

Cooks magazine also seprates the vegetables into category 1 and category 2 - with the category 2 vegetables being added 10 minutes after the category 1 vegetables were started

Category 1 vegetables
  • carrots
  • rutabagas
  • turnips
  • new potatoes
Category 2 vegetables
  • boiling onions
  • green cabbage
  • parsnips
  • brussel sprouts
I'm not a big fan of rutabagas or parsnips; but, I do like a good turnip once in a while.  I like brussel sprouts - but it seems like overkill to have brussel sprouts with cabbage.  So, we'll probably just stick to our traditional cabbage, new potatoes, and carrots - with the possible addition of turnips (gee, I wonder if any in our garden will be ready by then?)


  1. Alton Brown's recipes tend to be much more in line with what I mentally expect from a particular food, but BOY are they complicated, and I find that I can usually fudge his recipes and get something tasty -and- in line with my mental expectations. (For Example: Juniper Berries? Where do you get those?!)

    And as for turnips and parsnips, I do like them...but I've learned the hard way that you ABSOLUTELY MUST PEEL TURNIPS. Boy are those things bitter if you don't!

  2. Any store that sells herbs and spices in bulk will likely have juniper berries - although, we already had them in our spice cupboard :)

    Those who know me probably wouldn't be surprised by that - we have a very well stocked spice cupboard, including 5 different kinds of paprika (regular, sweet, hot, smoked sweet, & smoked hot)

    Yes, Alton Brown's recipes can be complicated - but they are so worth it. His coconut cake recipe is to die for. I worship the ground he walks on :)