While the true authenticity of corned beef and cabbage as an Irish dish often comes into question, it is clearly a favorite choice of Americans celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. Traditionally pork was the preferred meat in Irish cooking due to its availability and low cost in Ireland. However, the price of pork in the United States was extremely high, causing the Irish newcomers to begin cooking more with beef. Living in close proximity with other ethnic groups, it is thought that Irish immigrants likely tasted corned beef from Jewish recipes and began preparing it in their homes in a stew-like fashion with low cost vegetables such as cabbage and occasionally carrots and potatoes. The flavorful corned meat added saltiness and seasoning to the more bland vegetables.
Corned beef remains relatively inexpensive, is easy to prepare and hard to overcook, making it a great choice for meals beyond your St. Patrick’s Day dinner or specials. Here we offer a little more insight into the cuts of meat used for corned beef and which is best for certain recipes. While many corned beef is sold pre-brined, our recipe from Chef-restaurateur Cathal Armstrong gives instructions on how to brine your own beef and offers some authentic tips and flavors from his Irish family heritage.
What is corned beef?
Technically a corned beef can be any cut of meat that's been brined in a solution of salt and various spices, and then prepared by baking or boiling. However, the best cut of beef to use is brisket. A brined but uncooked corned beef is known as a raw corned beef. When intending to order a corned beef brisket, many people mistakenly just ask for a brisket. It is important to make this distinction because while brisket is delicious, it tastes completely different if it's not brined.
Choosing a cut of meat
The brisket is taken from the cow’s front breast section, which means that this heavily exercised part of the cow typically yields a relatively lean cut of meat. Brisket is available in two types of cuts, a point cut and a flat cut.
Point Cut vs. Flat Cut
The point cut typically has more fat than the flat cut of meat. So depending on how you choose to prepare and serve your corned beef, the type of cut you choose will matter. Both types of cuts will need to be cooked slowly in a moist environment. Since the flat cut contains less fat, it will be a better meat for slicing and is more ideal for sandwich meat. The point cut will probably be best served as a shredded meat.
Make Ahead: The meat needs a total of 17 days to brine and cure. It can be refrigerated in its cooking liquid for up to 3 days. Reheat by cooking the meat in barely bubbling water until it's warm all the way through (about 20 minutes).
Where to Buy: Pink curing salt and/or Insta-Cure #1 are available through local butcher shops and various online purveyors..
For the brine and beef
2 qt. tap water, plus 2 qt. ice water
3/4 c kosher salt
1 Tbs pink curing salt, such as sel rose or Insta-Cure # 1
1/2 c light brown sugar
3 Tbs prepared pickling spice
One 5- to 7-pound full brisket (with deckle intact)
For the rub
3 large fresh bay leaves, torn into small pieces
9 cloves garlic, sliced or crushed
3 Tbs yellow mustard seed
2 Tbs coarsely ground black pepper
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp ground coriander
For the brine and beef:
Combine the 2 quarts of tap water, the kosher and curing salts, brown sugar and pickling spice in a large saucepan over high heat, stirring, until the salts have dissolved. Add the 2 quarts of ice water.
Pat the brisket dry with paper towels. Place the meat in a 2-gallon zip-top bag, then place the bag in a deep mixing bowl or stockpot. Pour the brine into the bag; seal, pressing out as much air as possible. The meat should be submerged. Refrigerate (in the brine) for 10 days.
Rinse the beef well, removing all trace of seasoning. Discard the brine. Blot dry the meat on paper towels.
For the rub:
Combine the bay leaves, garlic, mustard seed, black pepper, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cayenne pepper and coriander in a small bowl. Rub the mixture all over the meat; place the meat in a (clean) 2-gallon zip-top bag and seal, pressing as much air out as possible. Place the bag in a baking dish and refrigerate for 1 week, turning the bag over once a day. Each day, you’ll notice that more liquid has leached from the meat.
On the day you wish to serve the beef, place the beef and all its accumulated juices in a large pot. Add as much water as needed to submerge the meat. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium; cover and cook for 3 hours, until fork-tender but not falling apart.
Drain the corned beef, place it on a cutting board and wait for at least 15 minutes before cutting it into 1/2-inch thick slices.
Servings: 8 - 10
Adapted from "My Irish Table: Recipes From the Homeland and Restaurant Eve" via the Washington Post