The idea was first planted in my head after reading a post that SweaterMeat put up on Ugly Food Tastes Better back in November: corned beef. Fatty, salty, flavorful corned beef. Yum.
But then came the holidays and that thought got buried under a bunch of other food thoughts: pumpkin pie, bourbon pecan pie, rice congee with leftover roasted turkey, glazed ham, ham fried rice, almond cookies.
Then Jen over at Fresh and Fabulous put up her post about corned beef, and I thought, “Well, now I really got to get me some of that.”
The problem was that I didn’t have any corned beef . . . yet. I did have brisket from my CSA, and as Jen reminded me, corned beef is essentially brisket that has been brined with different spices. There is no corn in corned beef. The “corn” in question refers to the large crystals of salt that used to be rubbed into the meat to cure and preserve it for long voyages at sea.
Brining has pretty much replaced salt curing for making corned beef — which brings us back to Jen’s post in which she adapts Tyler Florence’s recipe for brining brisket. That recipe was very similar to the one I ended up adapting from Saveur, but the one in Saveur includes one other curious ingredient: pink salt.
Pink salt, as I found out in a panic as you will soon read, is not Himalayan Pink Salt. Himalayan Pink Salt is a very pretty finishing salt. Pink salt is also known as Prague Powder #1, and it is a combo of table salt + sodium nitrite.
It is dyed pink so you won’t mistake it for regular table salt and accidentally kill yourself.
Because sodium nitrite in not-so-large quantities is poisonous. But it also inhibits bacterial growth and botulism, making it a common food additive along with sodium nitrate.
I didn’t know any of this when I decided to brine my brisket for 5 days (most recipes that I have seen put brining time anywhere between a relatively safe 6 hours to 14 scary-sounding days — with 5-10 days being the most common).
Once, I accidentally over-brined a turkey and was left with a pretty toxic carcass whose smell was described to me as something that we have evolved to recognize as hazardous to our health.
So admittedly, I freaked out. Oh my gosh, I thought, I am going to eat this beef petri dish and die of botulism. Or listeria.
I googled everything: was it okay to brine brisket for 5+ days without the pink salt? Shouldn’t the salt solution inhibit bacteria growth without the sodium nitrite? Sodium nitrite is pretty nasty, did I really want to cook with it anyway? Was I going to die? Did the Pilgrims have sodium nitrite? Oh crap, tons of them died!
(from my neurotic ramblings, can you tell I live in New York?)
In the end, I put my trust in Michael Ruhlman (when in doubt . . .), who assured me that even though my brisket would probably not be pinky-pink, I certainly wasn’t going to die from botulism or listeria. Besides, Ruhlman said, any excessive bacterial growth would essentially be rendered harmless from prolonged exposure to heat, ie. cooking anyway.
And he was right. I didn’t die, Sharon didn’t die, and the corned beef was really, really good.
1 2-2.5 pound beef brisket, trimmed of any excess fat
1 1/2 teaspoons of whole allspice berries
1 1/2 teaspoons of whole cloves
1 1/2 teaspoons of whole coriander seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons of crushed red pepper flakes
1 1/2 teaspoons of whole mustard seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons of whole black peppercorns
3/4 cup of kosher salt
2 tablespoons of Himalayan Pink Salt (very optional, see above post)
1/2 cup of sugar
2 cloves of garlic
1 small onion, peeled and cut into large pieces
1 small head of Savoy cabbage, cored and shredded
2 tablespoons of butter
The juice from one lemon
Salt and pepper
1 lb of small potatoes, peeled
How to prepare:
1. Combine all the spices in a small skillet. Toast them over medium heat until they are fragrant. Be sure to swirl the pan constantly so that the spices do not burn. Transfer about 3/4 of the mixture to a 2-quart saucepan. Keep the remaining toasted spices in a tightly sealed jar in the refrigerator.
2. To the spices in the saucepan, add 4 cups of water, the salt, and the sugar. Bring everything up to simmer. Turn off the heat, and let the brine cool to the point that you can put it in the fridge to chill overnight.
3. In the morning, double up two gallon-sized Zip-loc bags. Position the trimmed brisket in the inner bag, and add all the brine. Squeeze out as much air as you can. Seal both bags. Arrange the bagged brisket in a large dish and refrigerate it for 5 days, turning it over every other day.
4. On the last day of brining, remove the brisket and rinse it off well. Put it in a large Dutch oven with the remaining toasted spices, the cut-up onion, and the garlic cloves. Cover the brisket with water and simmer it until it is tender. I only simmered mine for an hour, but really I could have cooked it for much longer. When the brisket is nice and tender, remove it to a plate and cover it with foil.
5. In the meanwhile, boil the peeled potatoes in a pot of salted water until they are easily pierced with a knife. Drain them and set them aside.
6. Put the cabbage in a large pot set over medium heat. Add the lemon juice, about 1/2 a cup of water, and 2 tablespoons of butter to the cabbage. Cover the pot and cook the cabbage, stirring every now and then, until it is tender. This should take about 30 minutes. Adjust the seasoning.
7. To serve, cut the corned beef into thin slices across the grain. Serve the slices warm, with a few potatoes and some of the cabbage. And as Jen points out, any leftovers make terrific corned beef hash!