I have never been overly fond of corned beef and cabbage, but like most part Irish-Americans I have usually made it on St. Patrick’s Day. One reason for this dislike was that—like most Americans—I would go to Safeway and buy the plastic package of bright red meat. This sour meat would be tossed in the pot with potatoes, carrots and cabbage to be boiled to death.
Last year, I discovered Whole Foods Wellshire Farms corned beef. This beef was not the bright red of “red dye no. 5,” but a rich brown. It was also sold covered with identifiable whole pickling spices—not an included “spice packet.” This was definitely not what I was used to and I was amazed at what a difference the choice of meats made—this was a corned beef worth eating.
In looking at recipes for corned beef and cabbage, the cooking times are all over the map. Some call for cooking everything in only an hour and a half. Others insist that nothing under 10 hours of cooking will do. In my experience brisket, the usual beef cut for corned beef, takes a long time to become tender. So my second decision was that a longer cooking time would be vital to a good corned beef.
The problem with this choice was that any vegetables added at the beginning would be cooked to sludge. This led to the decision that I would not cook everything in one pot. I know that my son-in-law, Chris—being from Boston—is a big fan of “New England boiled dinner,” but I am not. It was time for some deconstruction. I first moved the potatoes and cabbage to a separate side dish, colcannon, and I cooked the meat as a separate dish.
Last time I made a fairly complex sauce with a variety of vegetables to boosting the flavor. I decided that this time I would try something simpler. I wanted to taste the corned beef.
I decided to dispense with the thick layer of pickling spices—their flavors were already infused into the meat from weeks of pickling. Also, the brining liquid that comes with the meat is very salty. One problem that I had least year was that the reduced sauce was almost too salty to use.
Some fresh pepper and coriander would be good. A touch of herbs and spice, thyme and paprika. Also, some fresh aromatics would be nice—onion and garlic seemed like good choices. Finally, a Guinness as the braising liquid seemed like a logical choice—“Ach! You’re burning off the alcohol, you silly man!”
Since I was going to rinse off and dry the beef, browning the meat was the logical next step. The Maillard reaction would boost the beefy flavor. Braising would also allow the top of the meat to continue to brown and enhance the sauce’s flavor, but the fat cap would prevent it from burning.
After Dinner Note: This was a very successful meal. This corned beef was even better than last year’s. The beef was tender and spicy, without being sour, and the sauce was phenomenal. In addition to the colcannon, I also made a fresh cheese beer bread to go with this meal.
Karl’s Corned Beef
3-5 lb. Wellshire Farms corned beef
1 medium onion, finely diced (about 1 cup)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbs. black pepper corns
1 tsp. coriander seeds
1 tsp. paprika
½ tsp. thyme
1 can Guinness stout (14.9 fl. oz.)
1 green onion, top only, finely sliced
Note: You should plan to cook your corned beef for at least six hours, eight is better and ten is best). You may cook your corned beef in high heat, starting in the morning, but the best method is to cook it overnight in a very low oven. Once the meat is tender, you may cool it, de-fat your sauce, and then reheat the corned beef just before serving.
1. Rinse off the excess pickling spices and pat the meat dry with paper towels.
2. Use a sharp knife to cut a crosshatch pattern into the fat cap.
Tip: Cut down to the meat, but not too far in. How big your crosshatch is a matter of personal choice and patience. Some people use a one inch pattern, I prefer a half inch cut.
Note: Most beef brisket is sold with a ¼+ inch layer of fat on one side. Do not remove this before cooking or you meat may dry out during the long cooking time.
3. Brown the corned beef in a large Dutch oven, starting on the fat cap side.
Tip: The fat will start to render and provide the grease for browning your meat.
4. Remove the corned beef to a plate and spoon out all but two tablespoons of the grease.
5. Sauté the onions until they just starting to pick up some color, about eight minutes.
Tip: Normally I would add salt to sautéing onions. The salt causes the vegetables lose their moisture more quickly and starts the browning process. (See Maillard reaction). However, corned beef is so salty you do not want to add any extra salt.
6. Pull the onions to the edges of the Dutch oven and add the garlic.
7.Continue sautéing for 1 more minute and then mix the garlic into the onions.
8. Put the pepper corns and coriander seeds in a spice mill and give them a few pulses.
Tip: The point here is not to grind the pepper into a fine powder, but to have a few pepper corns remain whole.
9. Stir the paprika and thyme into the pepper mix.
10. Stir half of the spice mix into the onions.
11. Nestle the corned beef onto the onions—fat cap side up.
12. Pour a bit of the Guinness over the meat to wet the top.
13. Sprinkle the rest of the spices over the fat cap.
14. Add Guinness around the edges of the meat so that the liquid level comes half way up the meat.
Note: You do not want to wash the spices off of the top of meat or drown the meat in beer.
15. Bring the pot to a boil and put the lid on the Dutch oven.
16. Transfer the Dutch oven to a preheated 325° F oven.
Tip: While many cooks prefer to cook braises on the stove top, my personal preference is for the steady and surrounding heat of an oven.
Note: Many times when I use a Dutch oven I add a sheet of aluminum foil to prevent the loss of the cooking liquid to evaporation. In this case, I want my sauce to reduce to a thicker, richer sauce.
17. After 30 minutes of cooking, turn the meat over and return the pot to the oven.
18. Braise the meat for another 30 minutes and then turn the meat over a second time.
19. Reduce the oven temperature to 200º F and cook, covered, for at least eight hours.
20. Transfer the meat to a plate and tent with foil.
Tip: Be careful while removing the meat, as it will be falling apart tender.
21. De-fat the sauce and press it through a fine mesh strainer.
Tip: The onions will be almost completely dissolved at this point. You want the sauce and onion paste in your pot, but you would like to leave the chunky bits of spice behind.
22. Reduce your sauce to your desired consistence.
23. Slice your corned beef across the grain and lay it out on a oven-proof serving platter.
24. Set the platter in a warm oven for 10-15 minutes to reheat the beef.
25. Just before serving, spoon some of the sauce over the meat and garnish with some green onion.
Note: Serve the rest of the sauce on the side.