Sunday was St. Patrick’s Day, and around here that means corned beef and colcannon. Daughter Miriam is off onions and garlic—although she has recently been OK with just a little green onion (see colcannon without garlic and onions). For this meal, I adapted my regular corned beef for one adapted to my daughter’s needs. Most recipes for corned beef include onions and frequently garlic. I decided to replace these aromatics with celery and carrots.
Nearly all corned beef is meat—usually beef and frequently the brisket—that has been pickled in a brine of salt (1-2 cups), potassium nitrate (aka saltpeter) or sodium nitrite (aka pink curing salt/Prague Powder), sugar and spices for 5-10 days. Brisket is usually sold in two different cuts. First cut has a flat rectangular shape about 1½-2 inches thick—including a wide fat cap. The second cut tends to be a less attractive, irregular piece of meat that can be up to 4 inches thick and may taper towards one end—the fat cap may also be similarly uneven.
While nitrate/nitrite prevents the development of botulism bacteria and giving the corned beef its distinctive pink color. There is a debate over the value of using these possibly carcinogenic chemicals as a meat preservative. While there might be a slight risk of stomach cancer, the more definite danger of food poisoning and the newly discovered health benefits of these chemicals far outweigh the perceived risks.
Note: In reality, 80 % of the nitrates in your diet come from vegetables. I, personally, do not like nitrates in corned beef, because of the metallic taste they impart to the meat in the quantities they are used in the pickling process.
My preferred corned beef is from Wellshire Farms. Instead of the bright pink of most corned beef, it is more brownish. In examining the label, I found that it is really “New England corned beef,” beef that has been processed without nitrates or nitrites.
The processing of corned beef leaves you with a very salty piece of meat that requires a very long cooking time to make it tender. While many people use this meat to make New England Boiled Dinner—which allows the potatoes to absorb the excess salt—many people like to braise the meat. However, if you do not “de-salt” your corned beef first, the braising liquid becomes too salty to eat. An effective way to remove the salt is to soak the meat in fresh water for several hours before starting your braise.
A risk with this de-salting method—especially with nitrate/nitrite free beef—is the danger of botulism. With nitrated corn beef you may safely soak the meat for 72 hours. However, with New England corned beef, I would not recommend doing this for more than 12 hours in the refrigerator. Rinse off any pickling spices that come with the commercial corn beef and then change the soaking water several times to get the best results.
Recipes are all over the map as far as how long you need to cook corned beef. The meat will be tender enough to chew in two hours, but if you want meltingly tender beef you need to give it longer. For me I have found that starting the day before the meal and braising the meat for 10 hours works well.
I start this meal two days before serving. The first day I soak the meat to remove the salt. The second day I cook meat to tenderness, and then chill it. On the day I am serving, I slice the meat and then reheat it just before dinner. This method allows you prepare your main dish the day before and to chill and de-fat the sauce. A second advantage of letting the meat go cold is that the corned beef is easier to slice.
Karl’s Corned Beef without Garlic and Onions
3-5 lb. Wellshire Farms corned beef
2 tsp. coriander seeds
1 tsp. whole mustard seeds (brown or yellow)
10 whole cloves
5 whole allspice berries
2 tsp. black peppercorns, separate uses
1 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. thyme
¼ tsp. celery seeds
2 stalks celery, finely diced
1 large carrot, grated
1 can Guinness stout (14.9 fl. oz.)
1. Rinse the corned beef well removing any old spices.
Note: Discard any brine.
2. Completely submerge the meat in a pan of cool water, cover, and refrigerate.
Tip: The idea here is to leach out as much salt as possible.
Note: A chemical, like salt, “wants” to distribute evenly throughout any solution that it is in—a piece of meat is simply a denser part of the liquid. When you brine something, there is more salt in the liquid than in the meat and the molecules pushes their way in to evenly distribute the salt. When you put a salty piece of meat into clear water you reverse the process. The salt escapes to the liquid that is less salty, “trying” to even things out.
3. Change the water every few hours and continue desalting as for long as you have time.
Tip: Up to 72 for corned beef with nitrates/nitrites or 12 hours for New England corned beef.
4. Put the coriander seeds, mustard seeds, cloves, allspice berries, one teaspoon of the black pepper, paprika, thyme, and celery seeds in a spice grinder and process them to a coarse powder, about one minute.
Note: You will be adding the rest of the pepper—cracked—just before serving your corned beef.
5. Melt the butter in a large Dutch oven and sauté the celery and carrots, over a medium high heat, until they are just starting to pick up some color, about five minutes.
Note: Normally I would add salt, at this point, to speed this process, but with corned beef I do not want to add any unnecessary salt.
6. Sprinkle the ground spices over the vegetables and cook stirring for 1-2 minutes to warm the spices.
7. Stir in the Guinness and bring the pot to a boil.
Tip: You do not want the meat to be completely submerged. If you are using a first cut brisket you may want to only add half of the can to start, adding the rest of the can later as the liquid level drops.
8. Dry off the corned beef with paper towels and nestle it—fat cap down—into the pot.
9. Put the Dutch oven into the oven and broil on high for 25-30 minutes, until the lean side of the meat is well browned.
Tip: The meat should be 6-8 inched from the heating element.
Note: You could brown the meat in the Dutch oven before you sauté your onions. I find this difficult and messy, with a great risk of burns. It is much easier, neater, and safer to use the broiler to brown your meat when necessary.
10. Flip the meat over— fat cap up—turn the oven switch to bake, and reduce the heat to 275º F.
Note: At this point, you need to be very careful in handling your piece of meat. Use large spatulas to gently turn the meat over. If you try to pick it up with tongs if may shred into pieces.
11. Bake, uncovered, for an additional 30 minutes.
12. Place a sheet of aluminum foil over the pot and seat the lid on tightly.
Tip: The foil help to make a better seal on the pot, trapping the steam under the lid and reducing liquid loss during the long baking time.
13. Continue baking for 1-10 hours.
Tip: The longer the better.
Note: After two hours check the liquid level and add more Guinness or water to keep the meat partially submerged.
14. Transfer the corned beef to a plate and wrap it in aluminum foil.
15. Refrigerate your meat until an hour before dinner.
Tip: You want your beef cold enough to easily slice across the grain without shredding, a minimum of one hour.
16. Transfer the sauce to a bowl and let the fat float to the surface.
Tip: If you are refrigerating your meat and sauce overnight, the fat will congeal on the surface and be easy to remove in the morning.
Note: Remove any fat that you consider “excess,” while fat equals flavor, to each their own diet plan.
17. An hour before dinner, slice the cold corned beef and loosely wrap it the aluminum foil.
Tip: The slices of meat will never be stronger than when they are cold. Spread the slices out attractively before wrapping them up in the foil.
18. Set the foil wrapped beef in a 300º F oven until just before serving.
19. While the beef is reheating, put the sauce in a blender with process until smooth.
Tip: Taste the sauce. If it is too salty you may add some raw potato to the blender before processing.
Note: As you reheat the sauce, the potato will absorb the salt and it will taste less salty. it will also act to thicken the sauce.
20. Transfer the sauce to a small pot and cook over a medium heat until it has thickened, about 10 minutes.
Tip: Do not over reduce the sauce—even with the de-salting process, reducing it too much will enhance the saltiness.
21. Open the foil packet and gently slide the corned beef onto a serving platter.
Tip: The beef is very breakable at this point, so be very careful in transferring it to the plate.
Note: If you think that the corned beef will not survive the transfer without turning into chipped beef, roll the edges of the foil under and place the whole foil packet on the plate—see the photo.
22. Pour some of the sauce over the meat and
Tip: You may garnish with parsley or green onion if you wish.
23. Serve warm.
Note: Put the remaining sauce in a bowl, to be spooned over the meat as the dinners desire.