Corned Beef: Old School VS New School

This article is dedicated to my Uncle David Hancock Bealer 1929 – 2011. He passed away while I was working on this project at the age of 81 after a long battle with MS and Cancer. I’m honored that his last meal of solid food was a taste of the corned beef boiled dinner I prepared.

Back when I was just out of college, my mother Mary and her brother Dave had a wild idea over their daily coffee. They decided they would try making corned beef from scratch. I remember to this day the call with my mom asking what salt peter was and the call back telling her there were two types, Sodium Nitrate and the more common Potassium Nitrate.

It was quite a while till I got to taste some of that first batch. It was a revelation! The grocery store stuff was flavorless in comparison and I haven’t cooked any since then.  

My mom procured a small amount of potassium nitrate from the High School Chemistry teacher and a tradition was born. Subsequently, she purchased some through a local Pharmacy and we are still using that same bottle to this very day.

As time went by, I got a job much closer to home and so I participated for the first time about 12 years ago helping and learning from my mom and my uncle Dave at his home. Over the past 5 years as my uncle’s MS and my mother’s own health have deteriorated I’ve taken over the tradition with a little side seat help from them both.

This year I went at it with new found gusto due to #charcutepalooza. So far I’ve had three meals of corned beef and it’s not even Saint Patrick’s Day yet! We had a large family dinner, a small family dinner, and I even catered a party for a group of my mom’s friends. The best part is I’ve even convinced at least one person to try making it for themselves.

Old School:

My mom claims the recipe we’ve been using for years was adapted from The Molly Goldberg Jewish Cookbook. However, I’ve looked at some other cookbooks and found markers in them marking other corned beef recipes.  And if I remember right she cobbled together her own recipe for various amounts of beef. I’ll be using the instructions for 18 pounds here. 

You’ll need water, beef brisket, salt, brown sugar, pickling spice, bay leaves and garlic. For up to 18 pounds of beef (I’ve found its better to have a couple pounds less to account for evaporation during the long brining process), I started with 6 quarts of water which I boiled for 5 minutes in a large pot. To this I added and dissolved

2.5 cups kosher salt

1.5 teaspoons salt peter (Potassium Nitrate - KNO3)

1/3 cup dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons pickling spice

15 additional bay leaves

8 – 10 garlic cloves (depending on the size).

I cooled this to room temperature and then chilled outdoors.

In my shed, I arranged the beef in a large clean stoneware crock. For this batch I used a small whole brisket, two large flat ends, and a beef tongue totaling about 16 pounds.

Next, I carefully covered the beef with my pickling brine and then weighed it down with several inverted dinner plates.

As the process progressed, I removed and turned and rotated the meat each week looking for a couple of clues to let me know when the process was complete. During the first week, the color of the brine turned a reddish color and the surface of the meat turned from red to a greenish brown. Where the meat touched other meat or the surface of the crock it remained red. To expose these spots, I turned and rotated the pieces of meat repeating each week until finished.

After two weeks, the brine continued to darken while the surface of the meat was beginning to fade towards the pinkish hue one would expect with corned beef. The red areas where the meat is in contact are smaller as the meat was once again rotated and turned.

After three weeks, the pink color of the meat tells me it’s about done; however the surface is not yet uniform. There are still some spots where the pieces of meat touch that haven’t turned color yet and the gray brown color isn’t completely gone. When the surface is uniform do, I’ll cut into the thickest part and if the color is uniform, I’ll know it’s done.

After four weeks the thinner brisket flats are done, but I don’t see any harm in leaving them in another week. The thicker whole brisket and the beef tongue are possibly done too, but rather than cut into them and find discoloration, I’d rather give them the extra days. There is finally some light scum in the brine that has settled on the plate, but not as bad as what I’ve seen in the past. I think this may be due to the colder than normal weather. 

After five weeks, the corned beef is done and boy is it gorgeous! Look at the redness of the meat and the pinkness of the outer surface. After cutting each brisket in half, I trimmed the excess fat and vacuum sealed to freeze. I kept a piece to cook with the tongue I for a large family dinner.

You may be wondering why I brined for so long. From a chemistry standpoint, the Potassium Nitrate needs the more time so that it can turn into Potassium Nitrite (found in pink salt). As I understand it the potassium nitrate dissociates into K+ and NO3- ions, it has to be reduced to nitrite (NO2), which then forms the pink cured color in conjunction with myoglobin. This is what turns the color of the meat from the greenish brown to pink. 

New School:

This time I did it by the book using Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing. In a large pot I combined

1 gallon water

2 cups kosher salt

½ cup sugar (I used brown sugar for consistent comparison with the old school recipe)

1 ounce pink salt

3 garlic cloves minced

2 tablespoons pickling spice (the same used above plus extra bay leaves for consistency). 

After bringing to a simmer and dissolving the sugar and salt, I cooled the brine and chilled it. Next I arranged my brisket in a large plastic container and covered with the brine. I weighed it down to keep it submerged and refrigerated it for a week. As with the other process the brine darkened in color as the week went by. I didn’t notice any discoloration as I did with the other process


What I learned:

This method is much simpler and more practical for home use.

The uniform color in such a short time is a testament to using pink salt over saltpeter.

Since my meat was in two pieces, In the future, I would rotate the meat half way through the process.

There was a difference in flavor between the two methods, and the old school wins with a depth of flavor not achieved in a week.

In the future: I’d like to experiment with brining longer and adjusting for more spices using the pink salt to try to achieve the same depth of flavor I got in the longer saltpeter method.

Boiled Dinner:

3 to 5 lbs beef brisket or beef tongue

Enough water to cover beef

2 tablespoons pickling spice

1 to 2 new potatoes per person depending on size of potatoes

1 carrot or 4 – 5 baby carrots per person

1 small or ½ large white onion or several blanched and pealed pearl onions per person

1/4 to 1/8 cabbage wedge per person depending on the size

Bring beef and enough water to cover to a boil in a large pot and taste the water (if cooking tongue, remove and peel after boiling for several minutes). If the liquid is salty or to reduce sodium, drain and refill your pot to cover beef and add the 2 tablespoons pickling spice. Simmer beef and pickling spice for about three hours (add more water if needed to keep the meat covered).

You’ll know the brisket is ready if you can insert a carving fork and remove it with no resistance. If the meat comes back with the fork, it’s not ready yet (For the tongue plan on 3.5 hours). Now taste that liquid again! If it’s too salty add more water to taste- every bit that boils away concentrates the salt in the liquid (I typically only have to do this if cooking large amounts and typically during the portion where I’m cooking the vegetables).

If you have room, add the potatoes and cook till almost done, if not your can remove the beef and set it aside. Next, add the carrots and onions (if large cut through the stem and then trim the roots carefully to ensure the halves hold together). Try to time it so they are finished when the potatoes are done. I shoot for a soft onion and a slightly crispy carrot.

Finally cook the cabbage wedges (I’m careful to cut through the stem again so they hold together). Be careful not to overcook the cabbage. I typically add it to the liquid and when it comes back to a boil I give it about a minute and remove it.

If I’m cooking for a large group, I will cook all of this ahead. I cycle through each ingredient in this order except the cabbage and then refrigerate. To ready the meal I slice the meat and warm it in the oven with some of the pot liquor to keep it moist.  Next I reheat each ingredient in order in the pot liquor, cover with foil, and keep warm in the oven. Finally I cook the cabbage on the spot and serve.

To serve, accompany the corned beef with horseradish, mustard, or a combination of both (my favorite is a brown mustard with horseradish). In addition I like to have cornbread (for large groups I cook it in muffin pans). Beer bread or soda bread would also go well. Oh, and don’t forget a good beer! Guinness is always nice, but any dark full bodied beer will do.