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In my grandfather’s day, you could get world-class corned beef from a half-dozen delis and meat markets up and down Delancey Street in New York City. But how did Irish corned beef get from the Emerald Isle to New York-style delicatessens?
Cooking authority Darina Allen says the Irish have been corning beef since the 11th century. The term “corned” comes from the medieval word for a large kernel of salt. The coarse rock salt used by butchers had grains roughly the size and shape of barleycorns, and these “corns of salt” gave rise to the name “corned beef.” The Irish mainly ate pork and mutton, reserving beef in all forms for special occasions. Though the English established huge cattle farms in Ireland when they conquered the nation in the 12th century, legislation in the 1660s forbade the export of live Irish cattle to England. Irish beef prices plummeted, forcing the nation’s meat merchants to salt-cure their surplus inventory to keep it from spoiling.
Irish corned beef became big business. It fed sailors in the Royal Navy, foot soldiers in Wellington’s army, and armies of slaves on Caribbean plantations. It was exported to Colonial America and to British outposts in India, Africa, and Asia. Dublin, Cork, and Belfast grew rich on a corned beef industry that literally fed the world.
But sadly, corned beef was too expensive for the average Irish farmer or factory worker. Common folks wouldn’t start eating corned beef in substantial quantities until the mid-1800s, when refugees from the Irish Potato Famine settled in New York City. Wages were higher in the U.S., and beef was plentiful, which meant these Irish immigrants could now afford a meat that had been financially off-limits for centuries. The Irish had long been corning beef, but not necessarily brisket. They adopted the latter from their Jewish neighbors on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Today’s corned beef differs dramatically from its Irish namesake, but its popularity hasn’t waned over the centuries.
Classic Corned Beef Recipe
What follows is a traditional corned beef that’s surprisingly easy to prepare. Think of corning as brining, with the addition of pickling spices. If you can stir and boil water, you can make corned beef, but you do need to plan ahead. Namely, figure on 8 days for curing the meat, and about 3-1/2 hours for cooking. Yield: 6 to 8 servings.
- 1 cup coarse sea salt or kosher salt
- 1/2 cup light or dark-brown sugar
- 1/4 cup pickling spice (see recipe below, or use your favorite commercial brand)
- 2 teaspoons pink curing salt
- 1/4 cup Irish whiskey
- 1 beef brisket flat (3 to 4 pounds)
- 1 whole clove
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 medium onion, peeled and quartered
- 3 carrots, peeled and trimmed
- 3 ribs celery
- In a large, nonreactive stockpot, make the curing brine by combining 2 cups of hot water with the coarse salt, brown sugar, pickling spice, and pink curing salt. Bring to a boil on the stovetop over high heat. Let cool to room temperature, and then stir in 2 cups of ice water and the whiskey.
- Meanwhile, trim the brisket, leaving a layer of fat at least 1/4 inch thick.
- Combine the brisket and brine in a 2-1/2-gallon heavy-duty zip-close bag. Seal the bag, and place it in a baking dish or plastic bucket. Alternatively, you can place the brine and brisket in a shallow glass container with a tight-fitting lid.
- Brine the corned beef in the refrigerator for 8 days, turning the brisket or bag daily.
- Drain the brisket in a colander, discarding the brine. Fill a stockpot with fresh cold water, add the brisket, let soak for 1 hour, and then drain again.
- Preheat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Place the corned beef in a Dutch oven, and add water to cover by a depth of 1 inch. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to a simmer, and skim off any foam that rises to the surface.
- Use the clove to pin the bay leaf to one of the onion quarters. Add the onion to the brisket pot, along with the carrots and celery. (If you like your carrots and celery with a little chew to them, add them after 2 hours of braising.)
- Cover the Dutch oven with the lid or foil, and place it in the oven. Braise the corned beef until very tender, about 3 to 3-1/2 hours. (Test the tenderness by inserting a fork; it should pierce the meat easily.)
- Transfer the corned beef to a welled cutting board. At this point, you can serve it hot or cold. For hot corned beef, slice the meat across the grain into 1/4-inch-thick slices. (Reserve some of the broth for spooning on top.) Serve on rye bread with mustard, or with boiled potatoes and cabbage. For cold corned beef, let it cool to room temperature, and then refrigerate it until cold and firm. Cut it into thin slices, and serve it on rye bread with mustard.
I prefer homemade pickling spice over commercial blends, because you can customize the flavorings and make sure the spices are fresh. Yield: 1/4 cup.
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- 10 juniper berries
- 6 allspice berries
- 6 whole cloves
- 2 dried bay leaves, crumbled
- One 3-inch cinnamon stick, broken into 3 or 4 pieces
- 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon coriander seeds
- 2 teaspoons mustard seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
Combine the ingredients in a bowl, and stir to mix. This pickling spice will keep for at least 2 months in a sealed jar at room temperature, away from heat and light.
For variations on Classic Corned Beef, see:
Steven Raichlen was inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame in 2015. His books have won five James Beard Awards and been translated into 17 languages. This excerpt is from The Brisket Chronicles (Workman Publishing).