Good corned beef can be hard to find, but if you’re up for a kitchen project, making your own is well worth it—start now and it’ll be ready in time for St. Patrick’s Day. In part one of the two-part process, learn how to make corned beef from scratch (part two will cover cooking it).
It’s hard to imagine a meat purveyor more locally rooted than Aaron and Monica Rocchino’s The Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley, California. A longtime cook a block away at Chez Panisse, Aaron sources whole, pasture-raised animals from ranches within 150 miles of Berkeley. He and his staff are fierce advocates for whole-animal cooking. Not only are they turning bones and trim and fat into stocks, sausages, and terrines (even cookies made with leaf lard), they also counsel customers about how to cook the cuts they won’t find shrink-wrapped at the supermarket. When we went looking for a Kitchen Coach to guide us through corned beef, we didn’t have to look hard.
Because Aaron advocates a long, slow cure for corned beef (I’ll let him tell you why), we’re posting this piece in two parts. In this part one, Aaron shows you how to make a brine and start curing your beef. In part two, Aaron shows you how to poach your home-cured beef for a St. Patrick’s Day supper. Take it away, Aaron. –John Birdsall
Since we buy whole animals for the shop, the cuts we use to make corned beef vary a little throughout the year. Sometimes we use brisket—that’s the classic corned beef cut—but it has a lot of interior fat, which doesn’t render out in the cooking. It’s good for sandwiches, where it’s sliced thin and you get a little fat and lean in every bite. But for St. Patrick’s Day, when you want to serve slices of corned beef on a plate, I go with a leaner cut. I like to use eye of round, the cut I’m using here (it’s grass-fed, from Stemple Creek Ranch, north of San Francisco). Eye of round is the muscle behind what you’d call the thigh of the animal. The five-pound piece I’m going to cure here is a single muscle, with a little cap of fat on the outside for flavor.
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The key thing about this recipe is time. I like to do a long cure, 12 to 15 days. The magical thing about corned beef is the way the texture changes. After a long cure the meat takes on a firm, almost flaky texture. Prolonged curing also means the aromatics in the brine can really penetrate, plus it allows you to use less salt and less of the cure (also known as pink salt), which contains the nitrates that keep cured beef pink after cooking. The corned beef you buy in the supermarket is cured for only a short time, something like four to five days, with more salt and more nitrates to speed things along. That also allows the corned beef to last for a long time in the refrigerator case. Since we’re not interested in making our corned beef last for weeks or months, we use a less extreme cure and go slow.
Once you have your beef, you can make the corning brine.
Here’s what you need for a five-pound piece of eye of round, brisket, or bottom round:
- 5 quarts cold water
- 2 1/4 cups sea salt (I use fine sea salt rather than coarse kosher salt since it measures out more accurately by volume)
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 4 unpeeled garlic cloves, cut in halves or quarters
- 2 teaspoons coriander seeds
- 10 allspice berries
- 2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds
- 4 whole cloves
- 1 3-inch cinnamon stick
- Small handful black peppercorns
- 1/2 medium carrot, large dice
- 1/2 small yellow onion, large dice
- 1 to 2 bacon skins (optional—these are the rinds from slabs of bacon we smoke in-house; I’ll explain how you can add some smoky flavor when it comes time to poach your corned beef)
- 1 bunch fresh thyme
- 3 fresh bay leaves
- 2 tablespoons pink curing salt (I use Insta Cure No. 1, which is salt with 6 percent sodium nitrite)
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Here’s how to cure corned beef at home:
1. Add the water to a big pot on the stove over medium-high heat. Dump in the salt, sugar, garlic, and all of the spices.
2. Add the carrot and onion. If you’re using the bacon skins, add them now.
3. Bring the water to a boil. Give it a stir with a long-handled spoon to make sure the salt and sugar have dissolved. Turn off the heat and add the thyme and bay leaves.
4. Let the brine cool to room temperature as the aromatics steep the way tea leaves do—allow a couple of hours for this.
5. At this point you can either strain the liquid and discard the solids (we do that here at the shop, since we’re brining more than one corned beef at a time), or simply leave everything in there. Add the pink curing salt and stir to dissolve.
6. Transfer the brine to whatever refrigerator container you plan to store the beef in: a high-sided hotel pan, low plastic container, or even a large oven dish made of some nonreactive material like glass or earthenware. Refrigerate overnight, or until completely cold.
7. When the brine is cold, add the beef. You want to make sure it stays completely submerged. I cover it with a clean, folded kitchen towel, than lay a plate on top. Cover with a lid or plastic film and refrigerate for 12 days. It’s a good idea to check every day to make sure the meat is still submerged. And that’s it!
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Part Two: Poaching the Cured Beef
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2014 and has been updated with additional text, images, and links.
Photos by Chris Rochelle