QUESTION: Does “corned beef” raise the specter in your mind of pinkish chopped meat and congealed fat compressed in a Spam-like tin? Or do you associate the term with a stringy, salty slab of cured beef brisket that has given its best flavors to the water it was boiled in? If you answered “yes”, read on. It’s time to radically alter your perception of what corned beef can be.
THERE ARE SEVERAL COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT CORNED BEEF.
- Chief among them is the perception that corned beef is one of Ireland’s national dishes. It was actually popularized by Irish-American immigrants in the 19th century who, trying to duplicate a traditional St. Patrick’s Day dish from the Old Country, replaced pork belly with the more affordable brisket their Jewish neighbors were using.
- Second, ear corn is not an ingredient in corned beef. The term “corn” comes from Old English, a reference to the coarse grains of salt (once called “corns”) that were used to preserve meat.
- Third, that it is difficult to make your own corned beef at home. In fact, with a Traeger Pellet Grill, it’s easy. There are just four simple steps. Try it once, and never more will you be tempted to buy cryovaced pouches of corned beef, swimming in brine (which you are also paying per pound prices for) and striped with fat and gristle.
Homemade corned beef, brined for several days and then smoked and slowly braised in beer on a Traeger, is a different animal entirely. Moist. Tender. Incredibly flavored with spice and smoke. Perfect for St. Patrick’s Day or a special meal for family and friends.
- Curing Salt: You probably have most of the ingredients for the brine in your pantry already with the possible exception of curing salt, which is salt containing small amounts of nitrites and nitrates. It is used in most commercially cured meats, including sausage and jerky. This product is known by several names: pink salt; Insta-cure #1; Insta-cure #2; meat cure; and Prague powder. Curing salt can be purchased online or at most local supermarkets.
Note: Confusingly, the rosy-tinged Himalayan salt sold by gourmet shops is also called “pink salt”. But it is not a substitute for curing salt.)
- Pickling Spice: If you’ve ever bought cryovaced corned beef, you know it usually comes with a small packet of coarse spices containing mustard seeds, coriander, peppercorns, broken bits of bay leaf and stick cinnamon, etc., that you add to the water before boiling the beef. You can usually buy it in the spice section of your grocery store, but chances are, you already own everything you need to make pickling spice from scratch. The recipe is below.
- Beef: Brisket is the cut traditionally used for corned beef. At the meat counter, select a trimmed center-cut “flat” that weighs between 4 and 5 pounds. Order one in advance if this is not a cut your store or butcher typically carries. As a leaner alternative, substitute eye of round or beef bottom round for the brisket.
- Container for brining: You’ll need a container large enough to hold the meat and brine. You can use a stockpot, jumbo resealable plastic bag, food-safe pail, cooler, or an old-fashioned stoneware crock.
- Weight: If using a container other than a resealable plastic bag, you’ll need something heavy to keep the meat submerged in brine. Options include bags of ice (though you’ll need to replace them as they melt) or a dinner plate inverted over the meat and weighted with a heavy ceramic bowl, clean brick or other hefty waterproof object.
- Spice grinder, mortar and pestle, or a hammer: If you opt to make your own pickling spice (see above), a spice grinder is a handy thing to have. We paid less than $10 for a small coffee grinder which we use exclusively for spice blends, and it works great. If you prefer low-tech tools, a mortar and pestle can be used to crush the spices, or corral the spices in a sturdy plastic bag, place it on a cutting board or unbreakable surface, and whack away.
- Meat slicer: If your vision of perfect corned beef involves piles of very thinly sliced meat cut to uniform thickness, then you’ll want to use a meat slicer. Maybe you have one in the basement, garage, or other place where you warehouse seldom-used kitchen equipment and appliances. Is it a necessity? Certainly not. Simply use a sharp hand-held knife. An electric one works well, too. The meat will slice easier if it’s chilled.
IDEAS FOR LEFTOVERS:
In the unlikely case that you have leftovers, use them to make corned beef sandwiches on rye, Reubens or Reuben dip (see Traeger’s online recipes), or corned beef hash, which you can make on your Traeger in a cast iron skillet.
HOMEMADE BEER-BRINED CORNED BEEF
Don’t be fooled by its length, this is not a complicated recipe. There are basically only four steps:
- smoking and cooking the meat
If desired, you can add cabbage, carrots, and potatoes to the roasting pan the last 1-1/2 hours of cooking. If sandwiches are your goal, remove the cooked corned beef from the braising liquid and let cool. Cover tightly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight for easier slicing.
Prep time: 4 days for curing
Cook time: 4 to 6 hours
Pellet recommendation: Apple, Cherry, or Oak
Serves: 8 to 10
FOR THE BRINE:
- 3 - quarts cold water
- 3 - 12-ounce bottles beer (lager), apple juice, or more water
- 1-1/2 - cups kosher salt
- 1/2 - cup brown sugar
- 1 - tablespoon curing salt per pound of meat OR 1/4 teaspoon Prague powder per pound of meat
- 5 tablespoons commercial or Homemade Pickling Spice (see recipe below)
- 1 onion, peeled and thickly sliced
- 5 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
- 1 4- to 6-pound beef brisket flat, outside fat trimmed to 1/4-inch
FOR THE BRAISING LIQUID:
- 1 - 12-ounce bottle beer (lager), apple juice, or water
- 2 - tablespoons brown sugar
- 1-1/2 - tablespoons pickling spice
- 1 - onion, peeled and thickly sliced
- 2 - cloves garlic, smashed
- In a large stockpot or food-safe pail, combine the water, beer, kosher salt, brown sugar, and curing salt. Stir with a long-handled spoon until the salt and sugar crystals have dissolved. Add the pickling spice, onion, and garlic. Transfer the brine to the refrigerator. (Because of its weight, please position it on the lowest, sturdiest shelf.) Add the meat to the brine and weight it using one of the suggestions above. You want the meat to be completely submerged. Brine the brisket for 3 to 4 days, stirring once daily.
- Remove the brisket from the brine, discarding brine. (Pour the brine through a kitchen colander positioned in the sink. That way, you can dispose of the solids and liquids separately.)
- Rinse the brisket thoroughly under cold running water. (You can cover the meat tightly at this point and refrigerate until you’re ready to cook it, up to 2 days ahead. Bring to room temperature before smoking.)
- When ready to cook, start the Traeger grill on Smoke with the lid open until the fire is established (4 to 5 minutes). Place the corned beef brisket directly on the grill grate and smoke for 2 hours.
- In the meantime make the braising liquid: In a saucepan, combine the beer, brown sugar, and pickling spices. Add the onions and garlic. Simmer until the liquid is hot, watching carefully so the beer doesn’t boil over. Pour into a roasting pan.
- Transfer the smoked corned beef brisket to the braising liquid, fat-side down, and cover tightly with foil. Increase the temperature of the Traeger to 250 degrees F. Put the roasting pan on the grill grate. Roast the brisket for 3 to 4 hours or until it is fork-tender, turning the meat over once halfway through the cooking time. (Be careful when lifting the foil as scalding steam will escape. Use tongs for this task.)
- Remove the meat from the braising liquid and let it rest, loosely covered with the foil, for 10 minutes. To serve, carve the meat across the grain into 1/4-inch slices and transfer to a platter or plates. If desired, dribble some of the braising liquid over the meat, or discard.
HOMEMADE PICKLING SPICE:
- 2 tablespoons mustard seeds
- 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
- 2 tablespoons black peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon whole cloves
- 1 tablespoon allspice berries
- 2 teaspoons hot red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 6 juniper berries (optional)
- 2 bay leaves, coarsely crumbled
- 1 3- to 4-inch cinnamon stick, coarsely broken
Combine all the ingredients in a small spice grinder and pulse several times to break up the whole spices. (Do not grind to a powder: You want a coarse spice mix.) Alternative, combine the ingredients in a sturdy plastic bag and crush with a hammer, meat tenderizer, or the flat of a heavy knife. Store in a lidded jar away from heat and light. Will keep for 6 months.