Charcutepalooza Challenge #3: Brining

This past month, Charcutepalooza was all about brining. Our fearless leaders in all things meat, Cathy and Kim, challenged us to make corned beef.

brining the brisket

Corned beef is usually made with brisket, a cut of beef that comes from the breast/lower chest of the cow. Brisket contains lots of connective tissue, so proper preparation is essential if you want the meat to be tender (and if you eat meat, you definitely want it to be tender).

I’ve made brisket a bunch of times before. I always cook it the way I learned from my maternal grandma Bessie (I’ll call this “the Jewish way”). This means using deckle-on brisket (aka 2nd cut brisket), brisket that has not been trimmed/the fat is still attached (cooking the brisket with the layer of fat means there will be more flavor and less chance for the brisket to dry out…you can always trim it off after cooking) and smothering the brisket in a pretty sweet sauce. It is then cooked it in a tightly covered roasting pan at a low temperature for a long time. The result is indeed a very tender and delicious piece of meat, one that I often serve my family on Jewish holidays.

Corned beef, on the other hand, is made by soaking the brisket in a solution of water and salt (herbs, spices and some sugar are also often added) for a period of time – about 5 days – before you cook it. The salty liquid acts almost magically- see Ruhlman’sCharcuterie for a thorough explanation- to simultaneously dehydrate yet tenderize the meat. In addition, the long soak ensures a piece of meat infused throughout with the flavors of the brine. It’s a completely different approach to brisket, one that I truly came to appreciate with this challenge.

The brine for corned beef usually contains pink (aka curing) salt. For reasons I mentioned in my post about homemade bacon, I have committed to not using pink salt unless it is absolutely necessary for safety in the charcutepalooza challenges. I am not convinced that pink salt is harmless in the amounts used in most charcuterie recipes and I am far from the only one who feels this way. In the case of corned beef, pink salt plays a role in flavoring and lengthening the shelf life of the meat once cooked; it also contributes to the pink color of typical corned beef. It is not essential to the safety of the corned beef, so I chose to make mine without it.

I started with a five pound piece of untrimmed, organic, grass-fed, local brisket…

beef brisket

…and used this recipe from Saveur as my starting point. I followed the recipe more or less, but omitted the allspice and added 1 tablespoon fennel seeds, 1 tablespoon cumin seeds, 1/2 tablespoon juniper berries and 2 cinnamon sticks to the brine. I substituted dark muscovado sugar for the white sugar, and instead of using the pink salt, I cut a large beet in half and plopped it in the liquid (an idea I got from a twitter conversation with Lauren): my goal was to keep the meat from ending up an unappetizing grey, which I had been told might happen without the pink salt.

After five days of brining, a thorough rinsing, and 3 hours of boiling (I added an additional sliced beet to the boiling water along with the reserved spice mixture), my brisket was tender, with the perfect level of saltiness. It was also beautifully permeated with the herbs and spices from the brine. The flavors of the fennel and cumin were particularly prominent, so my corned beef, a dish most people associate with Irish-Americans, had and Indian-fusion “thing” going on. I really loved it.

I ate my first meal of the corned beef in “classic” (Irish) fashion (with potatoes and cabbage) but took no pictures (it was late and I was hungry…sorry). Then, with the leftovers, I made a quick and easy hash by combining 1 cup of chopped corned beef with 1/2 cup chopped red onion, 1 cup of chopped cooked potatoes, and a couple of handfuls of organic baby spinach in my cast-iron skillet.

corned beef hash image

When everything was nicely sauteed, I topped the hash off with a couple of eggs from my chickens, then let it finish cooking with the heat turned off and a cover on the pot. It was REALLY tasty, with no additional spices or salt needed: the corned beef has tons of flavor on its own.

corned beef hash photo

Five pounds of corned beef is enough for lots of meals, so I also devoured a couple of Reuben sandwiches in the name of this challenge. I have not had a Reuben in many years, but I used to eat them when I was a kid with my grandpa Jack, a serious Jewish deli aficionado. It was nice to revisit this sandwich and think about my grandpa with each delicious bite.

corned beef reuben photo

To make mine, I used sourdough rye bread from Bread Alone, organic Swiss cheese, homemade sauerkraut (I make it a lot and already had some on hand), homemade Russian dressing (recipe from Charcuterie, and of course, my corned beef. ps I cooked my sandwich in my panini press to get those pretty grill marks.

All in all, this was a really fun challenge. To see what Cathy and Kim have in store for us ‘paloozers next month, check out this post.

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44 thoughts on “Charcutepalooza Challenge #3: Brining”

  1. Pingback: Charcutepalooza Challenge #3: Brining
  2. Pingback: Irish Oat Broth with Leeks | Healthy Green Kitchen
  3. These photos are beautiful. I have never been much of a corned beef person, but I do love a great smoked brisket and I would like to get into the act of letting them soak in a brine beforehand. Thank you for this post!

  4. Great idea! Make your own corned beef! I’m excited! Found this a wee bit too late for St Patty’s day but I will be trying this with elk soon. My hubby is an avid hunter and we have a freezer full of meat. Thanks for the great idea.

  5. Your dishes look fabulous. I’m glad to hear you had good success without the pink salt. I am currently curing a brisket without the pink salt as well (I’m a little behind on the Charcutepalooza deadline- oh well). Nice work.

  6. Wow! What lovely photos… I’m not usually one to get excited about corned beef, but yours looks amazing!

  7. I’m in Texas, up on the Red River. I am so close to the state line I can see Oklahoma from my yard. ;-) There are pics on my blog of my boys and girls if you’re interested.

  8. I have dairy goats and do make cheese. I’ve got 13 does, a buck and companion wether, and 3 new sets of twins on the ground. If you raise milk goats, you do wind up raising some of them for meat because you will always have extra boys you can’t keep. I had 3 when I lived in town but my herd has blossomed since we made the move to the farm.

  9. I have never been a fan of corned beef but your pictures are changing my mind. Can wait to see what else you do.

  10. Winnie, seriously – how are your pictures so so lovely!? I am salivating even though I have my own corned beef in the fridge right now.

    • Thanks Lauren,
      I really enjoy the photography aspect of this blog and I practice a lot. That’s pretty much it ;)

  11. This is amazing! Corned beef has always seemed to me to be one of those things that you buy, not make. But you have proved me wrong!

    • The longer I blog, the more I am realizing there is almost no such thing as something you can’t make at home ;)

  12. This looks beautiful! I fell in love with corned beef a couple years ago, so I certainly wouldn’t mind having an excess of an attractive, fresh specimen such as this own: sandwiches, hash…

  13. We raise goats, and I’ve been wanting to try to corn a goat “brisket”. Your recipe looks fantastic. I will definitely give this a go!

    • Goat brisket sounds intriguing…do you raise them for milk? Make cheese? That is a dream of mine, but I can’t have them where I live :(

  14. Thank you, Winnie, for this thoughtful pursuit of corned beef without the pink salt. Your photos are so gorgeous, I want to eat that hash Right Now.

  15. P.S. I’m trying to avoid pink salt as far as possible too. Not even sold widely in Toronto, that should tell me something I guess. Going to borrow your nifty beets idea.

    • I went to two local butchers and asked them their thoughts on the pink salt. Neither uses it in their shops…I am really careful about chemicals- I barely even use food coloring- so have no desire to use the pink salt unless really necessary.

  16. Hi Winnie,
    Beautiful pictures. And I like the thoughtful way you personalized your corned beef recipe; also, that you have managed to stay away from pink salt. I may follow suit, though I did use it in both the Feb and March challenges (haven’t put up my March post yet). Cheers

    • Thank you for your sweet comments.
      I am not judging others for using the pink salt at all. I’ve consumed lots of pink salt in my time, I imagine. I just felt that if I am going out of my way to buy the best quality, grass fed meats, it makes no sense to add chemicals for home curing if I don’t have to. Just the way I feel…

  17. Winnie, this is gorgeous! I love the idea of a hash.
    I completed the brined Roast Chicken; the butcher was out of brisket when I arrived, so my corned beef is going to come along next weekend.
    I notice a difference in your photography lately; e.g. comparing the photo with the fork and egg to the reuben sandwich. Both are beautiful, but are you doing something different while shooting or processing?

    • Thanks Heena- the brined roast chicken sounds yummy.
      As for the photos, maybe the difference that you notice is that I am shooting in RAW and editing in Lightroom now? I like to play with the contrast in my photos a lot lately…
      The photo at the bottom of the sandwich, though…I think it stinks compared to the others. Could not improve it no matter how hard I tried, and I had already eaten the sandwich so had to live with it ;)

  18. We are huge brisket fans (just posted one on Sunday) and yours is a masterpiece!
    Love the photo with the fork and egg. Bet it was delicious!

  19. I’m thrilled that you’ve tackled corned beef in your Charcutepalooza series, Winnie, and I’ve actually been lying in wait for this post. I knew you would do thorough pro/con research on the whole pink salt issue and also come up with an innovative spice mix too. Looks fabulous, and I look forward to trying your recipe, perhaps attempting a pork version also.

  20. This looks amazing! I remember watching a “Good Eats” episode where AB made homemade corned beef. Since then I have really wanted to make my own. Seeing your post is inspiring me :)

    • Thanks Mardi! I add our eggs to pretty much everything.
      Not 100% sure if the beet made much of a difference in the end…

  21. Beautiful photos and clean, clear post – so well written! Wondering about the sodium level in corned beef…Yes, I bought one anyhow for St. P’s Day.

    • I don’t know exact numbers or anything, but it is pretty salty Liz. Probably not recommended for someone who needs to restrict sodium for heart health :(