Thursday, January 7, 2010

What's Cooking? Corned Beef

This was originally published in the March, 2009, edition of the Left Hand Valley Courier.

Who Put the Corn in the Beef?

Corned beef and cabbage has become a traditional food on St. Patrick’s Day, but for many people the name, how it becomes “corned,” and why it is that unusual color, are very much a mystery.

And what’s the difference between corned beef and pastrami, anyway?

The corn in corned beef doesn’t have anything to do with what the cow ate. Both corn-fed beef or grass-fed beef can become corned beef, with the proper preparation. And there’s no corn used in the preparation of the meat, either.

Instead, corn refers to salt, because in the distant past, the word corn referred to any small hard particles such as grains, sand, or salt. So we have the first clue as to the preparation. There’s salt involved.

Another clue is that corned beef is often called corned beef brisket, and in that case it’is the same cut of meat as regular beef brisket. However, other cuts of meat can become corned beef, including beef round. It’s the preparation, not the cut of meat that is important.

The corning process is a type of brining, where the meat sits in a salty solution for a period of time. The brine pickles the meat, which in the past was a way of preserving it, and it also give it the unique texture and flavor. This process can also be called curing.

As for the interesting reddish-pink color, that’s the result of using sodium nitrite in the brine. Since sodium nitrite is a bit hard to come by in its pure form, most home cooks who want to cure their own corned beef will probably purchase an item called pink salt.

The pink salt used in curing meats isn’t naturally pink. Instead, the color is added so that no one will mistake it for regular salt. Pink salt is sold under a number of brand names, but in general, it’s a little over 6 percent sodium nitrite mixed with regular salt, with coloring added.

Besides the effect on the color of the meat, sodium nitrite inhibits the growth of botulism in the meat, and keeps the fats from going rancid, thus prolonging the shelf life. On the downside, some people are sensitive to nitrites and should avoid them.

Besides corned beef, sodium nitrite is used in making a wide variety of processed foods including hot dogs, bacon, spam, and many types of salamis and deli meats.

The good news is that if you’re avoiding nitrites, you can make your own corned beef without the use of pink salt. It won’t be exactly the same, but it will be close.

Besides salt and sodium nitrite, the brining solution for corned beef includes sugar and a pickling spice mixture. A generic pickling spice mixture can include juniper berries, dried hot peppers, bay leaves, and mustard seeds among other things, and your personal selection of spices can allows you to create your own corned beef flavor.

Not a fan of beef? Avoiding fatty red meat? Turkey breasts or other turkey parts can be brined the same way to give you a red-meat-free alternative for the St. Patrick’s Day meal.

If you’re thinking about brining your own corned beef this year, you’d better get started soon. The brining process for corned beef takes five days to two weeks depending on the recipe, the strength of the brine, and the thickness of the meat. A corned turkey part will take from two to six days.

There are a multitude of homemade corned beef recipes on the Internet and a few for corned turkey. Pink salt is readily available for purchase online, if you can’t find it locally. A search of the brand name InstaCure #1 will lead you in the right direction.

As far as pastrami, it is basically a corned beef (or turkey) that has been seasoned on the outside and then smoked.

If you want an alternative to mass-produced corned beef but you don’t want to do the brining yourself, Your Butcher Frank in Longmont sells store-brined corned beef. They’ll have them available before St. Patty’s Day, as long as supplies last, or you can special order a corned beef any time of the year.