Saturday, March 3, 2012

Corned Beef - what makes it pink?

St. Patrick's Day is coming, and it's about the time when intrepid cooks think about - just maybe - brining their own corned beef.

If you have ever brined a turkey, you're already familiar with the process. The ingredients are different, and corned beef takes more time. But in the end, you're soaking meat in liquid.

One mystery about corned beef is the color. What makes it pink? Does it have to be pink? Is it bad for you? And what the heck does "corned" mean, anyway?

Despite the name, corned beef has nothing to do with corn. In this case corn refers to salt, and dates back to a time when anything small and granular was generically referred to as corn.

Corning - or salting - a piece of beef was a way to preserve it. Now, corned beef is all about the flavor.

The distinctive pink color in commercial corned beef comes from the use of sodium nitrite. This is the same substance that's used for curing a variety of meats, including hot dogs, sausages, and bacon.

Note: You might see hot dogs or bacon at the store that proclaim there are no added nitrites or nitrates. The problem with that labeling is that nitrates occur naturally in things like celery juice, and manufacturers can wriggle around labeling laws by using those "natural" ingredients rather than the stand-alone chemical that would have to be named on the label. But it's still the same stuff, no matter where it comes from. 

Besides deceptive labeling, another problem with using celery juice or other non-chemical sources is that the amount of those naturally occurring nitrates can vary widely, so you might in fact be eating more nitrates than if a measured amount of pure sodium nitrite was used. 

But I digress...

If you're trying to cut down on the amount of nitrites/nitrates you consume, but you still want to indulge in corned beef, you have an alternative. You can make your own corned beef without adding sodium nitrite. The color will be very different and the texture will be a little bit different - but it will taste like the corned beef you're familiar with.

If you want to make corned beef with the familiar pink color, you can buy what's referred to as "pink salt." This is not the same as Himalayan pink salt. Instead, it's a small amount of sodium nitrite mixed with regular salt and dyed a bright pink so it won't be mistaken for regular salt.

This recipe specifies Morton's kosher salt because different salts weigh different amounts based on the size and shape of the crystals. That weight difference doesn’t matter much if you’re talking about a teaspoon of salt in a dish you’ll taste and adjust later, but when salt is being used as a preservative, you want to make sure you’ve got the correct concentration. One cup of Morton’s kosher salt weighs about 7 1/2 ounces, so if you use a different brand, it's best to weigh rather than measure.

As with canning and pickling, it's best not to use an iodized salt for brining, so choose a non-iodized kosher or canning salt for your brine.

When it comes to spices, there are a huge variety of recipes that use different spices for corned beef. Some include cinnamon sticks, ginger, or dried hot peppers. Some simply use commercial pickling spices rather than a custom mix. That’s the beauty of making your own corned beef – you can adjust the flavors the way you want them.

For the fun of it, I made one corned beef with the sodium-nitrate-laced pink salt and one without, just to see how different they would be. The the brining recipe was identical, except for the pink salt. The meat was also the same. I bought a whole 15-pound brisket and divided it into several pieces for making corned beef and one piece for making standard beef brisket.

Corned Beef

1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
4 whole cloves
8 whole allspice berries
6 whole juniper berries
3 whole bay leaves
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 quarts water
1 cup Morton's kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 ounce (optional) pink salt
4-5 pound beef brisket

If you want to make it easier to discard the spices after brining, tie them into a piece of cheesecloth; otherwise, just add them to the brining liquid.

Combine all the ingredients (except the beef) in a non-reactive pot and bring to a boil. Let it cook for a few minutes, then turn off the heat and let it cool to room temperature, then refrigerate it to chill it completely.

Trim the brisket of fat, as desired, and place it in a large plastic bag. Turkey bringing bags or crockpot liners work well. Add the chilled brine along with all the spices to the bag. Remove as much air as possible from the bag, then tie it shut.

Place the bag in a flat pan or bowl to catch any leaks, and refrigerate the brisket for at least 5 days, turning it over daily to make sure it brines evenly. A smaller piece of brisket will be done in 5 days; a thick piece might require up to 8 days. Keeping in the brine longer doesn't hurt, so if you've got the time, let it sit for 8 days, just to be sure.

When you're ready to cook the corned beef, remove it from the bag, discard the brine and spices, and rinse it well. This is what the 2 corned beefs looked like when they were right out of the brine and rinsed. The sodium nitrite version is on top. The pink color of the one brine with sodium nitrite looks more appealing than the murky gray-brown of the non-nitrite version.

I decided to see what they looked like inside, so I cut them in half. The sodium nitrite version is on the right and it has a brighter red color compared to the purpleish red of the non-nitrite meat:

After cooking, there was much more difference between the two corned beefs. The beef that had the sodium nitrite was the typical corned beef color (right), but the one without the sodium nitrite (left) was brown. If it was regular brisket, that color wouldn't seem so odd, but if you're used to standard corned beef, it might seem jarring.

With your eyes closed, though, you might not notice the difference. The taste is the same, and the difference in texture might not be noticeable if you weren't looking for it. So I guess the question is whether color matters to you or not, and whether you're concerned about sodium nitrite in your food.

If you're corning your own beef, you can do what you choose. And that's why it's great to know how to make your own.

Cooking Corned Beef

My favorite way to cook corned beef is in the pressure cooker. When I moved to high altitude, I found out pretty quickly that anything cooked in water takes a lot longer to cook. While cooking pasta for a little longer is just a minor annoyance, long-cooked foods like tough meats can take a lot longer. When I bought a pressure cooker and cooked my first corned beef, I was hooked. The meat always comes out tender and juicy and it seems to shrink a little less.

You can use any method you like to cook your corned beef, but if you don't have a favorite recipe, consider this one.

If you don’t have a pressure cooker, you can still use this recipe, but adapt the cooking method to the stove top or slow cooker: To cook this on the stove top, cover the beef with water, bring to a boil, and then lower to a simmer. Cook for about 1 hour per pound, adding the vegetables about 30 minutes before the meat is done. To use a slow cooker, cover the beef with water and cook, covered, for 10-12 hours on low, or 5-6 hours on high. Add the vegetables about 3 hours before the beef is done.

Pressure-Cooked Corned Beef

Without sodium nitrite, corned beef looks more like pot roast.
1 4-5 pound corned beef
1 bay leaf
6 allspice berries
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 tablespoons cider vinegar

Place all the ingredients in your pressure cooker and add water to cover by about an inch. Seal the pressure cooker, set it to high, and cook for 1 hour and 15 minutes. 

Release the pressure. The meat should be fork-tender. If it need to be cooked longer, seal it up and continue cooking, as needed.

I like to cook my vegetables in the cooking liquid from the corned beef. If the corned beef is cooked completely when I check it the first time, I remove the meat from the cooker and add the vegetables - usually chunked carrots. potatoes, and cabbage.

If the corned beef can use a few more minutes of cooking, I add the vegetable on top of the meat and continue cooking for an additional 6-8 minutes.

For easier slicing, let the corned beef rest for about 10 minutes before you carve.

A version of this was published at the Daily Camera and was originally published here about this time last year. I figured it was worth an encore.


Unknown said...

Wow... I didn't know all this stuff about sodium nitrate. What a detailed post - the photos are great too (so illustrative instead of the usual superfulous full that is rampant in other blogs).

I'm your "follower" now!



hip pressure cooking
making pressure cooking hip, one recipe at a time!

Unknown said...

can I simmer (185f) a four Lb corned beef briscket for 24hrs obviously fully submerged in liquid without ruining it??

Donna Currie said...

Kevin, at some point you're going to go past the point where it's tender and get to the point where it shreds. Timing depends a lot on the thickness of the meat, as well as its inherent tenderness, but 24 sounds like it might be too long.

Luke said...

For some scientific info, the sodium nitrite and nitrates begin to gas off at 100 F while cooking and produces nitric oxide. This gas kills botulism which occurs naturally in meats. It is not so critcal to add cure to meats cooked in an oven, but in a smoker botulism thrives as it is an anaerobic organism. So, nothing scary about curing salt, and it adds substantial shelf life to the meat if you freeze it afterwards.

carpet cleaning Fargo ND said...

I always wondered what made it pink. Thanks for sharing and great recipe too!

Tupper Cooks! said...

I love corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick's Day. Thanks for reminding me to get in gear!

Marnely Rodriguez-Murray said...

Mmmhm, love this! Looks awesome and thanks for all the information!

Barbara | Creative Culinary said...

I do cure and smoke my own corned beef and bacon and I do include pink salt in my cure. I like the fact that I can control the amount I use and I won't deny that the expected color as a result of that addition is much more to my liking.

Beyond the pink color that is the result of the reaction of nitrites and meat and is what we often associate with cured meats, would I still do it? Yes, because there are additional advantages including a longer shelf life and I think a more tender meat as well.

Either way though I am a huge proponent of curing both corned beef and bacon. The results are beyond stellar. I first did corned beef last year and I will say that it made the best Reuben sandwich I've ever had. Don't get me started on bacon! I just cured and smoked 20# to share with is to die for!

Donna Currie said...

Hi Barb! I agree that making it yourself is great. I've got to say that the brown color was off-putting at first, but really it's almost the same color as pot roast. The problem is that you expect corned beef to be pink, not brown, so there's a weird disconnect between what you see and what you taste.

I'll be using pink salt this year because I like the color and the texture. Storage isn't much of an issue. Somehow, it disappears like magic.

Bacon, eh? I knew I smelled something good wafting this way ;-)

Ansh said...

I will take the pink one .. thanks :)sometimes it IS about the looks.

And none of the Bacon that Barb smoked came up North. I saw it magically disappear and I think Arvada was the last destination.

Donna Currie said...

It's amazing how bacon can evaporate. I think I need to go hunt up some pork belly.

Anonymous said...

Traditional Corned Beef is not my favorite, so coming from an Irish Family, that presents a bit of a problem when my relatives come to visit and expect a traditional corned beef dinner!

My husband is the King of the Smoker, and he smokes the corned beef for about 5hours. He'll do about 4 of them at once, slice them all, vacuum seal into several packs. We have it all thru out the winter. A bit of summer flavor with the traditional corned flavor is spectacular. Thanks for sharing the recipes and instructions on how to 'corn' our own. Cheers!

Mama Turtle said...

I always thought pink corned beef was weird anyway. When meat is fully cooked, it should be brown. Pink is for rare cooked meats like steak (mmmmm) but something that is slow cooked all day, no. Now that I know why commercial corned beef is pink, I can make mine with just plain salt and have it seem normal lol. Ultimately, it's the taste I'm after anyway. Incidentally, if celery has so many nitrites, my cb might come out pink anyhow since I would use that as one of the flavorings. We shall see!

Anonymous said...

Have you ever thought about creating an ebook or
guest authoring on other websites? I have a
blog centered on the same ideas you discuss and would really like
to have you share some stories/information. I know my audience would appreciate your work.
If you are even remotely interested, feel free to shoot me an e mail.

Here is my weblog; top bodybuilding supplements

Food Jaunts said...

Hello! So I cured my own corned beef using pink salt (about half the amount I should have used since I ran out) and the outside was pink but right in the center was a thin layer of brown. Does that mean that the middle didn't "corn" all the way and it's unsafe to eat?

Donna Currie said...

Food Jaunts, the middle didn't cure, but what you have there is just plain brisket. It's fine.

Post a Comment

I love to hear from you! Thanks for commenting!