My hatred of corned beef began when I was 5 or 6 and I caught a whiff of a horrid smell drifting out of the kitchen.
The taste wasn’t any friendlier, but my mom and siblings loved it. So I was forced to eat it at least once a year as long as I was under her roof.
Needless to say, I haven’t eaten corned beef in close to 40 years. And I haven’t felt like I’ve missed a thing.
I even became a little smug after traveling to Ireland in 2012 and learning the Irish don’t eat it, either. Beef was too expensive early last century in Ireland and meat from the cows raised there was sent to England. While corned beef was canned in the southwestern Ireland town of Cork, it was sent away to America and other British colonies. As far of the Irish go, it’s an Irish-American dish.
I’m not a big fan of celebrity chef Bobby Flay, but the Massachusetts native also complained about the smell of corned beef from his childhood. My faith in him suddenly shot up several points.
Another chef, Seamus Mullen, told Sifton he got his first kitchen job in the cafeteria of his Massachusetts high school in the early 1990s. He said they made corned beef from meat pulled from a box labeled “Grade D, edible.”
Which, I suppose, explains why packaged corned beef is cheaper than the brisket that it should be made from. That other stuff isn’t brisket.
Sifton’s story included a recipe to make your own corned beef and I decided I was game for the challenge.
The beef sits in a brine for five to seven days and then is poached at a low temperature in beer or finished in the oven. I ended up using a pressure cooker, after reading another story, by chef Wolfgang Puck, recommending it.
The brine ingredients seemed innocent enough: Kosher salt, sugar, garlic, pickling spices and sodium nitrite (pink curing salts).
Sodium nitrite is a common additive in cured meats. It inhibits the growth of dangerous bacteria and keeps the fat in meat from going rancid.
It also adds flavor to corned beef, author and home cook Michael Ruhlman told Sifton. Ruhlman, the author with Brian Polcyn of “Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing,” said despite a long controversial history, adding a small amount of curing salts to a brine once or twice a year won’t cause any harm.
I found a package of sodium nitrite at Smoky Davis on West State Street. The other ingredients are readily available at any local grocery store. I dissolved the salts and sugar in boiling water and then added the brisket after the mixture cooled.
I’ve brined turkeys, chickens and game hens before and always liked the results. I couldn’t imagine that the addition of pickling spices would turn the beef inedible.
After five days, I took the brisket out of the brine, rinsed it and placed it in the pressure cooker with two tablespoons of pickling spice. I covered it with a bottle of Guinness stout and a bottle of nonalcoholic ginger beer. If you don’t want to use the alcohol, substitute beef broth.
It took 90 minutes of cooking in my electric pressure cooker. I then unplugged it to let the pressure dissipate by itself. Using the quick pressure release, Puck said, would cause the meat fibers to bind together more tightly and become tough. The brisket ended up being very tender.
My friends Lori Hardisty and John Stiffler said they were willing to try the finished corn beef with me. And Lori made colcannon, a traditional Irish dish that combines mashed potatoes, cabbage, leeks and garlic.
In the end, the corned beef was really good. It was flavorful with none of the nastiness of what I ate when I was a kid. Lori and John said they enjoyed it, too. And the colcannon, which none of us had eaten before, was delicious.
It gave me a whole different outlook on corned beef. And it’s something I’ll make again.
Homemade corned beef
2 cups coarse kosher salt
½ cup sugar
5 garlic cloves, smashed
5 tablespoons pickling spices
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon pink curing salt (sodium nitrite)
1 4- to 5-pound beef brisket
2 bottles of good beer
2 bottles of good ginger beer
Brine the brisket: In a medium pot set over high heat, combine about a gallon of water, the salt, the sugar, the garlic, 3 tablespoons pickling spices and the pink curing salt. Stir mixture as it heats until sugar and salt are dissolved, about 1 minute. Transfer liquid to a container large enough for the brine and the brisket, then refrigerate until liquid is cool.
Place brisket in the cooled liquid and weigh the meat down with a plate so it is submerged. Cover container and place in the refrigerator for 5 days, or up to 7 days, turning every day or so.
To cook brisket, remove it from the brine and rinse under cool water. Place in a pot just large enough to hold it and cover with one of the beers and one of the ginger beers. If you need more liquid to cover the meat, add enough of the other beer, and the other ginger beer, to do so. Add remaining 2 tablespoons pickling spices. Bring to a boil over high heat, then turn heat to low so liquid is barely simmering. Cover and let cook until you can easily insert a fork into the meat, about 3 hours, adding water along the way if needed to cover the brisket.
Keep warm until serving, or let cool in the liquid and reheat when ready to eat, up to three or four days. Slice thinly and serve on sandwiches or with carrots and cabbage simmered until tender in the cooking liquid.
Recipe from the New York Times