Home-cured Corned Beef: it's easier than you might think!
What IS corned beef anyway??
Corned beef was a cut of meat like brisket that had been salt-cured. The term “corned” comes from the usage of large grained rock salt, called “corns” used in the salting process. It was not cooked before eaten as it was a "cured" meat.
We are the most familiar with the packet of brisket we get in the store and simmer on the stove with the little packet of spices that "they" provide. But! .... Did you know that corned beef was traditionally brined to be preserved and not even cooked before it was eaten?
Curing meat with salt and brine, much like culturing vegetables like sauerkraut or kimchi, was born out of practicality before the days of refrigeration. Folks needed a way to preserve meat & vegetables to have food to eat til the next harvest.
Traditionally, cooks would use saltpeter (a nitrate) to "cure" their meat. Saltpeter would also tend to (preserve) the meat’s pinkish color - otherwise when we cook it without it, it turns a bit of a gray color. (Stay tuned - we've got a cool trick for that!) The nitrate substance was also to prevent contamination by pathogens. While one can certainly use the nitrates used specifically for preparing home-cured meats (there's plenty of recipes online). I am using celery juice and whey.
You are using WHAT??
Where the heck do I get celery juice and (real) whey?
These are two questions that would stump my Mom if she was reading the recipe, please don't let this stop you!
- Celery Juice - just take some celery stalks and pieces, place it in the food processor (or chop it up fine) and add enough liquid to make a couple cups of liquid. If you just chop it, let it set in the fridge for a day or two prior. * Celery juice has a natural substance in it that, when added to a bacterial liquid it does create some nitrate. To me it's less processed and also adds the good properties of celery - so I love opting for using it. Again, using a small amount of whey is fine when you are braising/cooking the beef anyway.
- Whey - this is another ingredient that would be so common for preservation that our ancestors would laugh at us today for not knowing what real whey is. Fresh whey provides the "preservation bacteria" called lactobaccili that keeps the liquid acidic so no form of other bacteria is welcome. When corned beef was eaten "cured", this made a big difference. (We can substitute salt or an acid like cider vinegar.) Think Little Miss Muffet and not the powder you buy in "health food" stores. Whey is the liquid when real milk separates into curds and whey. Unfortunate you can NOT use commercial milk that separates - "by pasteurizing", the molecule is changed so its rancid by the time it separates. Real milk is from the farm - fresh from the farm. What most of you will need to do if you want real whey is to make your own yogurt or milk kefir and strain the liquids from the solids (or get commercial yogurt ). this liquid whey is still probiotic because of the process used to make the yogurt or kefir - a culture needed to be added back into the pasteurized milk. Use the liquid for the corned beef and use the solid for "yogurt cheese". Since we are cooking this beef - the preservation side is not such an issue. In fact you could also use just a bit of tomato sauce or paste for a bit of acid for tenderness.
- 3 lb beef brisket or other, preferably local grass fed
For the Brine
- 2.5 cups natural whey or sauerkraut brine
- 2 cups celery juice
- 1/2 cup unrefined sea salt
- 1 cup beer (optional)
- 1/4 cup brown sugar (optional)
- 1/4 beet juice (optional) this gives the beef the expected pink color. Using nitrates will keep the beef pink, using celery will not. You could also use the natural food coloring that is made from beets. It is just fine without it - but it will be a grey color...
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup pickling spices - choose your own for taste, see list below
- Water, about 2 cups if needed
Spices to choose from, approximate amounts
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 stick cinnamon, broken into pieces
- 2 tablespoon mustard seeds
- 2 tablespoon whole coriander seed
- 2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon whole cardamom pods
- 1 tablespoon juniper berries
- 4 cloves
- Celery seed
- Vegetable pieces
Find a glass or non-reactive container that is not too much bigger than your beef.
Unwrap your beef and place into this container. It is helpful if it has a lid.
Mix the whey, celery juice, salt and spices and pour over the beef. If it is not covered add more water or be sure to turn it over a few times a day.
Use your judgement, you are doing fine. You may cure it in the refrigerator for about 3 - five days or upwards of ten days, or, try the method outlined by Sally Fallon in her Nourishing Traditions cookbook which encourages curing corned beef at room temperature for two days or so.
When you are ready to cook it
Place all in a roasting pan of about the same size as your brining pan if not the same pan.
I also add some onion pieces or other vegetable pieces that I might otherwise add to the compost pile for awesome flavors.
I braise my beef slowly in the oven for about 3 hours on 250 degrees, this will vary depending on size of course and whether you have a commercial cut or grassfed (longer for grass fed) and what kind of cut. I just keep checking as to when it is fork tender.
I have an Instant Pot, so I am making one on the oven and one in the Instant Pot to see the difference.
For the celery juice - I use pieces of celery in a food processor with water to make the juice. Salt peter can be substituted. It gives the corned beef a red color and acts as a preservative if eaten brined not cooked, which traditionally , it is not. These days it being cooked is not even a question for most people but traditionally it was just "cured" and eaten raw. Done correctly with the best ingredients, it would be the absolutely most nutritiousness. Many of us are limited in the ability of acquiring real foods and we are told we to cook foods. This depletes many of the nutrients. You owe it to yourself to know more about true traditional food preparations that maximize nutrients and then do the best you can with what you have and make it with Love.
See my audios and videos with Sally Fallon as well as my audios and videos about traditional food preparations.
Our cookbook Common Roots , which you can purchase as digital or hard copy, has a good intro to traditional foods made easy and has a bit of Adirondack History as well as Mindful Cooking/Living Tips.
* use the best quality food you can but no worries, if you are making food with Love, and making foods with less processed packaged food, its sure to beat all the rest...