Vibrant pink, salty, and spicy, corned beef is always a welcome meal in our home, whether in a boiled dinner, with cabbage, or in a sandwich with Swiss cheese and sauerkraut. Who knew it was so easy to make?
Corned beef is essentially beef cured in a salt brine, with some pickling spices for added flavor. It gets its name “corn” from an old English word for grain, or small pieces of hard things the size of grain, such as salt.
How to make corned beef from brisket
Over the years, many of my friends have encouraged me to cure my own corned beef, insisting that it wasn’t hard to do, and well worth the effort. After finally getting around to it, I’m happy to report that my friends were right! It really is easy; it just takes about 5 days to cure.
To make it you first make a salty curing brine with pickling spices like mustard seed, allspice berries, coriander seeds, and peppercorns. Then you marinated a beef brisket in the brine, for 5 to 7 days. Once brined, you remove the brisket from the brine and simmer it in water with more pickling spices for several hours until tender.
Because you get to choose what pickling spices to use, you can make your own distinctively flavored corned beef. You know how BBQ masters have their own favorite homemade dry rubs? It’s sort of like that.
Pretty much every packaged corned beef brisket I’ve bought tastes about the same. The one I home cured? Wonderful and different.
While I researched several online sources for curing your own corned beef, as well as interrogating my colleague Hank, the source I referred to the most was Michael Ruhlman’s brilliant Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing (high recommend). You can also see his instructions on Leite’s Culinaria.
I played around a bit with the spice mix, and kept the garlic out of the brine, but other than that, pretty much followed Michael’s method.
What makes corned beef pink?
Corned beef gets its vibrant pink color from the use of sodium nitrite, a chemical compound that also adds flavor and helps inhibit bacterial growth. Sodium nitrite is sold for the purposes of curing meat in a form called “pink salt”. Since sodium nitrite is toxic in concentrated amounts, it is dyed pink so that we don’t mistake it for table salt. Note that curing pink salt is NOT Himalayan pink salt.
You can use pink salt for this recipe or not. I’ve corned beef with and without pink salt. Both work. The curing salt adds a little more flavor and will help preserve the beef better if you don’t cook it right away after curing.
There is some controversy over the use of sodium nitrite in curing meats, as the frequent consumption of cured meats (bacon, ham, pancetta, corned beef) is linked to an increased risk of certain types of cancer. I eat cured meat maybe once a month, so I’m not worried for myself, but it helps to know about the risks and the current research.
To achieve a pink color without the use of curing salt, some people add a beet or two to the boiling water when it comes time to cook the roast. I haven’t tried that yet, but if you do, please let us know how it works out for you!
What to make with corned beef?
Home Cured Corned Beef
The spice mix with the gallon of brine makes easily enough curing brine for a 5 pound brisket, cured in a somewhat large-ish container. If you were to use a 2-gallon freezer bag or marinating bag, you would likely need just half (or less) of the amount of brine and brine spices.
- 1 Tbsp whole allspice berries
- 1 Tbsp whole mustard seeds (brown or yellow)
- 1 Tbsp coriander seeds
- 1 Tbsp red pepper flakes
- 1 Tbsp whole black peppercorns
- 2 teaspoons whole cloves
- 9 whole cardamom pods
- 6 large bay leaves, crumbled
- 2 teaspoons ground ginger
- 1/2 stick cinnamon
- 1 gallon (3.8 liters) water
- 300 g Kosher salt (2 cups of Diamond Crystal brand Kosher Salt OR 1 cup 3 1/2 tablespoons of Morton's Kosher Salt)
- 5 teaspoons pink curing salt (optional)*
- 3 Tbsp pickling spices
- 1/2 cup (90 g) brown sugar
*Pink curing salt, or sodium nitrite, goes by many names, such as Prague Powder #1 or DQ Curing Salt #1, and is available online and may be available at your local specialty market or butcher shop. If you don't have it, you can still make corned beef, but it is necessary for that vibrant pink color we associate with corned beef. And it adds flavor too. Without it the corned beef will be a dull grey color.
Note that pink curing salt is NOT Himalayan pink salt. Pink curing salt is toxic and can be deadly if ingested directly, which is why it is colored pink, so consumers do not mistake it for table salt.
- 1 5-pound beef brisket
- 1 Tbsp pickling spices
1 Toast and crush spices: You can either used store-bought pickling spices or you can make your own. To make your own, toast the allspice berries, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, red pepper flakes, peppercorns, cloves, and cardamom pods in a small frying pan on medium heat until fragrant. Note that it is pretty easy to burn spices; you want enough heat to release their flavors, not so much that they get burned.
Remove from heat and place in a small bowl. Use a mortar and pestle to crush the spices a little (or the back of a spoon or the side of a knife on a flat surface). Add to a small bowl and stir in the crumbled bay leaves and ground ginger.
2 Make curing brine with spices, salts, sugar, water: Add about 3 Tbsp of the spice mix (reserve the rest for cooking the corned beef after it has cured), plus the half stick of cinnamon, to a gallon of water in a large pot, along with the Kosher salt, pink salt (if using), and brown sugar. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Then refrigerate until well chilled.
3 Cover brisket with brine, chill: Place the brisket in a large, flat container or pan, and cover with the brine. The brine should cover the meat. The meat may float in which case you may want to weigh it down with a plate.
Alternatively you can use a 2-gallon freezer bag (placed in a container so if it leaks it doesn't leak all over your refrigerator), place the brisket in the freezer bag and about 2 quarts of brine, squeezing out the air from the bag before sealing.
Place in the refrigerator and chill from 5-7 days. Every day flip the brisket over, so that all sides get brined equally.
4 Cook cured meat: At the end of the cure, remove the brisket from the brine and rinse off the brine with cold water. Place the brisket in a large pot that just fits around the brisket and cover with at least one inch of water. If you want your brisket less salty, add another inch of water to the pot.
Add a tablespoon of the pickling spices to the pot. Bring to a boil, reduce to a very low simmer (barely bubbling), and cook 3-4 hours, until the corned beef is fork tender. (At this point you can store in the fridge for up to a week.)
5 Cut across the grain: Remove the meat to a cutting board. (You can use the spiced cooking liquid to cook vegetables for boiled dinner or corned beef and cabbage.) Notice the visible lines on the meat; this is the "grain" of the meat, or the direction of the muscle fibers.
To make the meat easier to cut, cut it first in half, along the grain of the meat. Then make thin crosswise cuts, across the grain to cut the meat to serve.
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