Monday, March 19, 2012
Corned Beef - March 17, 2012
In the true spirit of this blog, Jaime's post last year about corned beef inspired me to try my hand at it for St. Patrick's Day this year. In her post, Jaime mentioned that she purchased her beef already corned, but that she wanted to try a DIY the next time she made it. Honestly, I'd never thought about corning my own beef. Truth be told, despite my partially Irish heritage, I'd never even tried corned beef. I blame it on the name, which invokes images of the deli classic, olive loaf, in my head. You know the one...a bologna type concoction with green olives buried sporadically within it. Anytime I heard "corned beef" I thought of this, except in my mental image, I replaced the bologna with beef, and the olives with corn kernels. I did not find this to be very appetizing.
But, as you all already know, it turns out that corned beef is actually nothing like what I had pictured. According to Harold McGee, my trusty food science resource, the "corn" in corned beef comes from the English word for grains and in this case is referring to the "grains" of salt used in the curing process. So, corned beef is simply beef brisket cured in a salt brine for a period of several days and then boiled. This sounds much better, doesn't it?
A week before St. Pat's, I got started on the process. I consulted several sources, both online and in person, and decided to follow Michael Ruhlman's recipe. I purchased a two pound beef brisket, made up my pickling spice, and prepared my brine. Now, all of the brine recipes I looked at, including the one I chose to use, called for something called pink curing salt (or saltpeter, as in Alton Brown's recipe). This was an unfamiliar ingredient to me, so I did a little research.
Saltpeter is potassium nitrate, while pink curing salt is sodium nitrite. Both of these chemicals help prevent rancidity; cause the bright pink color associated with corned beef; provide specific flavor; and suppress bacterial growth, including botulism. While all of this is good, they can also react with food components to form potential carcinogens, and the same chemical process that causes the bright pink color in the beef (binding to the iron atom in myoglobin) can also occur inside us, binding to our hemoglobin and preventing oxygen uptake, if ingested directly.* While the cancer risk is extremely low and the risk of accidental ingestion is almost non-existent if one is conscientious in the kitchen, it is important to be informed. Armed with the facts, I decided that, while it's possible to brine brisket using just kosher salt, and I'm sure the results would be delicious, it just wouldn't be corned beef. What the hell, Nick and I sometimes like to live dangerously, so I dropped by Clancey's and they sold me about two teaspoons worth of pink curing salt...the perfect amount for my recipe, complete with all the necessary safety advice.
I couldn't be happier with the results. The beef is the perfect shade of bright pink and tastes delicious. Nick and I served it with boiled cabbage and potatoes, plus some Irish soda bread for our St. Pat's dinner. We also broke out the Jameson in celebration. Tonight, we feast on Reubens, and I also want to save enough to make some red flannel hash.
McGee, Harold; On Food and Cooking: the Science and Lore of the Kitchen. pp.173-4