I’m an Irish girl (though married to an Italian), and corned beef brisket has been a St. Patrick’s Day tradition for us for years. We always look forward to this special meal.
Ironically, the Irish don’t even have a tradition of making corned beef on St. Patty’s Day as we do in America … or of green beer or cheerful leprechauns for that matter.
So why the popular dish? Read on!
Corned Beef Brisket: A Wee Bit O’ History
Although plentiful due to their revered “sacred” status from Gaelic times and prized dairy production, cattle in Ireland were not consumed for meat until the beef-eating British came to rule. The British married their love of beef to Ireland’s quality salt (of corn kernel-size, hence the name “corned”) to produce “corned beef.”
“Irish” corned beef (much saltier than the version we know today) was prized in Europe and the Americas, but the Irish themselves simply couldn’t afford it under the oppressive British trade laws.
The modern corned beef brisket—made of inexpensive brisket and prepared with cabbage and potatoes—is actually more in the style of a Jewish kosher recipe, since Irish American immigrants would have usually bought their meats from kosher butchers.
But whatever its history, I’m glad it made its way to our house!
Corned Beef, Pure and Simple
It’s easy enough to find a corned beef brisket in just about any grocery store before St. Patrick’s Day, pre-made and neatly packaged in its plastic bag. It’s even nice and pink from the use of saltpeter in the brine.
What is saltpeter? Glad you asked. Known chemically as potassium nitrate, saltpeter is used in making fireworks and gunpowder. It’s also strong enough to dissolve tree stumps! But I’m sure it’s safe to eat … or … not!?
I’m not a fan of eating gunpowder, so I’ve started making my own corned beef from beef brisket instead. It’s an inexpensive cut of meat, really easy to make, and has a much better flavor than store-bought anyway.
The only thing it won’t have is that hot pink color that the store-bought versions have. To compensate, I add beet juice and hot pink sauerkraut to the last part of the brining process, and … voilà! Hot pink corned beef.
If you like the idea of reinvented comfort classics without the additives (and still keeping the recipes no-fuss and simple), check out my Wellness Mama Cookbook for many, many more like it!
How to Make Real Corned Beef Brisket
I adapted this brining recipe from Alton Brown’s version. I love his shows (even though I won’t cook many of the things he does), but he explains the chemistry of cooking so well. (Yes, I’m a dork, I know.)
Homemade corned beef brisket does take a little meal planning ahead of time, but I promise the result is so worth it! Alton’s version lists the prep time as 243 hours (!), but my version takes 3-5 days at most. Of course almost all of that prep time requires no work at all. Just let the brisket sit in the fridge and absorb all the (healthy) yumminess.
Willing to give making your own corned beef brisket a try? Here’s what you’ll need!
- One 4- to 5-pound beef brisket (grass-fed if possible)
- For the brine:
- 2 quarts of water
- 1 cup of sea salt (I use Himalayan sea salt)
- ½ cup raw cane sugar or organic brown sugar (don't worry, the residue sugars in the finished product are minimal)
- 1 stick of cinnamon or about ¼ tsp cinnamon powder
- 1 TBSP mustard seeds
- 1-2 TBSP of black peppercorns
- ½ tsp whole cloves (about 8-10 individual cloves)
- 1 tsp allspice berries (optional)
- 1 TBSP coriander seeds (optional)
- 1 tsp juniper berries (optional)
- ½ tsp dried ginger powder or about 1 tsp fresh minced ginger
- ½ tsp dried thyme leaf
- 5 garlic cloves, crushed or ½ tsp garlic powder
- 2-3 bay leaves, crushed
- ¼ cup beet juice or juice from homemade sauerkraut made with purple cabbage (optional)
- Put the water, salt, sugar, and spices (except beet juice or sauerkraut juice) in a large pot and heat, stirring frequently, until sugar and salt dissolve. Cool liquid, using 2 cups of ice if needed, and place in fridge until very cold. It is very important that the brine is cold before it comes in contact with the meat.
- For the 3-5 day brining process, you can either place the brisket in a large 2-gallon bag and add the brine, or place the brisket in a large glass container with a lid and add the brine. Either way, you want the brisket to be completely submerged and surrounded with the brine. Add the beet juice or sauerkraut juice (if using) at this point once everything is cooled.
- Place in the fridge (put inside another dish if you just use the plastic bag in case it leaks) and leave it there for at least 3 days (5 days if possible). Each day, flip it over and move the brine around. After 3-5 days, remove from the brine, rinse well with cool water, and cook as you normally would a corned beef brisket. (Don't normally cook a corned beef brisket? See this recipe.)
- The end!
Source: Shaylyn Esposito, “Is Corned Beef Really Irish?,” Smithsonian.com, 2013
Ever made corned beef? How do you prepare it? Share below!