I have a confession to make: we are Fans of lunch meat. My favorite sandwich as a kid, aside from cream cheese and jelly, was "boney-cheese-mayonnaise-bread-and-chips." In real person speak, that was a bologna and cheese sandwich with mayonnaise on white bread. Before putting the top slice of bread on, you add a huge handful of potato chips on top of the bologna, add the bread and press down. It was The Best. As an adult, I added mustard. Since we have become more and more aware of where our food comes from and how it is processed, we have decided to stay away from lunch meat. This makes us happy, because we know that we're not eating the saddest-of-the-sad animals. But we occasionally become Wistful for a big old lunch meat sammich.
Well, a few weeks ago, my chef friend Jeff (@chefphilosopher on twitter) and I were chatting about working with grass-fed beef. Wouldn't it be cool to make lunch meat out of happy meats? And, as things are Wont to Do on twitter, one thing led to another, and suddenly Brisket-Palooza was on. Jeff made some amazing pastrami, which you really should read about here, and I made corned beef. The whole process takes about a week or so, but most of that time involves the meat getting to know some flavorful brine Really well.
Jeff purchased his grass-fed beef from a local PA farm, Your Family Cow. They sell all manner of Happy meat products.
I got mine from the great folks at Rare Earth Farms out of Zebulon, NC. They have a booth at the NC State Farmers' Market in Raleigh which is just about twenty minutes from home. If you're not already, and you're interested in sustainable and happy beef and lamb in North Carolina, follow @RareEarthFarms on twitter.
Anyway, I picked up my 4.5 pound brisket about three weeks ago and started doing some research about corned beef. Turns out, it might as well be called pickled beef. Because that's what it is. I chose to use some beer in my brine, partly as a nod to The Beloved and also because I wanted to extract as much flavor as possible--both water soluble and alcohol soluble.
After the brisket thawed out in the fridge, I cut it in half. I brined one half with potassium nitrate in the brine and the other without. Potassium nitrate fixes the color of the raw beef so that, even when cooked, it is a cherry pink. Or in my case, just kinda pink. I wanted to go all-natural as Jeff did, but I wanted to see if, besides color, the nitrate had any bearing on texture or flavor. It didn't. Next time I won't use it. But I might build a smoke bomb. Since I bought the potassium nitrate online, I'm pretty sure I'm on some Homeland Security Watch List. The things I endure...
(adapted from this recipe at The Spice House)
This stuff is scalable, so make as much as you need to completely cover the meat.
- 4 cups water
- 1 cup light lager (I used Land Shark)
- 3/4 cup pickling salt
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons potassium nitrate (I made one batch with and one without)
- 1/2 cup pickling spice (just regular old McCormack's)
- 2 extra teaspoons of white peppercorns, coriander, cardamom, fennel seed and yellow mustard
- 2 3" pieces cinnamon stick
Throw all ingredients into a pot. Heat and stir until all the salts dissolve. Chill to at least 45F. I used 3 cups of water and then added 8 oz (by weight) of ice at the end to help cool it down faster.
After the brisket halves had happily marinated in the brine for one week, I took them out of the bags, tossed the brine and rinsed all the loose spices off the meat. Then, I made a poaching liquid of more beer, water, some onion and more pickling spice.
I made wee sachets out of coffee filters to corral some extra pickling spice to add flavor. I brought the meat just to a boil on the stove top and then finished it in a very low oven (180F) for three hours.
This is the non-potassium nitrate version. Compared to the picture at the top of the post,
it is moderately less pink/red.
I let the meat cool in the brine and then sliced it across the grain. Or as well as I could manage it.
I portioned it all up and froze most of it since we were going out of town. We got home last night, and I made sure to take out A Goodly Amount to share with Miguel from Rare Earth Farms. He has been waiting, none-too-patiently might I add, for his corned beef goodness, so today was the day. I loaded up my cooler with mayonnaise, mustard, whole grain bread and some Choice slices of the no-potassium-nitrate corned beef.
And here he is eating it. He said it was Unbelievable. And (she adds modestly), it is unbelievably good. Well seasoned, well salted, tender and yummy. I'll be sending sammiches with The Beloved for the next few days, but what I'm really looking forward to is making homemade corned beef hash with baked eggs from our girls. And that is a post for another day.
Don't be intimidated by making your own corned beef (or pastrami). It's a relatively straightforward process, and the results are well worth the time and effort.
Enjoy, and have a lovely day.
PS Thanks a lot for the root beer and green smoothie, Miguel!