Home-cured corned beef. It seems daunting, doesn’t it? Curing meat at home is much easier than you’d expect, and there’s a growing community of home cooks who are beginning to revive traditional methods of food preservation and charcuterie. Preparing corned beef at home is a simple entrance into this lost art; moreover, the flavor is richer, less salty and more deeply spiced than the pre-packaged corned beef you find in the supermarket in the weeks before St. Patrick’s Day.
Pairing corned beef wih cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day is decidedly more of an Irish-american tradition than it is a strictly Irish tradition. The combination became popular in Irish-american homes during the 19th century as Irish immigrants began to settle down in American cities, they lacked easy access to their native foods – namely joints of cured pork which they customarily paired with cabbage – and thus began to use the more widely available cured beef.
While the combination of corned beef and cabbage may be more American than Irish, that’s not to say that cured beef lacks its own heritage. Curing meat with salt and brine, much like fermenting vegetables for sauerkraut or kimchi, has long been practiced. It was born out of practicality more than culinary preference as, prior to the days of refrigeration, people needed a way to preserve meat that could not be immediately consumed after harvest.
Traditionally, cooks would use saltpeter (a nitrate) to aid in curing their meat. Saltpeter would help to preserve the meat’s pinkish color which, otherwise, would turn a dingy grey. The substance was also to prevent contamination by pathogens. While one could certainly use nitrates or nitrites for preparing home-cured corned beef, both nitrites and nitrates are not with out their own host problems – having been linked to cancer. Surely, only a small amount is used.
In this recipe for home-cured corned beef, I skipped the inclusion of saltpeter and resolved instead to focus on fresh whey (a source of lactic acid) as well as celery juice, which are used to prepare nitrate- and nitrite-free cured meats. While the exclusion of nitrates and nitrites failed to produce a brilliantly pink piece of meat, it did produce a meat with a charming dusty rose hue.
As always, it is critical to choose grass-finished beef for home-curing as for any recipes here at Nourished Kitchen, it is a rich source of the wholesome fat conjugated linoleic acid which research indicates shows promise in the fight against cancer; moreover, violent strains of e. coli bacteria are greatly reduced in grass-fed beef.
- 2 to 3 lb grass-fed beef brisket or other cut of grass-fed beef
- ½ cup unrefined sea salt
- ½ cup pickling spices, (mustard seed, bay leafs, all spice berries, cloves, coriander, peppercorns etc.)
- 2 cups fresh whey
- 2 cups celery juice
- other items needed for curing beef:
- 100% cotton cheesecloth
- 100% cotton cooking string or twine
- lidded ceramic crock or glass bowl
- weight, (such as a ceramic plate)
- Rinse the beef brisket and pat it dry.
- Stir ½ cup unrefined sea salt with ½ cup pickling spice together and vigorously rub it into the beef. Roll the brisket together and tightly tie with 100% cotton cooking twine, then tightly wrap the brisket in 100% cotton cheesecloth.
- Set the beef in a lidded bowl or crock, and pour two cups fresh whey as well as two cups fresh celery juice over the beef to cover. If the mixture of fresh whey and celery juice does not completely submerge the meat, add enough filtered water to cover.
- Weigh down the beef with a clean ceramic plate or other weight, cover your pot or bowl securely.
- You may cure it in the refrigerator for a minimum of five days or upwards of ten days, or, try the method outlined by Sally Fallon in her landmark cookbook Nourishing Traditions (available on Amazon* or through independent sellers) which encourages curing corned beef at room temperature for two days or so.
- As the beef sits in brine, it’s important to turn the meat each day so that it cures evenly.
- Once the curing process is complete, approximately a week in the fridge, strain the beef and pickling spice from the brine. You can then serve home-cured corned beef as you would any corned beef. We prefer to add ours to the slow cooker along with fresh cabbage.