Real Corned Beef: Worth The Effort A hearty corned beef brisket and cabbage dinner is the staple of St. Patrick's Day meals across America. Have an experience, not just a meal, by brining the brisket yourself. The time and refrigerator space it takes will be worth it.
NPR logo Real Corned Beef: Worth The Effort

Real Corned Beef: Worth The Effort

Mike Petrucelli for NPR
Corned Beef
Mike Petrucelli for NPR

About The Author

Mike Petrucelli is the Food and Home editor at the South Bend Tribune. Being on the edge of city, farm and Amish country means there's always some good beef to be had. He lives in Plymouth, Ind., with his wife and two children, who silently (and not so silently) put up with whatever new food, recipe or technique he happens to be writing about. When they can't take anymore, he blogs at Something I Ate.

Every cook now and then is confronted by The Skeptical Heckler, that person who insists that all the time and effort you put into your latest kitchen masterpiece is wasted. All people really need to satisfy their hunger, the person reasons, is a drive-through.

Forget him. He doesn't know there's more at stake than just a full stomach.

Flavor matters, of course, but the epicurean knows that where you get your ingredients matters, too. How it was grown matters. How it was processed matters.

To wit, the staple of St. Patrick's Day meals across America — a hearty corned beef brisket and cabbage dinner. Yes, you can get the pink hunk of meat in a plastic bag, complete with "special spice packet." It'll fill you up. Guests will drop by and shovel it in.

But you're more than that. You care. You're no hash slinger — you're serious about food.

Considering that corned beef has been made since ye olden days, there's no reason you can't do it ye olde self. Have an experience, not just a meal.

The first time I brined my own brisket, I watched the butcher deftly trim a 14-pound slab of fat and meat down to 7 pounds of quality that fed my family and delighted co-workers.

The second time, I bought a brisket from the Ancilla Beef and Grain Farm, down the road from me, in Donaldson, Ind., and part of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ ministries, who want to teach people about their fragile relationship with the earth.

The cattle are pasture-raised, and any feed they do get has no animal protein, no hormones and no unnecessary antibiotics. Plus, the sisters bless the animals before they send them off to the (regional) butcher, perfect for St. Pat's Day.

In essence: immaculate beef. Of course, if you can't get such heavenly beef where you are, ask a butcher and don't be afraid to spend a bit. That's why cabbage is cheap.

The time and refrigerator space it took to brine the meat myself was worth it in the end. Yes, there was the smug self-satisfaction of buying local (made even more important in today's economy), but there was practical satisfaction as well. We live in farm country, after all.

By calling a local grocer, I received sage admonishment against Internet recipes that instruct the cook to spend up to a month soaking the beef. Said grocer shared a brine recipe that took just a week and was tastier than what comes from the chain-mart.

And the pasture-raised beef? Well, let me tell you. The first flavor that comes to mind with corned beef for most people is pickles. Makes sense — those are the spices used. But this cow ate grass, and solid, beefy flavor was the foundation of every bite and was way beyond anything I'd ever gotten from the store. Sure, there was the pickly flavor — but as the helpful sidekick to the strong and dependable beef.

And that's where The Skeptical Heckler will be defeated (and should admit it when he gets a bite of that dinner, should I deign to invite him). In the end, the food tastes better because it is better, and no one can argue with that. It's not that you're doing more than is necessary; it's just necessary to do more.

Corned Beef Brisket

Mike Petrucelli for NPR
Corned Beef Brisket
Mike Petrucelli for NPR

This recipe is adapted from Gene Bamber, owner of Bamber's Superette in South Bend, Ind. The recipe does not include saltpeter, which is used as a preservative but also gives corned beef that distinctive purplish-red color. I don't think you need it. Plus, I never really liked that color anyway. You can also braise the meat in the oven while the vegetables cook, instead of on the stovetop. You won't have to futz with it as much. Just make sure the cover has a tight seal. This tastes awesome if you make it a day ahead and let it sit in its braising liquid overnight. To do that, prepare through the braising, let cool and refrigerate. On the day you serve it, skim any congealed fat off the top of the liquid, and put the whole covered pot in the oven and warm it while you braise the vegetables.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 (3 to 4 pound) beef brisket (I like a flat cut, but the point cut will work, too)

2 garlic cloves, peeled and cut in thirds

Brine

4 cups water

1/2 cup kosher salt

1/4 cup white vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar

1 to 2 bay leaves

1/2 teaspoon peppercorns

1/4 teaspoon mustard seeds

Small pinch ground cloves

Braising Liquid

1 or 2 bottles stout beer

1/2 teaspoon peppercorns

1/4 teaspoon mustard seeds

1/4 teaspoon whole allspice

1/8 teaspoon whole cloves

2 garlic cloves, sliced

Combine brine ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil, then set aside to cool.

In a 2-gallon sealable plastic or plastic roasting/slow cooking bag, place the brisket, the brine (that you have mixed together) and the two garlic cloves. Make sure all the meat is covered by the brine (cut the brisket in pieces, if necessary). Press out as much air as possible, seal tightly, then place in a pot and refrigerate for about a week, turning occasionally.

Remove brisket from brine and discard brine. Rinse meat thoroughly, then place in a Dutch oven or other large pot. Pour beer over meat so it's 2/3 to 3/4 of the way up the sides of the meat. Drink leftover beer. If none is left, open another.

Add peppercorns, mustard seed, allspice, cloves and garlic. Bring to a low boil, skimming off any foam. Reduce heat to a low simmer and cook, tightly covered, for about 2 hours, turning halfway through the cooking time.

Let rest for 10 to15 minutes. Slice thinly across the grain and serve with mustard. (I'm partial to a nice, spicy stone-ground mustard.)

Braised Cabbage, Carrots And Potatoes

Mike Petrucelli for NPR
Braised Cabbage, Carrots And Potatoes
Mike Petrucelli for NPR

I used the simple braised cabbage recipe found in Molly Stevens' most excellent All About Braising (W.W. Norton 2004) as a jumping off point.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 head cabbage, cut into eight wedges

4 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces

4 carrots, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces

1 leek, cleaned, white and light green parts only, sliced (optional)

1/4 cup beef broth

1/4 cup flavorful lager or ale

1/4 cup vegetable or canola oil

Salt and black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Place cabbage in single layer in large baking dish or roasting pan. Scatter potatoes, carrots and leek, if using. Pour broth, beer and oil over all. Season with salt and pepper. There is still two-thirds of a beer left. Drink that, too. This is the best dinner ever.

Braise vegetables in oven until cabbage is fully tender, about 2 hours, turning cabbage wedges halfway through cooking time and adding water, broth or beer if it's getting dry.

Uncover, increase heat to 400 degrees, and cook until vegetables begin to brown, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Reuben Sandwiches

Mike Petrucelli for NPR
Reuben Kincaid
Mike Petrucelli for NPR

To my mind, a Reuben sandwich is about the only thing leftover corned beef should be used for. Corned beef piled high on rye bread with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian or Thousand Island dressing is truly one of the great sandwiches of the world. Instead of sauerkraut, I simply use some leftover cabbage. If you don't have any leftover cabbage and you need to use kraut, be sure to press and drain it well.

Butter or oil

Sliced rye bread

Good Russian or Thousand Island dressing

Cooked cabbage, shredded, or sauerkraut, pressed dry

Sliced Swiss cheese (such as Emmentaler or Gruyere)

Thinly sliced corned beef

Spread one side of each of two slices of bread with butter or brush with oil.

Place one slice of bread in heavy skillet and spread with about a tablespoon of dressing. Add a layer of cabbage, then a layer of cheese, then beef. Spread the second slice of bread with another tablespoon of dressing and top off the sandwich.

Fry over medium to medium-low heat until bread is brown and crisped. Carefully flip sandwich. Place another heavy skillet or plate weighted with cans on top of sandwich and cook until browned, crisped and melty. Let set for a couple of minutes before cutting in half and serving.