Corned Beef is a lot like Bill Murray, and if you’re wondering, what is corned beef?, hang in there with me!
Bill Murray is so exceptional at the first thing we knew him for (absurdist comedy), that despite ample evidence of his mastery of other emotions and genres, there are still people who only want the slapstick. Don’t get me wrong, I love Caddyshack and Ghostbusters as much as any red-blooded American: but where would American Cinema (and our larger pop culture) be without Rushmore, Royal Tennenbaums, Groundhog Day, Monument Men and more.
Which brings us to Corned Beef. Because it’s March.
What is Corned Beef?
Most people are happy to partake of St Patrick’s Day corned beef and cabbage out of respect for tradition, and who doesn’t love the occasional plate of hash? But outside of isolated geographic pockets where Reuben sandwiches are popular (and seriously, how many of those can you really eat?), most people do little else with it.
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There is so much more to corned beef than meets the eye — a lot like Bill Murray.
Many people avoid corned beef due to its “running buddy” cabbage. Or traumatic childhood memories of New England Boiled-To-Death Dinner, which is a total misnomer because it shouldn’t be boiled. More on that later.
So why bother buying and storing Corned Beef (hereafter, “CB”)? Several reasons, which we’ll get to below. But first, let’s look at what CB is. And isn’t.
1) There is no corn (or llama).
It’s beef brisket cured with salt and spices. Typically sold brined in cryovac bags with an extra spice packet, it is also seen “dry” in butcher shops and sliced for sandwiches in delis. Be aware though, that the stuff at the deli counter in a grocery store often bears little resemblance to the genuine article.
“Corned” refers to the large, grain-like salt particles and whole spice mixture used to cure it. This technique was popularized and carried around the world in a time when “corn” was a generic term synonymous with “grain.” It could just as easily have been dubbed “grained beef”.
And it is beef. Apparently, there is still a lot of concern that canned CB is horse, llama, or other meats not commonly consumed in the U.S. The USDA requires that it actually is beef. And it’s not random flotsam and jetsam either. It’s nearly always brisket but sometimes other cuts are included, though none of what Anthony Bourdain has dubbed “the nasty bits.”
The seasoning packet that comes with it can be any combo of mustard seed, coriander seed, fennel seed, bay leaf, peppercorns, allspice berries, and occasionally juniper berries. Many people, myself included, use only a small amount. I’ve discovered that many people who hate CB actually like it with less seasoning or just hate one of those spices, usually coriander or juniper. You can pick them out or make your own blend of just bay leaf, mustard seed, peppercorns and an allspice berry. If you use a ready-made pickling spice blend, add a couple bay leaves if there aren’t any in the ingredients list.
By the way, the difference between CB and pastrami is that pastrami is smoked, often cured longer and with more spices and steamed for serving. It is almost exclusively a sandwich ingredient and usually has steaming juice applied to the said sandwich.
2) Why is some $1.49 and some $3.29?
Prices have gone wildly up this year and the 2 prices are closer together. I think all the brisket is being used for Texas dry-rub. So maybe just say “What’s with the 2 different kinds and prices?”
The answer is that there are 2 different cuts: point and flat. Point is fattier inside and out. It’s more marbled so it stays moister but tends to shred and shrinks more. It’s less expensive because you’re paying for more fat and it’s not as pretty or as convenient for sandwiches. Some say it tastes better than flat, but that’s subjective.
Flat is less marbled, so it has less fat and the fibers are a little different so it shrinks less. It makes prettier slices on a platter and it’s neater in a sandwich. It’s only dry if overcooked, cooked too fast, or not enough sauce/broth is used. Flat is typically also what’s used for Texas BBQ (NOT grilling).
Either way, it’s a tough, working muscle, so it requires long, low-temp cooking. Hence all the BBQ and slow-cookers.
It may be helpful to learn more about cuts of meat.
6 Reasons to store corned beef?
Those cryovac bags have a shelf life of 2-3 months! Every March, I buy about 10 of them when they’re cheap and I toss 3 in the bottom of the fridge and just huck the rest in the freezer without further ado. CB is widely available canned but good luck finding any that isn’t from Brazil or Argentina. Even if it says “canned in the USA”, the beef is probably still South American or else it would say otherwise.
If you have ecological concerns about rain forest depletion or just want more control of your product, it’s easily home canned. I confess, I’ve never done it, but I’ve started a monthly “Preservation Days” group, and it’s one of our upcoming projects. There are bunches of online videos and tutorials that show how.
As you know, spices grow stronger in the canning process, so use a light hand. I’m going to try grinding the spices and only putting a tiny pinch in each jar.”
If things ever do get to that stage, there are going to be half-prepared people who need stuff to put on all that rice/beans/pasta. There are also going to be people who didn’t think to store pet food and might be interested in any canned meat for Fido and Fluffy.
In hard or scary times, never underestimate the comfort power of hash! And remember that hash as a breakfast food is a holdover from a time when there was no central heating and when most Americans were engaged in physically harder work. What if that were the case again?
Thanks to colonial empires, half the world eats corned beef. There are iconic homestyle dishes containing it all over the world, especially in places that had little rural electricity well into the 20th Century. Canned CB became a survival staple in such places and lingers there in down-home comfort foods.
The Survival Skill satisfaction of making your own
Curing your own is as easy as pie. There are basically 2 schools of thought on this. The more iconic pink color (which comes from saltpeter, available in many hunting/camping stores, some pharmacies, or online) with a traditional, sweeter, more baking-spice flavor as in Michael Ruhlman’s recipe. Saltpeter is sodium nitrate and mankind has been using it to preserve food since the Middle Ages. It’s now more refined and standardized, so results are more predictable but there are health concerns about possible carcinogens so just don’t go crazy. And it’s a common migraine trigger. Besides color, it also adds a more sour note and is balanced by a sweeter brine. Or, don’t use saltpeter (which leaves the meat grey) and a more savory flavor profile, as in one of my favorite cookbooks, The Best Recipe.
But the Number One reason to stock up on corned beef is,
Depending on the recipe, it can be substituted for other beef, ham, bacon, and of course, Spam. Or just added to many classic dishes, as in:
- Shepherd’s Pie
- Beef Stroganoff
- Biscuits and Gravy
- Mac and Cheese
- Sloppy Joes
- Poutine (pile of fries w/cheese curds and gravy. Thank you, Quebec!)
- Hawaiian “Sushi” in place of the Spam
- Mixed into onion gravy over polenta, potatoes, or noodles
- …or simply heat and serve next to roasted veggies!
Now about that Boiled Dinner…
Whether you use home-cured or store-bought, the Cook’s Illustrated Boiled Dinner/ CB and cabbage recipe is the best. Basically, the meat is gently simmered until tender and then removed from the stove top and rested in a 200 degree oven while potatoes/carrots simmer in the liquid for about 10 minutes and then add onions, parsnips, and cabbage wedges (with core intact but removed later) added to pot. Continue simmering till all is tender. My family smashes the potatoes with a fork and applies the broth. If you reeeeally don’t like cabbage, do try this method before giving up on it for good. If you’ve only had it boiled into oblivion, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised!
In researching this article, the Internet offered me several recipes for Corned Beef Poutine with Guinness Gravy. While looking for one without the Guinness, I stumbled upon these corned beef pretzel sliders.
Oh. My. Gosh.
You could keep the
You could keep these to yourself, but you really should serve them to company or…
“Nobody’s going to believe you…”
Here are some resources mentioned in the article
- Home canning corned beef (video)
- Learn how to can with this DVD, “At Home Canning for Beginners and Beyond“
- Pickling spices for DIY corned beef
- The New Best Recipe from Cook’s Illustrated Magazine
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