March 13, 2014 Updated: March 13, 2014 at 9:25 am
"Several years ago I had a homemade corned beef brisket at someone's home," she said. "It tasted so much better, and I decided I wanted to learn how to do it, too."
She turned to Bruce Aidells, famous sausage maker and cookbook author - and, she says, "the master of meat" - for some guidelines. That was 10 years ago, and since then she has used his corned beef recipe to make her own St. Paddy's Day entr?.
"I usually corn two fresh briskets and invite a lot of people over for the dinner," she said. "If you're going to spend the time waiting for the meat to brine, you might as well make a big batch."
We picked up tips for corning beef brisket from Andrew Sherrill, executive chef at the Blue Star, at his cooking class held last year at Savory Spice Shop. At the time, he and Mark Henry, chef at the Meat Locker in the Ivywild School, were gearing up for the opening of the charcuterie shop, so making corned beef was right up their alley.
"Any cut of beef can be 'corned'," he said. "But the best cuts are the tougher, less-expensive cuts, such as brisket."
According to Harold McGee, author of "On Food and Cooking," "corned" refers to corn, which was originally a generic term for grain, and is derived from the same root as kernel and grain. Corning beef refers to curing beef with grains of salt. Essentially you are soaking the brisket in a solution of water, kosher salt, sugar, garlic, fresh ginger and pickling spices. The beauty of doing your own corning is having the freedom of adjusting the seasonings to suit your tastes.
One sticking point is whether to use pink salt cure or not. The purpose of the pink salt is twofold: It acts as a color-retaining agent and it inhibits bacterial growth. If you want corned beef with the rosy pink color you see in delis or the grocery store variety, you should use pink salt cure. Curing salts are generally a mixture of table salt, sodium nitrite and sometimes sodium nitrate. It is colored bright pink to avoid confusion with regular salt.
"If you want to omit the pink salt, but still want that color, you can substitute celery powder or juice, as they naturally contain nitrates," Sherrill said. "I will say, however, that using these is far less accurate because the amount of nitrate in these products isn't regulated, versus pink salt where you know what you're getting.
"The misconception about nitrates causing cancer might be because some studies in the '70s showed that when exposed to high heat (burnt), they form nitrosamines which are known carcinogens. With the FDA guidelines on nitrates/nitrites, and if you follow a reputable recipe, people shouldn't worry about them. The one safety issue is that pink salt should always be cooked before eaten."
When we experimented with Sherrill's recipe, we opted for the pink salt cure sold at Savory Spice Shop, 110 N. Tejon St., where we also purchased pre-mixed pickling spices. We bought an 8-pound piece of brisket at The Butcher Block, 2817 Dublin Blvd., a new meat shop. You can find pickling spices at Penzeys Spices or grocery stores, or make your own blend. Pink salt cure can also be ordered online or purchased at Andy's Meat Market, where you can get fresh brisket, too. You'll need a pot large enough to hold the brisket and a gallon of water, and time for the salt and spices to do their magic - at least five days refrigerated.
At the end of five days of soaking, the brisket was rinsed and we placed it in a large pot with whole carrots and red potatoes. A bottle of stout was added and enough water to cover the meat and veggies with some additional pickling spices. It simmered, covered, for three hours. A head of sliced cabbage was added during the last 30 minutes.
Before serving, we spread Dijon mustard over the fatty layer of meat and packed on some brown sugar. The meat was placed under a hot broiler and broiled until the brown sugar was bubbly and lightly browned.
The result was simply the best corned beef we have eaten. It was worth the wait and definitely something that will become our St. Paddy's Day tradition.