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The Food Lab's Guide to Corned Beef and the Science of Simmering

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

When most people cook corned beef brisket, what do they do? They just chuck it in a pot with a bunch of cabbage, potatoes, and carrots, bring it up to a boil, and let it simmer away until tender, right? And frankly, the results are tasty.

I really love corned beef. Its salty, spicy, beefy flavor always reminds me of eating a hot dog in the shape of a steak, and who wouldn't love that? Yum. But the question is, just as a well-boiled hot dog is so much better than a haphazardly boiled dog, shouldn't such a noble food as corned beef be deserving of the most exacting treatment, the most precise controls to optimize the end results?

There are two basic steps to corned beef: the rub, and the cooking. The rub consists of a mix of spices, and more importantly, the salt and nitrites that give corned beef its characteristic hammy flavor. For the past few weeks, I've been exhaustively poring over every step of the curing and cooking process in an effort to produce the absolute best corned beef ever.

I've cooked 38 pounds of beef in my tiny apartment, which is driving the dog absolutely wild. Let's see if it's been worth the effort, shall we?

The Rub

First, a bit of history. Despite its strong association with Ireland, corned beef historically has had an extremely low consumption rate in that country. Which is not to say that they didn't produce it.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the green fields of Ireland were used to graze cattle to produce corned beef that went mainly to feeding British civilians, the British and American navies and armies (its long shelf life made it ideal for overseas journeys), and for trade with the French. The average Irishman was too poor to afford the very beef they were raising, instead relying on a diet mainly of pork and lamb.

It wasn't until the mass Irish immigration into the United States that the Irish lower class started consuming corned beef in large quantities. The cheap price of beef in the U.S., as well as the Irish's close proximity to Jewish immigrant groups (who were busy producing their own salted beef specialty—pastrami) is what drove this consumption.

To this day, very little corned beef is consumed in Ireland by the Irish. If you've got any real Irish friends (and no, your buddy from Massachusetts who puts on a green shirt pops back a few Guinnesses and gets rowdy in Southie once a year does not count), go on and ask'em. Really.*

*Check out a more complete history here.

That said, the only thing that really matters to me is how the stuff tastes. The chemistry and physics of cooking have always interested me more than just fiddling around with flavors. After all, flavors are a matter of preference while the interaction between Sodium Chloride and muscle proteins is a matter of science!

But like a good little Irish boy eating the oat puffs out of the Lucky Charms* before moving on to the marshmallows, I decided to perfect my spice blend before tackling the real meat of the matter. The main flavoring constituents of corned beef are largely derived from those used for pastrami (another artifact of the close Irish-Jew immigrant relationship): mustard, black pepper, coriander seed, allspice, and a bit of clove.

*Another thoroughly Irish dish!

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Ah! That's the rub.

On top of that, a bit of dehydrated powdered ginger seemed to work nicely, as did some fennel seeds and crushed bay leaves. Yawn.

See why flavors seem too fiddly to me? A bit of this, a little of that, blah blah blah. Here's the truth: I used these spices in this ratio because I like the way they taste. If you think you'll like things to taste the way I like them to taste, then go ahead and use the same ingredients (the recipe can be found here). If not, feel free to change up those spices with whatever you'd like.

The part that can't be changed, however, is the...

Salt

Salt is actually where the term "corned beef" derives from. "Corn" is the old English word for "kernel" (see how similar they sound?). It referred to any kind of small, hard object, like, say, a large grain of salt. Corned beef is called corned beef because of the salt "corns" used to preserve it. But how does salt affect meat anyway?

*This is back in the day when shops still came with an extra "pe" at the end and kernels were not the bridge between applications and processing centers in modern computers.

Here's what Harold McGee has to say about salt-cured hams, which, aside from basic taxonomy, are extraordinarily similar to corned beef:

High salt concentrations cause the normally tightly bunched protein filaments in the muscle cells to separate into individual filaments, which are too small to scatter light: so the normally opaque muscle tissue becomes translucent. the same un-bunching also weakens the muscle fibers, while at the same time dehydration makes the tissue denser and more concentrated: hence the close but tender texture.

So it follows that the more effectively salted a piece of meat is, the more opaque it will be, and the closer and denser the texture.

So I wondered: if you increase the salt concentration of the brining solution, could you more effectively corn your beef? What if I took it to the extreme, not using a brine at all, but simply salting the beef like I would a ham, then sealing it in an airless container to keep the salt tightly in contact with it at all times?

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Brined beef on the left, dry-cured beef on the right.

The idea is that initially, the salt should draw juices out from the beef through the action of osmosis—the tendency of liquids to move across a semi-permeable barrier from areas of low salt concentration to high. Once the liquid has exited the beef, it would form a highly concentrated brine by dissolve the salt on the beef's surface.

This brine in turn would dissolve protein filaments, allowing the beef to retain more moisture, and causing it to eventually reabsorb the brine, which should gradually work its way towards the center of the meat. If all goes well, the flavorful compounds from the spices should be able to pull an Arthur Dent* and hitch along for the ride. And indeed, it works.

*Who's Arthur Dent," you say?

If you take a look at the photo above, you can see that the brisket on the right, cured in a vacuum-sealed pouch with only salt and spices is a deeper red and more opaque than that on the left which was cured in a bag with a regular brine (also airtight). Cooking and tasting the two pieces of beef side-by-side confirmed it as well: the dry-cured beef had deeper flavor penetration and superior texture to the brined beef.

Dry-curing it would be.

Nitrates

Of course, salt ain't the only chemical involved with curing. Take a gander at the label on this commercial package of corned beef:

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If you were then to look at the sell-by date, you'd see that it's actually several months away. What lends it that extraordinary preservative power?

Well, for centuries, people have made use of saltpeter, also known as nitrate of potash, or by its chemical name, Potassium Nitrate (that's a potassium atom attached to a nitrogen atom with three oxygen atoms) to help preserve meat. It's one of the primary ingredients in gunpowder, and in years past, it was carefully synthesized by soaking hay in aged human urine (or, if you preferred, collected from bat guano deposits).

Ick, right? Its preservative powers when added to a brine are, however, amazing.

As meat sits in a nitrate-rich brine, certain salt-friendly bacteria will transform nitrates into nitrites (a similar molecule with only two oxygen molecules attached instead of three). These nitrites then not only destroy the very bacteria that created them, they also that provide flavor advantages to meat.

One problem is that this transformation from nitrates to nitrites by bacteria is not easily predictable, meaning that it's difficult to gauge exactly how well a specific concentration of saltpeter will work in a brine. These days, synthesized nitrites are readily, and so saltpeter is only rarely used in meat preservation. Sodium nitrite is what you'll find in so-called "pink salt," a mixture of sodium chloride (table salt) and sodium nitrite which is dyed pink in order for you to easily distinguish it from regular salt (you don't want to accidentally ingest too much sodium nitrite).

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Read label carefully

Being the luddite that I am, potassium nitrate is is all I carry at home, so that's what I crossed my fingers and used for my corned beef. Do note that the bottle specifically says "FOR TECHNICAL USE ONLY." I like to live dangerously.

So how to nitrites work to preserve meat? First off, they are flavorful. They are what give hams and corned beef their characteristic tang. It also inhibits the growth of the few types of bacteria that are tolerant of salty environments. Finally, it helps preserve color.

We all know that meat turns from red to brown as the main muscle pigment myoglobin oxidizes and turns into metmyoglobin, a reaction catalyzed by free iron atoms in the meat, right? (I mean, who doesnt?). Well when nitrites react with meat, they form nitric oxide (that's nitrogen with but a single oxygen molecule), which in turn bonds with the iron, thus preventing the reaction that transforms myoglobin into metmyoglobin, allowing beef (or ham) to retain its deep pink color, even when fully cooked, like in the photo below, taken by our very own dbcurrie for her blog cookistry.

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No nitrates on the left, yes nitrates on the right. [Photograph: Donna Currie]

Thanks Donna! Interestingly enough, this is the exact same reaction that occurs with barbecued meats to form the pink smoke ring around their edges. But that's neither here nor there.

Moral of the story: You can certainly corn beef without the nitrites, but it won't taste the same, last as long, or look the same.

Cooking

Now that we know exactly what corned beef is, how do we cook the darned things?

Here's the deal: brisket is not a tender cut of meat. It contains a ton of connective tissue, all of which must be broken down before it can be easily chewed and digested. This takes means applying heat.

One of the most important lessons you can learn about cooking meat is that there are two basic types of reactions that occur when heat is applied: fast reactions, and slow reactions.

Tender cuts of meat like, say, a strip steak will undergo various physical changes depending on temperature. These changes are fast reactions, and take place almost instantly. As soon as a steak hits 150°F, you'll know that its muscle fibers have contracted enough to squeeze out about 12% of its moisture, and there's no turning back.

On the other hand, the breakdown of connective tissue—mainly composed of collagen—into soft, succulent gelatin is also temperature dependent, but it takes a long time. How long? I decided to find out.

Using a vacuum sealer and my sous-vide supreme water oven, I cooked several pieces of the same brisket at 160°F for various periods of time, starting with a mere two hours, all the way up to a full 36 hours. After cooking, I removed the sealed bags from the water oven and chilled them overnight. The next day, I opened all the bags together and transferred them to plates. Here's what I saw:

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Varying degrees of gelatin.

As you can see, the less I cooked the meat, the thinner the liquid exuded from the bag, clearly demonstrating that over the course of time, more and more collagen will get broken down into gelatin, which effectively thickens the cooking liquid. Cutting into and tasting each piece of beef confirmed this: the longer it cooked, the more the connective tissue was broken down, and the more tender it was. This is the case not just for corned beef, but for any kind of slow-cooked meats, whether its barbecued pork ribs, or duck confit.

Of course, time is not the only factor when slow-cooking—temperature can be just as important, if not more so.

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To figure to exactly how it affects texture and moisture, I cooked identical pieces of beef at 160, 175, 190, and 205°F, keeping track of exactly how long it took to fully tenderize the meat within each temperature range. Here's what I found:

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The amount of time needed to tenderize a piece of meat seems to increase exponentially as the temperature gets lower. The beef was fully tender after 15 hours at 175°F, but took a full 36 to tenderize at 160°. Bump the temperature all the way to 205°F—that's the temperature of a simmering pot on the stovetop, more or less—and your cooking time is reduced to 3 hours.

So obviously, the best way to cook the beef is to just boil the heck out of it until tender, right?

Not so fast. Take a look at the next graph first.

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In this chart, I plotted the temperature it was cooked at along with the amount of moisture the beef lost. If you remember, moisture getting squeezed out of muscle fibers due to temperature increase is a fast reaction. That means that whether I boil a piece of beef for 3 hours or 20 hours, it makes little difference to the overall moisture level. The only thing that really matters is temperature. at 160°F, about 30% of the brisket's has gone out the window. Bring it up to 190°F, and we're looking at 48% moisture loss. All the way up to 205°F, the temperature at which most people cook their beef, and we're at a whopping 53% moisture loss!

Indeed, just looking at the beef gives you a glimpse of what's going on:

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Beef cooked until tender at different temperatures.

So really, to retain the maximum amount of moisture, I wanted to cook it at as low a temperature as possible. That said, tasted side-by-side, I actually preferred the slightly drier, flakier beef cooked at 175°. It just seemed more like the corned beef I was used to. Further testing showed that for my taste, 180°F cooked for around 10 hours was just about ideal, producing meat that was simultaneously tender and succulent.

How does one maintain this ideal temperature of 180°F? Well, if you've got a sous-vide style water oven and vacuum sealer, that's your best bet. Your second (far cheaper) option is a slow cooker. Most will maintain a temperature of around 170 to 180°F when set to the "keep warm" setting. Use a thermometer to double check the temperature of yours, and adjust your cooking time accordingly with the graph above.

Don't have a slow cooker or a water bath? You may be able to hack it together on the stove. Just use a large volume of water in a really big pot, bring it up to 180°F, drop in your beef, cover the pot, then set the heat to the lowest possible setting. Adjust it as necessary so that the pot hovers at around 180° for the entire cooking period. Once you've got it set at the right heat level, you should be able to leave it there relatively unattended until your beef is cooked.

And remember: if you want your beef flakier, just cook it at a higher temperature for a shorter time. Prefer it more dense and moist? Try a lower temperature for a longer time. Got it?

Nice Slice

The only problem remaining was the vegetables. Since the pectin holding together the cell walls of potatoes, carrots, and cabbage is much tougher than the collagen in meat cells, it needs to be cooked to a higher temperature in order to soften—183°F is the magic number, a few degrees higher than I was taking my beef. This meant that I'd need to cook the vegetables separately.

But potatoes cooked in the salty, beefy liquid is one of the best parts of a St. Patrick's day boiled supper, ain't it? The solution was quite simple, and ended up killing two birds with one stone.

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Slice with ease.

Trying to slice through a hot, slippery, tender brisket is like trying to gut a live fish with a plastic knife—it ain't pretty. It is far easier to allow the corned beef to cool completely (in some of its liquid, of course), then slice it when it as firmed up again.

To this end, I decided that cooking my brisket the day before was the way to go. After that, all I had to do to serve the next day was to boil the vegetables in the brisket-brine, slice the meat, reheat, and serve.

Here's the set-up I rigged to do just that:

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The final day.

In the pot below is the majority of the corned beef juice along with the potatoes, carrots, and cabbage—cut into thick wedges with the core still attached, per my preference. Up top is a skillet layered with sliced corned beef and a couple ladles-full of liquid to moisten it. By covering the skillet on the top, the beef can gently steam through as the vegetables tenderize underneath. Serve'em all together, and nobody at the table need know that they weren't attending the same party.

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My testing in order, I could finally rest confidently knowing that whether corned beef is Irish, American, Irish-American, British, Caribbean, whatever, it's one thing for certain: Frickin' delicious.

Now, does anyone know what to do with 37 pounds of leftovers?

Continue for the full recipe! »

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