For me, one of life’s simple pleasures is to tuck into a delicious corned beef sandwich. Richly marbled beef, with a melt in your mouth texture and a slight salty tang. Pile it on soft rye bread, add a smear of deli mustard, and you have a great sandwich.
Store bought corned beef has never done it for me. Too salty, too chemical tasting, tough meat, no flavor. Sorry, but it just doesn’t cut it. Rein’s Deli in Vernon is an alternative, but It's a schlep to get out there. So I decided to try my hand at homemade corned beef. I wanted to see if I could duplicate the flavor and texture of New York deli style corned beef. Naturally I turned to the Internet for some guidance. After researching various recipes, I settled on Alton Brown’s recipe for corned beef. It had mostly positive reviews and I have used his other recipes with great success.
(The recipe has the list of ingredients and cooking instructions. I substituted the saltpeter for the Prague Powder #1.)
Corned beef has nothing to do with corn. Rather it is beef that has been cured or pickled in a brine solution. The term corn comes from the old English term for coarse-grained salt. Before refrigeration, salt was used to preserve meat. The brine also has herbs and aromatics to enhance the flavor of the beef. Pink salt can be added to act as a preservative and to give the corned beef its characteristic pink color. I used Prague Powder #1 which has 93.75% table salt and 6.25% sodium nitrite. It is not necessary to add it to the brine, but I wanted the preservative aspect as well as the color. Sodium Nitrite's main use in food is to prevent botulism. A very nasty disease.
I picked up a nice brisket from Stew Leonard’s in Newington. I have used their brisket in the past for making BBQ and have always been satisfied with the meat. If you are lucky they may even have it on sale for $3.99 a pound. I wasn’t so lucky; I paid $4.99. I look for one with a nice thick fat cap and good marbling. Yes, I know, fat is not that good for you, but it does add a lot of taste. Besides, you are not going to eat this everyday. Right?
Next I started to get all of the necessary herbs, spices and aromatics together. I had most of the items in my spice drawer. The allspice and juniper berries necessitated a trip to Penzey’s Spices in West Hartford. The Pink Salt was a whole ‘nother story. I could not find it in any grocery or specialty store in my area. I eventually had to piggy-back it on a book order from Amazon. Finally I could assemble the troops.
The recipe is very straightforward. Everything into the pool and boil until the salt is dissolved. Cool the mixture to about 45 degrees. I added a few cups of ice per the recipe and then put the pot out in the garage for a few hours. You could stick in the refrigerator if you have room.
I placed the brisket and brine in a large Zip-Lock bag, squeezed the air out and made sure that the brine covered the brisket. I put that inside another bag, placed the whole thing into a large TupperWare container and put it into the refrigerator. The recipe calls for a brine of ten days, but I left it in for fifteen. I also turned it everyday to make sure that the brisket was completely submerged.
I removed the brisket from the brine and rinsed it for a few minutes under cold water to remove any residual salt. The brisket went into a pot of water with a large onion and a handful of baby carrots. The recipe called for a stalk of celery too, but I didn’t have any celery in the house. It was eight in the morning, and I wasn’t leaving the confines of my warm, cozy house. Trust me, you won’t miss it.
I boiled it for a total of three hours. After two and a half hours, I checked for doneness, but it was still not fork tender. Three hours was the magic number. I pulled it out of the water, put it on the cutting board and let it rest for twenty minutes.
I sliced off a few pieces, placed them on some fresh rye bread and gave it a good "schmear" of Grey Poupon Country Dijon. Now the moment of truth. Did I just waste twenty some odd dollars on meat and spices? One bite told me otherwise. WOW! Rich, succulent meat that melted in my mouth. The meat was so tender it nearly fell apart. The herbs and spices from the brining process gave it that distinctive corned beef taste. Honestly, as good OR better than New York deli corned beef. Add the salty bite from the mustard to the tart taste from the rye and this sandwich is a home run. Rein's, eat your heart out!