There's nothing corny at all about corned beef brisket. The term "corning," refers to the size of the salt in which the brisket is cured. In Old English, the word "corn" was used to describe any small particle or grain. As it is no longer necessary to cure meats as a form of preservation, today, we still enjoy this salty, flavorful beef because we love the taste. I've bought the pre-corned beef before (which in my opinion is cheating), but the flavor is incomparable to corning it yourself. The recipe below gets the seasonings just right and is incredibly easy to prepare. After all, half the fun comes from corning it yourself! I'll be making this brisket in honor of St. Patrick's Day (albeit a week later), so I'll post the finished product and a little history of the dish in the days to come.
If you've ever wondered why cooked corned beef is traditionally a light rosy pink color, it's because it has nitrates added to the brine. Generally speaking, I try to buy meats and sausages that are nitrate free, as studies have suggested nitrates cause cancer. Yikes! Why would I want to cook with something that could potentially cause cancer you ask? Well, it's not like I go around eating it at every meal, so having it every now and again or on special occasions isn't going to do much harm.
Back in the day, before modern refrigeration, saltpeter (potassium nitrate) was an essential ingredient used in the meat curing process, which prevented the growth of bacteria that cause botulism. Today, you won't be able to walk into any grocery store and find saltpeter. This is due to the fact that potassium nitrate, aside from curing meat, is commonly used in pyrotechnics and rocket ignition compounds (I bet you want to get it now, just to feel like a badass). You can order food grade potassium nitrate online through The Science Company and it usually ships the next business day. The use of saltpeter to keep the meat pink is entirely optional, so if buying it online sounds too complicated or you're opposed to adding nitrates to your food, leave it out! I've made it without saltpeter and it was still incredibly delicious, just brown in color instead of pink. Another option, is to substitute the saltpeter for Morton's Tender Quick (a mixture of salt, sugar, sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite, and propylene glycol). You can sometimes find it at well stocked grocery stores or online.
CORNED BEEF BRISKET
Recipe courtesy Alton Brown
2 quarts water
1 cup kosher salt
½ cup brown sugar (light or dark)
2 tbsp. saltpeter, crushed to a powder (optional)
1 cinnamon stick, broken up
1 tsp. mustard seeds
1 tsp. black peppercorns
8 whole cloves
8 whole allspice berries
12 whole juniper berries
2 bay leaves, crumbled
½ tsp. ground ginger
2 lbs. ice (about 2 ½ trays of ice)
1 (4 to 5 lb.) beef brisket, trimmed
2 2-gallon-sized zip top bags
Place the water into a large 6 to 8 quart stockpot along with salt, sugar, saltpeter, cinnamon stick, mustard seeds, peppercorns, cloves, allspice, juniper berries, bay leaves, and ginger. Cook over high heat until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Remove from the heat and add the ice. Stir until the ice has melted. Place the brine in the refrigerator until it reaches a temperature of 45 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer.