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Corned Beef

Best corned beef

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Despite my Irish(ish) heritage, the annual St. Patrick’s Day corned beef adventure is one that I have, so far, avoided at all costs. Like a lot of other folks, wearing green, imbibing in stout beer and Irish coffee is about as Mac-involved as I really care to be. The Irish, let’s face it, aren’t usually known for their culinary prowess and if we’re being honest here, boiling meat within an inch of its life is not my idea of good eats. 
Quaint and authentic yes. Delish? Not usually. Just pass the scones and oatmeal and we’ll call it good.
But here’s the thing: Corned beef is a uniquely American food steeped in history (along with pickling spices, but more on that later). It’s the culinary match that could only be made in New York, the lovechild of Jewish immigrants’ plentiful kosher beef brisket and Irish immigrants’ love of salty, boiled meats. Throw in a little cabbage, some pickling spices and potatoes and what we think of as Boiled Dinner (or Corned Beef and Cabbage) was born. In fact, so American was this invention that Abraham Lincoln served it as his inauguration and millions still consume it as a right of spring.*
So, how to do it right? 

The important issue is getting a good cut of meat — one that’s minimally processed and ideally hasn’t been dunked in too many odd chemicals, among them, sodium nitrate (also known as saltpeter). Most pre-packaged corned beef includes this controversial preservative (as do many other preserved meats like salami, hot dogs, etc.) that some say can lead to cancer in large amounts. I wouldn’t get too concerned about a single serving of corned beef once a year, but better butchers do it without the stuff — notably Pacific Market. What you’re paying for is the quality of meat and the handling. I tend to lean toward a small cut of the good stuff. It also makes for a less intensely salty piece of meat.
Typically, corned beef is brisket, a cut of beef from the chest area that does well with long-cooking times. It can also be from the “round” of beef, which is closer to the hind end and tends to be leaner and hold together better.
The “corning” in corned beef has nothing to do with corn, but with the style of preserving the meat. Originally the beef was treated with “corns” of salt, though today most start with a salt brine then add a pickling mixture that includes herbs like cinnamon, mustard seed, bay leaves, allspice, dill seed, cloves, ginger, peppercorns, coriander, juniper berries, mace, or cardamom. 
The most traditional way to cook corned beef is to boil it for three or so hours in water. It keeps the meat moist and tender, but doesn’t infuse a ton of flavor into the meat. Slow cookers are also popular, and in one recipe I tested, you can get a different flavor from using apple juice or beer rather than water to cook the meat. Least traditional is braising, or long-cooking the meat in the oven, which can dry out the meat.
Here are some recipes BiteClub tried…
The meats:
– Pacific market house corned beef ($4.99 pound)
– Olivers’ Harris Ranch corned beef (2.99 pound)
– Safeway: Shenson Corned Beef ($2.99 pound)
– Whole Foods corned beef round ($4.99 pound)
The results: 
The boiled meats were clearly the most juicy and tender, with the Pacific Market corned beef taking the prize for taste and color — bright red inside. I recommend this method as the most fool-proof. The slow-cooked cornbeef in vinegar, using the round was tough and dry. The braised corned beef, though it perfumed the house and promised to be amazing, was a rubbery disaster that was inedible. I blame the cook.
++++++++
What makes corned beef different from pastrami? It’s the smoke. Pastrami is just corned beef that’s taken a trip through the smoker.
* A little history lesson: A boiled bacon joint was more traditional fare for the Irish, but less easy to find in 1800’s New York. So those clever Irish immigrants used what was available — beef brisket — instead.
And don’t forget the sauce! What saves a ho-hum corned beef dinner from disaster is a good sauce. Stir horseradish into sour cream for a creamy horseradish sauce or try this adapted recipe for mustard sauce.
Mustard Cream Sauce
1½ tablespoons butter
½ cup brown sugar firmly packed
¼ cup prepared mustard
? teaspoon pepper
1 egg
¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup heavy cream
Melt butter in small saucepan. Remove from heat, set aside to cool. In small bowl, with rotary beater, beat egg, sugars, mustard, salt, and pepper untill well combined. Beat in vinegar, stir mixture into cooled butter, mix well. Over medium heat, bring to boiling, stirring. Reduce heat; simmer 3 minutes. Serve hot.

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11 thoughts on “Corned Beef

  1. Great Pub Night at the Jenner Community Center (Look for the signs – can’t miss it!) – Tuesday the 17th from 6 – 10 PM. Traditional Irish live band and, of course, corned beef and cabbage. $5.00

  2. Despite having a very Irish first name, I don’t have a drop of Irish blood in me, and yet, I have eaten corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick’s Day all my life. My parents made it every year (both excellent cooks to this day), and so I made that a tradition for my kids and family.
    I always boil it, but experimented a couple of years ago with the crock pot with great success. This year I’ll experiment with the pressure cooker.
    TThis year we’ll feast on the corned beef and cabbage with carrots topped with a horseradish dill sauce (well, I will, my husband prefers mustard), warm potato salad with beer dressing, a couple of Irish cheddars as an appetizer, (one infused with whiskey!), and slices of Irish soda bread smothered in Irish butter. Washed down with pints of Guinness, of course. 😉
    And maybe some mint chocolate chip goat milk ice cream for dessert.

  3. Both England and Ireland do, in fact, have some amazing chefs and the old adage about bad food isn’t totally fair. Like most “imported” cuisines (Chinese, Mexican, et al), they suffer in the translation to becoming “Americanized”. Hence the aversion factor.
    Thanks for the comments Wulfstan, Irishgal and Pendolino. Your insight is well-appreciated.

  4. Second your comment about Irish food. They have always had a wealth of ingredients, including the finest of fish, dairy products, and some fruits and vegetables. They exported most of it, mostly to France, and imported French technology. In fact, a lot of their dairy products and fish end up in Paris–three days later. Their smoked salmon is some of the best in the world. A lot of their chefs are French-trained as the Irish and the French have always had kind of a symbiotic relationship. They both considered themselves literate people, they were both doing revolutions at about the same time, and they both detested the English.

  5. If you haven’t been to Ireland recently, maybe you should. The food is great – big improvements with some top-notched chefs, male and female.

  6. I have cooked Corned beef and cabbage for 200 for many years as a fundraiser and always braise the meal. My key was not to cook it too long. Also main secret was to buy corning spices from a place like Penzey’s Spice House and liberally add more spices to the braising pan of meat and veggies and cover well. This would work (adding spices) even for a boiled dinner and I think may be the way to make it supurb rather than washed out blah.

  7. I am glad to see you setting people straight on the “corned beef” issue. I want to add that in reality Irish, English, and Scottish cuisine can actually be very good if prepared correctly. British/Irish food is amongst my favourites, but, like traditional American cuisine, it has gotten an unjustified bad rap, is misunderstood, and largely a mystery to most people, especially here. This is a problem compounded by the fact that most people seem to think, erroneously, that they in fact do “know” what these cuisines are like. Most Americans don’t even seem to know what real, traditional American regional cuisines are like and they have even less understanding of the British/Irish cousins of American cooking. An example of a mere name confusion that has been raised is “bread pudding,” a term that Americans seem to use for a dish that is closest to British bread and butter pudding, only one type of “bread” based pudding in the British Isles, typically all merely called “pudding” but actually very different. These include bread and butter pudding, guards’ pudding, plum pudding, and many more. Irish/British cookng also has significant regional variation and I would point out that oatmeal and scones really are tradionally Scottish, not Irish. These cuisines and people, though related, should most definitely not be considered synonymous.

  8. To Marilyn/MJB: a ramekin is a small bowl, generally ceramic, and typically used for making small-sized/individual servings of puddings, souffles, casseroles, etc. It’s typically for any dish that would be otherwise be finished and served in a pot, casserole, or other deep dish.

  9. After a half century of taste testing, you cannot beat Petaluma Market’s corned beef. For a few delicious weeks each March, they make it themselves. So easy to make. Put it in a pot with several Tbsp of Morton and Bassett pickling spice, toss in some yukon gold potatoes and carrots for the last half hour or so. Braise some thinly sliced brussels sprouts in some browned butter with a pinch of salt instead of boiling cabbage to death. Yummmmmm.

  10. Legends at the Bennett Valley Golf Course put out a great corned beef buffet on Friday night for the Police and Fire St Baldrick’s Event. They did a big fundraiser for children’s cancer research where a bunch of people raised money and got their heads shaved. It was a great time and the food was REALLY good!
    I saw a sign that said they are going a corned beef dinner tomorrow night for $9.99. Not a bad price.
    As for the fundraiser, you can still donate at http://www.stbaldricks.org, look for Santa Rosa.

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