Christine Burns Rudalevige removes the lid from her Dutch oven to reveal her brined corned beef. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The paper mills and marble quarries of my hometown in Western Massachusetts were a big attraction for immigrants from Ireland and Italy looking for work in the late 19th century. My pedigree, as a result, is relatively equal measures of Irish and Italian. Both of my grandmothers were mostly Italian, though, so Sunday dinners growing up were more red sauce than brown bread.

Except for corned beef and cabbage, that is. Both Nona (Dad’s mom) and Nanny (Mom’s mom) made a killer boiled dinner, but I can’t wax poetic about it being a treasured treat on St. Partick’s Day because we’d most often eat it well after March 17, when the corned beef went on sale. The Burns clan is big, in numbers and physical size, so even if cabbage, potatoes, carrots and onions were in the pot to stretch the meal, there had to be enough corned beef for all to get at least one thick slice.

I first corned my own beef 10 years ago as part of an online cooking club called Charcutepalooza that friend and fellow food writer Cathy Barrow spearheaded in 2011. The year-long adventure honed in on home-curing locally sourced meats. With encouragement from a couple hundred food bloggers involved in the project and technical guidance from Michael Ruhlman’s and Brian Polcyn’s “Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing,” I transformed duck breast into prosciutto in a makeshift curing cabinet in the basement that January. In February, I procured a whole pork belly from a Lancaster, Pennsylvania, farmer to make bacon. March, of course, meant corning beef.

“Any cut of beef can be ‘corned’ (corn was originally a generic term for grain, deriving from the same root as kernel and grain; corning beef referred to curing beef with grains of salt),” writes food scientist Harold McGee, in “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.”

But most often it’s brisket, which comes from the chest of the cow. It is one of the least tender cuts of beef, but brined for days and braised for hours, it’s rendered into soft and satisfying corned beef. The other, less-expensive cuts of meat that can easily be corned are boneless short ribs and a tri-tip roast. You can also corn an eye of the round roast, which is very lean and will have a texture more like a lean pastrami.

The hardest part of DIY corned beef is remembering that it must cure for five to seven days before you can cook it. The overall process is easy after that. You make a brine of salt and spices, cool it to room temperature in a non-reactive vessel, submerge the meat in the brine, and store the whole, covered vessel in the refrigerator, for five days if you buy the thinner end of the brisket (flat cut), seven days for the thicker end (point cut). These may not be labeled in the grocery store, so ask the butcher to identify the cut for you.

The amount of kosher salt needed for this cure holds steady at two cups of salt to one gallon of water and five pounds of beef brisket. But whether a corned beef maker wants to introduce pink salt to the brine is up to them. I’m not talking about Himalayan pink salt, the rock salt mined from the Punjab region of Pakistan whose pinkish tint is due to trace minerals. It is often used for food presentation flair, decorative lamps and spa treatments. I’m talking about curing salt, which is infused with chemical nitrites and is colored pink to tint the meat (think how pink commercial, cooked corned beef is) and to stand out from regular salt so that it is not ingested by accident — nitrites in high doses are dangerous.

The reason for using pink nitrite-curing salt (easily purchased on the internet) is to inhibit the growth of bacteria, specifically Clostridium botulinum, which causes botulism. The other way to ensure home-cured, non-acid foods are safe to eat is to heat them to about 180 degrees for at least 20 minutes. That’s no problem with corned beef as it’s typically cooked at a simmer for three to four hours. I use pink salt because my corned beef has always been bright pink, and I have it in the house because I often experiment with curing food. It’s typically sold in 2-pound bags, but recipes only require small amounts (5 teaspoons to a gallon of water plus 2 cups of salt). I store it on the back of an upper shelf in the cupboard, in a covered jar, with a label that reads: “DO NOT USE UNLESS CURING MEATS!!!”

The other decision a DIY corned beef curer needs to make is much more fun – what spices will be in play in your brine. You can certainly go the commercial route and buy a bottle of McCormick pickling spice, which has cinnamon, allspice, mustard seed, coriander, bay leaves, ginger, clove, red pepper, black pepper, cardamom and mace. But it also includes sulfiting agents, so if you’re nixing the pink salt as an additive, you might want to make your own spice mix.

I incorporate the same ingredients that McCormick does, less the nitrites and plus star anise for sweetness. Mix in what you like, but always remember to hold back about two tablespoons to add to the pot when you’re cooking the corned beef. You have to discard the brine before cooking the cured meat, so you need the cooking spices to mirror the curing ones.

In Maine, corning flaky, white hake is a long-practiced tradition. Fisherman’s wife, Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association project manager and blogger Monique Coombs explains that the original recipe – corned hake (salted fish), boiled potatoes, bacon or salt pork, fat renderings from the pork, and pickled onions – was used by cooks in Maine’s fishing communities by necessity in winter. “Hake doesn’t freeze well but it takes to being salted well, and that prolongs how long it can be stored. Thanks to refrigeration … the salting part of the recipe is no longer necessary, but a lot of families still love and appreciate the flavor and process,” Coombs writes. She loves the original, but because she doesn’t always have those ingredients at hand, she experiments with different fats and acids. One of her favorite combinations is corned hake with lime and avocados.

Corning hake – or any other flaky white fish – involves no water, just salt, herbs and spices. And given that hake fillets are thin, only about two hours’ time. It’s the perfect process to try while you are waiting for your corned beef to cure in time for St. Patrick’s Day dinner. May the luck of the Irish be with you!

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer, tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

Not unlike salt cod, corned hake was a way that Maine fishermen’s families used to preserve the fish for the winter. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

DIY Corned Beef Recipe

Serves 8-10

This recipe follows the basic health and safety rules for set out in Michael Ruhlman’s and Brian Polcyn’s “Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing,” but I’ve fiddled with the spices in the cure.

2 cups kosher salt
½ cup sugar
5 teaspoons pink salt (sodium nitrite), optional
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoons pickling spice
1 (5-pound) beef brisket, flat cut
1 carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
1 medium onion, peeled and cut in 2
1 celery stalk, roughly chopped

In non-reactive vessel large enough to hold brisket, combine 1 gallon of water with the kosher salt, sugar, sodium nitrite (if using), garlic and 2 tablespoons of the pickling spice. Bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring until the salt and sugar are dissolved. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until chilled.

Place the brisket in the brine, weighted with a plate to keep it submerged; cover. Refrigerate for 5 days.

Remove the brisket from the brine and rinse thoroughly. Discard the brine. Place in a pot just large enough to hold it. Cover with fresh water and add the remaining 2 tablespoons pickling spice, the carrot, onion and celery. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to low and cover the pot. Simmer gently until the brisket is fork-tender, about 3 hours, adding water if needed to cover brisket.

Keep warm until ready to serve. The meat can be refrigerated for several days in cooking liquid. Reheat in the liquid or serve chilled. Slice thinly and serve on a sandwich or with additional vegetables simmered until tender in the cooking liquid.

Pickling Spice

Makes about 1 cup of spice mix

2 tablespoons black peppercorns
2 tablespoons mustard seeds
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 tablespoons hot red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons allspice berries
2 tablespoons whole cloves
1 tablespoon ground mace
1 tablespoon ground ginger
12 cardamom pods
6 whole star anise pods
2 small cinnamon sticks, crushed or broken into pieces
4 bay leaves, crumbled

Combine peppercorns, mustard seeds and coriander seeds in a small dry pan. Place over medium heat and stir until fragrant, just a few minutes, being careful not to burn them; keep the lid handy in case the seeds pop and fly all over the place. Crack the peppercorns and seeds in mortar and pestle or with the side of a knife on cutting board.

Combine with the other spices, mix. Store in tightly sealed plastic or glass container.

Corned Hake with Potatoes, Vinegar Onions and Salt Pork

Makes 2 pounds of salt hake

Kosher salt
12 fresh thyme sprigs, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons chopped garlic and 2 whole cloves garlic
2 pounds hake fillets
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1 red onion, sliced
1½ pounds red potatoes, quartered
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
Black pepper
4 ounces salt pork, diced
4 cups fish stock or water
2 bay leaves

Spread 1/4 cup salt, 5 sprigs thyme and 1 tablespoon chopped garlic in a non-reactive dish (glass or ceramic). Place the hake on top. Top with 5 more sprigs of thyme, the remaining 1 tablespoon chopped garlic and 1/4 cups salt. Cover the dish and chill for 2 hours.

Combine the sugar and 1/4 cup of hot water in a small bowl. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add the vinegar and onions. Set aside.

After 2 hours of curing time has passed, remove the fish from the salt, rinse with cold water and let it sit in a bowl of fresh cold water for 15 minutes. Do not skip this step or your cooked fish will be too salty.

Place potatoes in a large saucepan. Cover with cold water and add 1 teaspoon salt. Place the pot over medium high heat, bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer until potatoes are fork tender, about 8 minutes. Drain the potatoes, return them to the pan, add butter and mash them roughly with a wooden spoon. Stir in parsley and add black pepper to taste. Cover and keep warm.

In a large, high-sided sauté pan, fry the salt pork over medium high heat until crisp, 4-6 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the crispy salt pork to a recycled paper bag to drain. Add fish stock or water, the remaining 2 sprigs of thyme, bay leaves and the whole garlic cloves to the skillet. Place pan over low heat and use a thermometer to gauge when the poaching liquid reaches 180 degrees. Adjust the heat to hold the temperature at that level. Transfer the hake from the bowl of water and into the poaching liquid. Poach the fish gently until it is opaque all the way through, 6-8 minutes.

While the fish poaches, spread the potatoes on a warm plate. Use a large spatula to transfer the cooked fish from the poaching liquid to the platter, placing it on top of the potatoes. Drain the pickled onions from the brine and top the fish with them. Scatter the crispy salt pork over the onions and serve.

Corned Beef (or Hake) Croquettes with Mustard Aioli

I am always looking for ways to use up cured meat and fish. This is a fun appetizer that does just that. I often make these all the way to forming the dough into balls, and then hold them in the fridge (up to 24 hours) until I am ready to fry them.

Makes 24 fritters

FOR CROQUETTES:
1 large russet potato (about 1 pound), washed and pricked several times with a fork
1/2 cup unsalted butter, diced
1/2 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
2 eggs
1 cup finely chopped corned beef or corned hake
Vegetable oil for frying
Salt

FOR MUSTARD AIOLI:
1 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 garlic cloves, grated
1 teaspoon lemon juice

Bake the potato in a 425-degree oven until done, about 45 minutes. When it’s cooled a bit, peel, then break up the flesh.

While the potato is cooking, make the mustard aioli by combining mayonnaise, mustard, garlic and lemon juice. Cover and chill until needed.

Combine the butter and 2/3 cup water in a medium-sized saucepan, and set over medium high heat. When the mixture comes to a boil, add the flour. Beat well with a wooden spoon until a dough forms and comes away from the sides of the pan. Remove from the heat and cool for 5 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating them to make a smooth, shiny choux paste. Add corned beef or corned hake and reserved potatoes. Chill the mixture for 2 hours. Shape the chilled dough into 1-inch balls, then chill for at least 20 minutes to firm up.

Pour the vegetable oil into a saucepan so that the depth is about 2 inches. Warm the oil over medium high heat until it reaches 375 degrees. Add the croquettes 6-8 at a time, taking care not to crowd them. Fry them until golden, 4-5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer cooked croquettes to a recycled paper bag to drain. Sprinkle them with salt while hot. Serve hot with the aioli.

This plate could be sitting in front of you on St. Patrick’s Day, if you get started soon. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


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