Corned beef means different things to different people around the world. Americans might be familiar with thick slices of pink cured meat served on rye bread in a New York deli. To us Brits, corned beef is a fairly smooth paste-like substance that comes out of weirdly-shaped cans. Irish Americans also invented the tradition of having hot sliced corned beef with cabbage and potatoes on St. Patrick's Day.
Making corned beef is a three-stage process. First of all you pickle (or 'brine') the meat, then you cook it, then you compress it into a loaf shape. So, overall, it takes a few days, even for this quick corned beef recipe, but the actual work time involved is minimal.
Make the pickling spice mix
If you have shop-bought pickling spice, you can skip this step. Otherwise, roast the peppercorns, coriander seeds and mustard seeds in a small frying pan or skillet (no oil required) over medium heat for a minute or two, until they release some of their aroma. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Crush them with the sides of a chef's knife. Break the cinnamon stick into small pieces, and tear the bay leaves into small pieces. Put them in a jar with the other spice mix ingredients and shake well.
Brine the beef
Because this is a quick recipe, the brine is saltier than normal, a 10% mix of salt and water. Add the salt and sugar to the water, along with 1 tbsp of pickling spice and the garlic cloves, coarsely chopped. Add 1 tsp of celery salt or sodium nitrate (see below). Heat the brine until all the sugar and salt have dissolved, then chill it.
Now, with any pickling / curing process that takes place over a few days, there's the possibility of botulism bugs multiplying in the meat (they breathe anaerobically, the little sods), so it's a good idea to have something in the brine / cure that will kill them. That something is sodium nitrate. Some people think this substance causes cancer, but the only 'scientific' study to claim that has been proven to be seriously flawed (i.e. wrong).
Sodium nitrate is sold under several brand names such as
. These mixes usually contain pink dye to distinguish them from normal salt, and this results in the cured meat being pink. If you don't want to use either of these, you can substitue
. It may surprise you that celery contains more sodium nitrate than pretty much anything else. But it does the job, although your meat will turn out a greyish brown rather than pink.
Prepare the meat
If your meat came on the bone, trim the bones off (but keep them in the fridge for later). Chop the meat into big chunks that will fit into your pan. Do not remove the fat - it's an essential part of corned beef. Place all the meat into the brine and put a plate on top to keep the meat submerged. Refrigerate for 24-30 hours.
Cook the meat
When the brining is done, remove the meat and rinse thoroughly under cold water. Place in a fresh pan, along with any bones you have (if you don't have any bones, you could add a split pig's trotter) - bones will release gelatine during cooking which will help your corned beef loaf stick together. Add enough of the pickling mixture to come halfway up the meat. Strain the pickling spice from the remaining liquid, and add that too. Bring to the boil, reduce to simmer, and cook for 4 hours, topping up the liquid level occasionally if needed. If you have a pressure cooker, 1 hour's cooking will do.
Make the Corned Beef loaf
When the meat is cooked, remove it from the liquid and scrape off any bits of spice that may be stuck to it. Take a suitably sized bread tin and pack the meat into it. If you don't have enough meat to fill it to the top, you can pad out the rest of the space by lining it with foil and filling the gap with uncooked beans or lentils. Place weights on top of the meat and refrigerate the whole lot for about 4 hours or overnight.
Slice the corned beef for sandwiches, or serve with a salad. Pickles and mustard go well with corned beef. You can also use it for a delicious corned beef hash. Or if you're doing the Irish-American St. Patrick's Day supper thing, steam thick slices of the corned beef and serve with cabbage, potatoes, and possibly some onion gravy.
• 2 kilos beef (brisket or skirt) • 2 litres water • 3 cloves garlic • 1 tsp celery salt or sodium nitrate • 1 tbsp pickling spice • 200 grams sea salt (kosher salt) • 100 grams sugar
PLUS If you cannot get pickling spice, you can make up your own mixture - 1 tsp each of whole black peppercorns, coriander seeds, black mustard seeds, allspice berries and cloves, half a teaspoon of ground ginger and red chilli flakes, 1 stick of cinnamon and 4 bay leaves.
Makes about 1.5 kilos (3.5 pounds) Prep time: 15 minutes. Curing / setting time: 30 hours. Cooking time: 4 hours. Total time: 34 hours 15 minutes.