With or Without Cabbage
When was the last time you cooked Corned Beef? If you’re like most of us, it was some St. Patrick’s Day in the past.
It’s one of those dishes I seem to cook only every 3 or 4 years. I always wonder why. I love the flavor. And although Corned Beef is available at every deli counter, it’s rarely as good as home cooked.
So this year I decided it was time to cook Corned Beef again. It’s a simple dish to make, even if you add the traditional cabbage (and other vegetables).
Recipe: Corned Beef
Although most supermarket meat departments carry corned beef year round (or can order it for you if they don’t), it’s most plentiful at this time of the year. Brisket is the cut of choice. It usually has some fat (to help keep the meat moist) and when cut across the grain it provides nice, solid slices. Although it can be sold as a whole brisket, it’s more common to see halves — both the flat and the point cuts. I prefer the flat cut. It's a nice solid piece of meat, and has less fat than the point cut.
Traditional vegetable accompaniments to a Corned Beef dinner are boiled cabbage, carrots, potatoes, onions, and sometimes rutabagas or turnips. Often people cook these in the same pot with the corned beef, but I think this mutes the flavor of the vegetables and makes them all taste somewhat alike. So I usually cook the veggies separately. However, in this post I provide instructions for cooking the vegetables in the same pot with the meat. And later this week I’ll have a separate post on steaming vegetables, which is how I prefer to cook most of the vegetables for this dinner.
Every standard cookbook has a recipe for Corned Beef, and they are all quite similar. I particularly like the discussion of this dish in James Beard’s Theory and Practice of Good Cooking (now out of print – but check your library, it’s a terrific book) and Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. My recipe is adapted from theirs.
A half brisket of 3 to 4 pounds will serve 4 people (with leftovers) or about 8 without (increase the vegetables amounts for more people). Well-wrapped leftovers keep a few days in the refrigerator.
For the Corned Beef:
- 3 - 4 pounds corned beef brisket (either a whole brisket, or — at this weight — more likely a half; the flat cut is preferable)
- 1 whole yellow onion, peeled
- 3 whole cloves
- 1 teaspoon whole peppercorns (approximate)
- 3 - 12 peeled garlic cloves (optional, but they add some flavor; I always use a dozen, but you may prefer fewer)
- 4 whole small red-skinned potatoes (about 3 - 4 ounces each; or as many as you want)
- 4 whole small white onions (or as many as you want)
- ½ head cabbage cut into 4 wedges (or use the whole head if you want)
- 4 large or 8 small carrots, washed and peeled (or as many as you want)
- Remove the corned beef from its packaging and rinse. If there is a spice package included with the meat (common), set aside.
- Put corned beef in Dutch oven or other pot big enough to hold it comfortably. (If you plan to boil the vegetables in the same pot, make sure it’s big enough to hold them too.) Fill with sufficient water to cover corned beef by 2 inches.
- Bring corned beef to a boil.
- Meanwhile, peel onion and optional garlic. Stick whole cloves into onion.
- When the water comes to a boil, skim any scum that appears (there will be a lot). Continue this for about 10 minutes until scum no longer appears.
- Put the onion (with the cloves), the garlic, and the peppercorns into the pot with the corned beef. Add the contents of the spice package if you wish. Reduce heat until the water is at the barest simmer, and cook partially covered for 2 hours.
- If cooking vegetables with the meat, scrub the potatoes; peel the onions; remove outer leaves of cabbage, wash, cut in half, and then cut that half into 4 wedges; and scrub and peel the carrots. I often cut the carrots into chunks that are about 2 inches long. If your potatoes are large, consider cutting them in half so they cook faster.
- Half an hour before the meat is done, add the whole onions, carrots, and potatoes. Add the cabbage wedges 15 minutes before the meat is done.
- After 2 hours the meat will be “done,” but it might not be as tender as you like. Cut off a small piece and taste it to see if meets your standard for tenderness; if not, cook another 15 minutes and test again. Please note that the longer you cook the meat, the more likely it is to dry out.
- When done, remove meat and place on platter. Cover loosely with aluminum foil and let rest for 10 minutes before carving (up to 45 minutes is fine — the meat will cool a little, but still be warm enough). Serve with vegetables.
- I often cooked Corned Beef a day ahead of time. After the meat has cooked, I let it sit and cool for about an hour. Then I place it in a freezer bag (usually a 2 gallon size – whatever fits) along with a cup or two of its cooking liquid (the liquid helps keep the meat moist). I also refrigerate about a quart of the cooking liquid. The next day I prepare vegetables, slice the corned beef, and heat the slices for a minute or two in the simmering cooking liquid that I reserved.
- Other than using the cooking liquid to reheat the corned beef, I can think of no other use for it. It’s too salty (and greasy) to use as a soup stock. So I always discard it.
- Mark Bittman suggests that, if you make the Corned Beef ahead of time, you should wrap it in aluminum foil. You can then reheat the meat in the foil (place in a 300 degree oven for 30 minutes, then unwrap and heat for another 15 minutes). I haven’t tried this, but it should work if you want to bring the whole, warm Corned Beef to the table. Otherwise, I prefer my method.
- If you don’t want to cook the vegetables with the meat and you don’t want to steam them (as I’ll be doing in a post later this week), you can boil them separately (they’ll taste better that way than when cooked with the meat). You can cook each vegetable in its own pot, or cook them all in one pot.
- For the one-pot method, bring at least 6 quarts of water to boil, add a tablespoon (or two) of salt to the water to season, and add the whole onions, carrots, and potatoes. Cook for 15 minutes, then add the cabbage wedges, and cook for another 15 minutes. The vegetables should be done at this point — test with the tip of a paring knife to see if they’re tender. Cook a few minutes longer if you judge the veggies need it.
- The vegetables will stay warm in their hot water (turn off the burner) for 30 minutes or so if the meat isn’t quite done.
- If you don’t want the traditional boiled (or steamed) cabbage with your Corned Beef, Braised Cabbage is a nice substitute.
- I usually eat my Corned Beef without condiments. But it’s also delicious with mustard or horseradish.
- The “corned” part of Corned Beef refers to the “salt corns” that are used to cured it. Salt-curing was one of the earliest ways to preserve meat.
- The corned beef we eat today is wet-cured (in a salty brine), but dry curing is also an important way to preserve beef.
- When Corned Beef is cooked together with vegetables (typically cabbage and/or potatoes), the dish often is referred to as a “New England Boiled Dinner.”
- Have leftover Corned Beef? And potatoes? They make great Corned Beef Hash.
Traditional for St. Patrick’s Day (in America, at Least)
We often associate Corned Beef with Ireland, although historically the Irish ate little of it. They did produce a lot of Corned Beef, however — mostly for export (it often ended up feeding sailors in the British navy). In 18th and 19th century Ireland, pork was probably the celebratory dish of choice on St. Patrick’s Day. Wikipedia speculates that it was only after Irish immigrants arrived in the United States — where they found Corned Beef both plentiful and inexpensive — that they began eating it in quantity.
“Nice history lesson,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs. “But I’m glad this isn’t the 18th Century. We’re celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with Corned Beef.”
After all, we like our traditions. Even when they’re made up.
You may also enjoy reading about:
Corned Beef, Cabbage, and Potato Gratin
Easy Corned Beef Hash
Barbecued Pork Steaks
Red-Braised Beef with Sweet Potatoes