It’s March! The birds are tweeting and our neighbors are starting seedlings and making maple syrup. It also means you’re full of early Spring questions. You want to know what corning beef even means, how to brine, and tips for braising. Josh Applestone has answers. Do you have something you want to ask the butcher? Get in touch. We’re (usually) more than happy to respond.
Q: Everyone’s talking about corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day. What is corning? Which cut do you use? Do people only corn for St. Patrick’s Day or are there other things you can corn?
Corned beef is just heavily brined beef. It’s almost like it’s pickled. To corn, you add spices to the brining liquid. My favorite corned beef recipe is from The River Cottage Cookbook by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Brines are diluted so they don’t taste very strong. I like this recipe because it has so many aromatics in it. You actually get a nice flavor with this dilution. It has lots of bay leaves, black peppercorns, cloves, dried thyme. I tweak it a little. You need sugar to feed the brine, but I use very little sugar.
Inject vs. Soak
If you buy corned beef at most stores, it’s processed. They inject their beef with brine to penetrate the meat deeper and accelerate the process. I don’t inject. I soak for two to four weeks — timing depends on how thick the muscle is you’re using and how big it is — how many people you’re serving. When I corn, I corn fatty and lean — briskets and bottom round.
You don’t want to let it cure too long, that’s not good. A heavy and dense muscle can take it, but you can only corn chicken for 24 or 36 hours. Brine changes the muscle. Too long and it almost falls apart.
Instead of force brining with injection, I let natural absorption of the muscle work. When you soak instead of inject, the cure doesn’t go past a certain point of the muscle. Then when you slice it, you can see pink meat and gray meat—that’s the really brined part. The salt in the brine changes the consistency of the muscle and I don’t like it changed all the way through. I like the having both.
Cook Your Corn
When you’re ready to cook a corned cut, you first soak it in water to get some of the salt from the brine out. The injected industry stuff can be really salty. You can’t soak that out. After you soak, dump off that water, then you simmer it for a long time.
Many traditions involve corning meat, going back hundreds of years. It’s curing. And it’s not just an Irish thing and it’s not just for beef. It’s to preserve meat that’s about to sour to keep it from spoiling and not waste it. Honestly I’m not a fan of corned beef, but that doesn’t matter. Who cares what I like to eat. I’m here to make the best for you regardless of how I feel about it. We’ll be selling our corned beef in its brine next year. Watch for it.
Q: Why do people brine meat and what are some pointers if I’ve never done it before? I noticed your recipe of the month includes “maple brining” a pork loin roast. What’s a maple brine?
Brine is a just salt solution. It’s a good thing for home cooks to learn to do because it keeps meat moist. Try brining pork chops or even a whole chicken. The smaller the cut, the shorter the brine time. Our basic brine ratio is here—a mix of water, salt, and sugar. You can add different flavors to the liquid, or use liquids other than water, just keep this ratio in mind. Something that is maple brined means the sugar being used for the brine is maple syrup or even maple sugar. It makes it sweeter. Brining isn’t necessary, but it helps with flavor profile and consistency of the meat because it breaks the muscle down. Keep in mind that even if you brine something, you can still mess it up by cooking it incorrectly! Brining is about mouth feel, it doesn’t protect you from that.
Q: I really want to get into braising, but I’m a little afraid of it. Can you recommend a nice starter cut and tips?
Don’t be afraid of your food. Please. Start with something inexpensive like chuck if you’re new to it. Don’t bother with browning it or anything. Get a slow cooker and a piece of chuck. Open the bag, put the chuck in there with two cans of crushed tomatoes, garlic and onion powder, and that’s it. If you want to go crazy, use fresh garlic and fresh onion. Throw in a few cups of water, put it on low, go to work, come back in the evening and you will have braised something. As you get more confidence, read our tips on how—and what—to braise. You can brown the meat before you braise, consider other spices, and use different liquids. But none of that is necessary.