Classics: Irish Corned Beef and Cabbage

Once you have settled on the idea that the days of drinking pale green tinted beer until you lose vision in your right eye and wake up with a bloody nose are probably behind you, the biggest remaining component of a St. Patrick’s Day celebration is the food. This year, we tackled a traditional corned beef and cabbage, or a “boiled dinner,” as it is called in New England. To me, a boiled dinner is really just a necessary stop along the path from “not eating anything” to “eating leftover corned beef hash with runny eggs,” where eating a few pieces of boiled cabbage is a necessary part of the process. To make it more interesting, I decided to corn my own beef; a process of pickling a flat cut of beef brisket in a salt water and brown sugar brine for a few days before cooking. It’s a great way to annoy your significant other, since the wet curing process takes 7-8 days and renders much of the refrigerator unusable, since most of the space normally reserved for things like vegetables is instead taken up by a five or six pound slab of slowly greying beef.

Speaking of greyness: There is a choice to be made when you are making your own corned beef. As part of the process, the beef will take on a harmless greyish brown color. If you want your corned beef to turn out bright pink and vibrant, you need to add a few spoonfuls of Insta-Cure to your brining liquid. This is a controversial choice, since Insta-Cure is mainly sodium nitrate, used mostly by sausage makers to inhibit bacteria growth and prevent botulism. The word “nitrate” scares a lot of people, because of concern a few years ago that nitrates were linked to cancer. This study has since been largely debunked by both the American Cancer Society and the National Research Council, who agree that consuming low levels of sodium nitrate (which incidentally also occurs naturally in foods like spinach, carrots, and celery, or, for that matter, anything grown in the ground) poses no increased risk of cancer.

This doesn’t make Insta-Cure any easier to get your hands on: I couldn’t find any at Hannaford, or at Whole Foods, where one employee acted as though I were asking for anthrax. If having deep-pink corned beef is important to you, Amazon carries it, as do some specialty sausage shops. I skipped it, and aside from my corned beef not being quite as photogenic as it could have been, it still tasted fantastic.

Our method calls for cooking the corned beef and vegetables separately, and then combining them together at the end. Boiled dinner purists (is there such a thing?) may scoff at this, and while it is certainly possible to coordinate your timing and cook everything in one pot, all at once, I prefer to cook the meat and vegetables separately, for greater control over doneness.

Corned Beef and Cabbage

Irish Corned Beef & Cabbage (New England Boiled Dinner)
Serves 6-8

Ingredients:

For the brine:

  • 6 cups water
  • 1 1/2 cups coarse kosher salt
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 5-6 pound flat-cut beef brisket
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons Insta-Cure #1 (optional, see note above)
  • 1 (1.5 ounce) jar pickling spice
  • 1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
  • 1 bottle Yuengling or other lager beer
  • Additional water, as needed (see below)

For the corned beef and vegetables:

  • 1 12-ounce bottle Guinness stout beer
  • Water
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon coriander seeds
  • 1 tablespoon whole mustard seed
  • 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
  • 6-8 unpeeled red-skinned potatoes
  • 6 medium carrots, peeled
  • 3 medium onions, peeled and halved
  • 2 medium parsnips, peeled, cut into 2-inch lengths
  • 1 head of cabbage, quartered

Method:

For the brine:

In a medium saucepan, warm water over medium heat just until air bubbles form. Remove from heat, add salt and sugar, and stir until dissolved. Let cool completely, adding ice if you are in a hurry.

Add uncooked brisket to a large roasting pan. Pierce meat all over with a paring knife, to allow brine to penetrate deep into the meat. Poor the cooled salt and sugar water solution over the meat, add Insta-Cure (optional), pickling spice, cinnamon stick, and lager beer. If needed, add more water until meat is completely covered. Cover pan with foil or plastic wrap, and place in refrigerator to cure for 7-8 days, flipping meat over each day and stirring brine.

To prepare corned beef and vegetables:

Remove brisket from brining liquid, and rinse with cold water to remove excess salt and spices. Set aside.

Using cheesecloth, tie up your bay leaves, coriander seed, mustard seed, and peppercorns. Add to large stock pot over high heat, along with brisket, Guinness, and enough added water to cover meat. Bring to a boil, then cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 2.5 hours.

Using tongs, remove meat to a baking sheet, and set aside. Add all vegetables to the stock pot and remaining simmering liquid and cook until vegetables are cooked through, about 25 minutes. Transfer meat back to pot to reheat through, about five minutes. Using tongs or a slotted spoon, remove meat and all vegetables to a large wooden board. Slice meat against the grain, and serve with mustard and/or horseradish cream sauce.

Corned Beef and Cabbage

Our “Classics” series tackles some of our favorite dishes from Maine’s rich culinary tradition. You can think of them as “traditional” dishes, or more accurately, things you might have had for hot lunch in the fourth grade, had you attended St. George Elementary. To read more from this series, click here.

Malcolm Bedell is co-author of the critically acclaimed "Eating in Maine: At Home, On the Town, and On the Road," as well as the taco-centric blog "Eat More Tacos," and the junk food-centric "Spork & Barrel." His contributions include Serious Eats, Down East, L.A. Weekly, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post and his food truck, "'Wich, Please," was named "Hottest Restaurant in Maine" for 2015 by Eater. Finally, he finds it very silly to be trying to write this in the third person.

8 Comments

  1. No corned tongue? You should have asked me for pink salt, I bought way too much of it last year during Charcuteapalooza. I also know that Wellshire Farms uses beet juice to color the meat naturally and I’ve heard celery juice can do the same.

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    1. Celery juice is what a lot of “nitrate-free” hot dog producers use…the problem is that it can result in nitrate levels that are the same or HIGHER than just adding sodium nitrate. Go figure.

      Ruhlman’s rant about this issue makes an interesting read.

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  2. This meal looks so incredibly delicious! I’m not Irish but sure wish I was right about now! My home dinners were pretty much stir fries and noodles so corned beef wasn’t something we had (if at all) Again, your food looks amazing! 🙂

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  3. You are right about the difficulty in finding curing salt. I never asked anyone why, perhaps there’s some underlying concern about consumers mistaking it for Himalayan pink salt or some other bizarre reason. In any event, you can buy small containers of it at Williams Sonoma, badly priced for the amount you get. You don’t really need much anyway, maybe about 4 teaspoons for a 6 pound brisket. If you decide to go into the charcuterie business you can either buy a case of Tender Quick curing salt from Amazon for about $25, or purchase individual 2 pound bags from several sellers on eBay for about $12. BTW, I’m shocked you weren’t escorted forcibly from Whole Foods when you inquired about it.

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  4. When I visited Ireland with a college class last year, someone asked one of our tour guides about corned beef and cabbage. The guide rolled his eyes and said that he had no idea why Americans think that corned beef and cabbage is Irish. Now bacon and cabbage, on the other hand (not American streaky bacon – more like what we call ham).

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