Corned Beef

Rooted in Old English, the term “corned” refers to a small hard granular of something, for this purpose it is the salt that is use to cure the beef. The term “corned beef” dates to 1621. The curing of beef has been around for centuries. It was the Irish who corned beef in the 17th and 18th Century for English consumption and trade. It came in several grades, small beef, cargo beef and best mess beef. The best corned beef landed on the tables of the noblemen in England and their Colonies, and cargo beef being non-perishable in nature was easily transported on Navy ships. Cargo beef also came in different grades; the best was given to the men on board, and the worse traded to the sugar islands to feed the slaves. The last grade was small beef and it was shipped to France.

We all know that on St. Patrick’s Day, we consume corned beef to help celebrate with the Irish. However, the Irish never did eat corned beef until they came to the colonies. Cattle in Ireland were owned by the English, and were too expensive for the Irish to purchase, and salt was equally expensive. It was not until the arrival of the Irish in New England and Canada, where beef was plentiful and salt inexpensive, that they began to corn and consume beef.

Thanks to my husband and Matthew Mees, I decided to try my hand at making corned beef. My husband has always wanted to try this and Matt gave me a jar of saltpeter. Now after reading the label I found it was for the use of Farm and Industry. Hum I wonder if this is ok to use. A little research and I was right, his saltpeter was not to be consumed by humans. Well if I can’t use this, I will need to find out what type of saltpeter is safe for human consumption, so off to the computer to do more research.

After a lengthy search I found good old Morton Salt Company. They make what is known as “pink salt.” This is a combination of salt and potassium nitrate that is ok for human consumption and is called Morton Tenderquick. Now the reason you use saltpeter is to tenderize the meat and to turn it into the appetizing red color.

Well, there are many directions online to make your own corned beef however; I have not found one in an early receipt book, at least not ones I have available to me. Perhaps it is because the English cookbook authors didn’t make corned beef; it came from Ireland. A mystery!

After looking at many receipts on the web I made up my own list of ingredients for brine and hope the technique will transform a tough piece of beef brisket into a melt-in-your-mouth delicacy.

The basic brining recipe is salt, water, and spices, sounds easy enough. So I take out salt, black pepper, cinnamon, ground ginger, ground cloves, bay leaves, brown sugar, nutmeg, garlic, kosher salt and Morton’s Tenderquick and put it on the cutting board. I find a large pot to boil all the spices and salt, and then I add the tenderquick and 2 cups of water. This I brought to a boil, and then added 2 cups of ice and stuck it in the snow to cool down.

I’m sure the Irish had large wooden barrels filled with brine and brisket or tongues and sent them on their merry way to England in the cool hole of a ship. Well, I don’t have a wooden barrel or a ship. I do not even have a crock large enough to put the meat and brining liquid in, so I improvise. I use a roasting bag and a large casserole dish.

By now the brine is cooled off and I put the meat in the bag and pour over the liquid and tie the bag tight. I placed it into the refrigerator where it sat for almost two weeks. The brisket was turned over in the bag every day to insure that both sides were brining the same.

It took a week before the gray looking piece of brisket started to turn somewhat pink. However, after nine days it was getting red. O, boy this might work, I have the red meat I’m looking for; now is it tender, and will it taste good.

The day of reckoning! Out comes the corned beef, and as you can see it looks nice and red. It was first washed to remove all the little spices and the salt. Then in to a large pot went the corn beef with water, a carrot, onions and some celery. It was brought to a boil then turned down to a medium simmer. I’m guessing about 3 ½ hours. I’ll check it from time to time to add water if needed and make sure I don’t overcook it. During the last 30 minutes of cooking I add potatoes, carrots and cabbage. This will be a true American Irish Corned Beef and Cabbage meal.

As you can see by the picture the brine did not go all the way to the center, even after two weeks of soaking. However, the meat was tender and very tasty. If I was going to change anything, it would be less cloves and ginger. Their taste was a bit overwhelming, however, in the background. I will make this again as it was far superior to what you can buy at the grocery store.



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About Sandie

Since I was a small child I have loved early fireplaces and the smell of smoke in an old house. However it was not until about Fifteen years ago that my journey into hearth cooking began. It all started at the Hurd House Museum in Woodbury Ct. I was the director of the Junior Docent program and among the programs each week we cooked. At about the same time a group of us started the Culinary Historians of Connecticut meeting once a month to discuss equipment used, receipt (18th century term for recipe), and anything between the late 1600 to late 1700 that had to do with hearth cooking. We were fortunate to try our hand at cooking at several Museums throughout Ct and many more private homes. We made cheese; we held a late 1600 dinner and shared our knowledge with others. Our group designrd our own tours such as the Kitchens of Old Wethersfield. In 2000 we were delighted to host the Historic Foodways group of ALFAM at the Hurd House during their conference at Mystic Seaport. We put together a great workshop of Puddings, Sausages, Brown Bread, Beverages you name it we offered it. I am now a member of the ALFAM foodways group. Then it was off to Colonial Williamsburg for the seminar The Art of 18th-Century Cooking: Farm to Hearth to Table. During the years I joined many workshops in Sturbridge Village plus their Dinner in a Country Village and breakfast at the Freeman Farm. So I was pretty much hooked on heart cooking and the 18th century way of life. I joined a wonderful group of ladies and we started the “Hive” a place to improve and grow your 18th century impression and offer research about material culture in 17070’s New England. We also travel with friends and have displays of clothing and teas at Museums in Massachusetts. Many events are held at the Hartwell Tavern at Minute Man National Park. They have been gracious enough to let us play there and entertain and share our knowledge with their visitors. Please visit our “Hive” site if the 1700 interest you. Then the move to New Hampshire and a job at Strawberry Banke in Portsmouth as the co-coordinator of the Junior Role Playing workshop and eventually cooking in front of the hearth at the Wheelwright house. Not only did I enjoy making my evening meals at the hearth to take home but also talking with the visitors. I am an entertainer after all, check out my program page. Most recently I am working at the Museum of Old York in Maine as an educator, hearth cook and organizer of the Junior Docent cooking program in the summer. See some photos in the archive file Because I do make food with the docents and serve food to the public at our Tavern Dinners I took the National Restaurant Association tests called ServSafe and now have my Certification as a Restaurant Manager. I look forward to the Museum of Old York opening again this March 2012 and getting back to the hearth and teaching, however for now I’m cooking at home and enjoying doing so.

One thought on “Corned Beef

  1. All of the recipes I see have you brine it in the refrigerator. How was it done in the 18th century without refrigeration. I ask because I don’t have room in my fridge fore the dish I have. Can it be done at room temp?

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