Can someone explain to me why the only way I can buy brisket in my tiny town is to get the whole brisket? (And why are there no dried currants? Or mini-cupcake liners?) I didn’t even know what a whole brisket looked like before last month. First off, it’s huge. Who needs to buy 15 pounds of meat at a time? Second, half of that 15 pounds is fat. I actually weighed the fat after I spent an entire hour aaaargh! trimming it off the brisket. An inch-thick layer of fat, yum.
And why is brisket so much more expensive to buy than prepared corned beef anyway? Corned beef is just seasoned brisket. I didn’t corn my own beef because I have a problem with the store-bought versions of corned beef; it’s just that…I can’t help myself. Homemade corned beef sounded fun.
I tried it a few years ago (back in the glorious days when I could buy pre-trimmed brisket in reasonable sized roasts), using Cooks Illustrated’s dry rub recipe. In that one, a mixture of salt and other seasonings is rubbed onto the brisket and left to set for several days. It was good, because it’s salty brisket, but I didn’t think it was significantly better than what I could buy.
I started out this time using Alton Brown’s recipe, which is a wet brine similar to what is often used for chicken. However, I balked when I was supposed to add 2 pounds of ice to 2 quarts of water to make the brine for four pounds of brisket. That seemed like an excessive amount of liquid per meat; I’m not sure I have the fridge space for all that. So I halved the liquid, but that means that my brine was far more concentrated, and the resulting corned beef was not-quite-inedibly salty.
I tried again (after all, I still had plenty of brisket in the freezer), dialing back the amount of salt by half. And what do you know? Perfection. Dave is already requesting more reubens, so it looks like I’ll use up 15 pounds of brisket after all. Maybe next time I can get the butcher to trim it for me.
6 to 8 servings
The use of saltpeter (potassium nitrate) is up to you. Its purpose is to make the meat pink; without it, it turns the purpley gray that you see in my pictures. Cooks Illustrated’s corned beef write-up reported chemical flavors whenever they used saltpeter, and I couldn’t find it anyway, so I left it out, and truthfully, I quite like the color of the meat at the end of cooking.
4 cups water
½ cup kosher salt
6 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon saltpeter (optional)
½ cinnamon stick, broken into several pieces
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
4 whole cloves
4 whole allspice berries
6 whole juniper berries
2 bay leaves, crumbled
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
4 quarts ice
1 (4 to 5 pound) beef brisket, trimmed
Place the water in a 5-quart pot along with the salt, sugar, saltpeter (if using), and spices. Cook over high heat until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Add the ice and let set the mixture until the ice is mostly melted. Once the liquid is cold, place the brisket in a 1-gallon zip-top bag and add the brine. Seal and lay flat inside a 9×13-inch pan. Refrigerate for 5 days, turning occasionally. After 5 days, remove the meat from the brine and rinse it under cool water. Cook using your favorite recipe. (I like to keep it very simple, just simmering the brisket in water for a few hours until it’s tender, adding potatoes, carrots and cabbage near the end.)