Corned beef is greasy-spoon standby (think Reuben sandwiches from the corner deli rather than the weird canned stuff). And if you love barbecue, you've probably tried brisket, a cut of beef favored by pitmasters. But what you may not know is that these two types of beef are very similar, if not the same.
What Is Brisket?
To a butcher, the brisket is the lower part of the chest on a cow; there are two main parts here. The roughly rectangular flat ends in a triangular, curving point. Butchers often trim the point off to create a more regularly shaped cut of meat. The flat is typically leaner, while the point is more marbled. The powerful muscles of this area hold up much of the animal's weight, so the meat here is dense with connective tissue—in fact, the word brisket
Tough cuts of meat are cheaper, but they require special techniques to make them more palatable. A common method is slow cooking the meat over a long period of time so that the collagen in the connective tissue breaks down and softens. Smoking or pot-roasting brisket helps to minimize toughness as well.
What Is Corned Beef?
The term "corned beef" can be confusing since this salty, preserved beef doesn't include any corn at all. The name comes from an older English usage of the word "corn," which simply meant "grain" (as in grains of wheat or grains of salt).
Corned beef is commonly made with brisket because of the low cost. Silverside, another lean cut, is also popular.
Before refrigerators were common, cooks soaked beef in brine and then rubbed it with salt, pepper and other spices to dry it out and preserve it for transport. In addition to adding flavor, the salt cure also helped to tenderize the meat slightly by denaturing its proteins.
Tough and salty, corned beef has to be soaked to remove the salt before being cooked; slow cooking helps soften the meat.