If you’re used to seeing the phrase “corned beef brisket” as a favorite sandwich meat or around St. Patrick’s Day, it can be a bit disconcerting to also see brisket offered at barbecue joints or even served as pot roast. It’s the same cut of meat either way; it’s just handled differently.
What Corned Beef Is
Corned beef isn’t especially complicated; it’s just beef that’s been salted. Originally, our ancestors prepared beef this way to preserve it in the days before refrigeration to keep it safe to eat for months after the animal was slaughtered. There are better ways of preserving meats now, but it’s still made just because it tastes good.
You could make corned beef by salting just about any cut you have on hand, but, in practice, just a few are widely used. You wouldn’t corn a tenderloin or rib-eye, for example, because they’re too valuable for roasting and grilling. The ideal cuts are relatively tough, have relatively little fat – because fat becomes rancid over time – and have dense muscle fibers that hold together well when sliced for sandwiches. Brisket ticks all of those boxes, which is why it’s the most common choice.
Corned Beef vs. Brisket
The brisket is made up of a cow’s pectoral muscles. There are two of these muscles, a larger rectangular slab called the “flat,” and a smaller triangular portion called the “point.” There’s a layer of fat around the outside of the brisket and another layer joining the flat and the point, but there’s little fat inside the muscle itself. The point is slightly fattier and richer-tasting than the flat, which is why some consider it the best cut of corned beef.
A whole brisket, or “packer’s brisket,” contains both of those pieces, and it’s quite large. It’s mostly only sold to restaurants, meat packers and barbecue enthusiasts. At the supermarket, you’ll usually see only the smaller cuts from the larger brisket, either sold fresh for pot roast and barbecue or corned for sandwiches, hash, or corned beef and cabbage.
The difference between brisket and corned beef is simply that the beef is salted. You can have brisket that’s not corned and corned beef that’s not brisket. Cuts from the rump, or round, are often corned, and so is the tongue.
Cooking Corned Beef and Brisket
Cooking corned beef is a pretty straightforward proposition. Plunk it into some cold water, bring that water to a simmer, and cook the beef gently until it’s fork-tender. If your beef is really salty – taste it first before you lower it into the water – you can soak it for a few hours before cooking or throw out your cooking water after 30 minutes and start again with fresh, cold water. You can also add spices and seasonings to the water, if you wish. For the traditional meal corned beef-and-cabbage, add cabbage, turnip, carrots and potatoes partway through your cooking time, so the veggies can soak up some of that corned beef flavor.
Unsalted brisket is usually prepared as a pot roast or cooked in a smoker. For pot roast, you’d slow-cook it gently in a small amount of broth or other liquid, either in a roasting pan or your slow cooker. On a smoker, you might brine the beef lightly before cooking, and usually it’s covered in a spice rub. Then – whether you’re smoking or braising – cook the beef low and slow until it’s tender.
Making Your Own Corned Beef
There are plenty of good brands of corned beef, but if you’re a serious enthusiast, you can make your own. All you need is a food-safe container large enough to hold your piece of beef in brine and a spot in your refrigerator where it can sit for a little while.
A typical corned beef brisket recipe includes coarse kosher or pickling salt, a bit of sugar, some “curing salt,” such as Instacure or Morton’s TenderQuick – to give it that distinctive pink color – and then a variety of spices, which could simply be commercial pickling spice or your own custom mixture. Most blends include bay leaves, coriander, mustard seeds and black pepper, at a minimum.
You’ll boil up the salt and spices in water to make a brine; then chill the brine. Once it’s ready, rinse the beef and immerse it in the brine for up to 10 days, or as directed in your recipe. Some recipes tell you remove the beef from the brine once it’s cured and either cook or freeze it for later use. Other recipes call for the beef to stay in the brine indefinitely until you want to use it.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.