If you love barbecue, you've probably run across brisket, the cut of beef often chosen by pit masters for their creations. And corned beef -- often unfairly associated with the salty, rectangular canned product -- is a well-known part of American cuisine. But what you may not know is that these two types of beef are, if not the same, very similar. Both have their origin in the challenges and benefits of dealing with a tough cut of beef.
To a butcher, the brisket is the lower part of the chest on a steer; 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. As a result, the meat here is dense with connective tissue -- in fact, the word brisket
The name "corned beef" can be confusing to the modern American ear, since this salty, preserved beef doesn't include any corn at all. In fact, the name comes from an older usage -- "corn" simply meant "grain" in the English of the time, whether grains of wheat or grains of salt.
Because of its low cost, brisket is a common cut of meat for making corned beef. It isn't the only one, however; silverside, another lean cut, is also popular. To preserve beef for transport in an era before refrigeration was common, cooks soaked beef in brine and then rubbed it with salt, together with pepper and other spices, to dry it out. 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; as is the case with brisket, slow-cooking helps soften the tough meat.
For the best slices, cut against the grain, the direction of the fibers that run through the muscle. If you cut with the grain, the meat will tend to come apart rather than holding together in slices.