Getting the amount of salt right is one of the trickier details in cookery. That's especially so when you start with something that's already salty, like corned beef, because taking it out is a lot more complicated than putting it in. Whether your concern is just getting it to taste right or cutting down on the sodium you take in, reducing the saltiness of your corned beef takes a few steps.
Low Sodium Corned Beef Isn't Easy
If you're trying to watch your sodium levels, then corned beef really isn't something you should be eating on a regular basis. The whole point of the product is that it's preserved with salt, which is what gives it its old-school flavor. A 4-ounce portion of Grobbel's corned beef contains 950 milligrams of sodium, and the same portion of Trader Joe's corned beef has 980 milligrams, which accounts for about 40% of your day's recommended intake.
Four ounces isn't an especially large portion, so if you keep going back to the platter to pick at the leftovers for hours afterward, you can easily eat your whole day's allowance of salt in this one meal. That's especially true if you cook your cabbage or other vegetables in the salty water from the beef.
Reduced-sodium corned beef products are available, but they're often only sold sliced in packages or as canned corned beef. Some manufacturers do make a lower-sodium corned beef – Grobbel's product line includes a reduced-sodium version with only 490 milligrams, for example – but they may or may not be available where you live. Your best bet, whether your concern is health-related or culinary, is to learn how to reduce the saltiness of the one you're actually cooking.
Soaking and Blanching the Corned Beef
One very traditional way of making your corned beef less salty is to soak it in cold water before you cook it. Old recipes sometimes call for an overnight soak or even more than one soaking, but the beef was saltier in those days. Now, a few hours – about 30 minutes per pound – usually does the trick.
Blanching your corned beef is a variation of the same technique. Instead of a long soak in cold water, you'll rinse your piece of beef and put it in a large pot of cold water. Bring the water to a simmer, let it go for 30 minutes, and then drain the pot. That washes away much of the salt as well as the proteins that would otherwise gather and make that nasty-looking gray foam on your cooking water. Refill the pot with cold water, and cook the beef as directed in your recipe.
Slow-Cooking the Corned Beef
Depending on how heavily salted your corned beef was to start, you can often skip those steps. Just take the beef from its package, rinse it and bring it to a simmer in plenty of fresh water. Corned beef brisket – brisket is the most common cut – is one of the toughest pieces of beef there is, so you'll usually need to let it cook for at least 2 1/3 to 3 hours. Large pieces may take longer.
It's done when you can stick a fork into the beef and easily twist off a mouthful. Remove it from the pot, and let it rest on a tray or cutting board for at least 10 to 15 minutes before you carve it. The longer it sits, the easier it is to slice the beef without it falling apart.
Tricking Your Taste Buds
If you find your corned beef is still saltier than you'd like after it's cooked, there are ways to trick your taste buds into not noticing the salt. Most of those involve the use of spiciness or tart acidity in one way or another. Mustard is one of the classic condiments for corned beef, precisely because it combines those two things. You can also set out pickles or old-fashioned relishes such as green tomato chowchow. Sauerkraut works well, too.
Another option is to simmer the sliced beef in a sauce, which will extract more of the salinity from the beef as well as add some contrasting flavors.
Finally, consider serving the corned beef cold. Warm foods taste saltier than cold ones, so thin-sliced corned beef served with the same palate-fooling condiments – as a sandwich with mustard and sauerkraut or as an appetizer with tart pickles – won't taste nearly as salty.
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.