It's that time of year. The weather is vacillating between winter and spring, wildflower season is nearly upon us (be sure to check http://www.theodorepayne.org/ for the wildflower hotline), and shamrock shakes are sprouting at participating McDonald's.
When the shamrock shakes appear, it must mean that St. Patrick's Day is just around the corner. Which means it is time to start thinking about curing some beef brisket to make homemade corned beef. Time to take the cure. Which, in this case, is about five to seven days; you're going to need to plan ahead for that corned beef and cabbage dinner.
Before that though, an announcement. Fellow Master Food Preserver Delilah Snell and I will be hosting a canning demo a week from this Sunday, on March 7th from 10am-12pm at the Hollywood Farmers' Market. We will be canning spicy asparagus pickles from the ones that are showing up in the market now. Did I mention that it is free?
Back to the cure.
Corned beef, though not particularly traditional in Ireland for St. Patrick's Day, is certainly traditional here in the US. As many of you already know, corning refers to preserving beef with small chunks of salt (corns) and not to the giant mutant grass whose seeds come on a cob.
There is a little more to corned beef than salt, but it is really, really, really simple to make. And, it is usually much less expensive to make at home than to buy in the store, even with the sale prices this time of year. Brisket will be even cheaper.
Basically you make a brine with salt, sugar, spices and pink salt (more on pink salt in a minute). Chill the brine and submerse beef brisket in it. Refrigerate for 5-7 days. Rinse off the beef. That's it. Seriously. You're done. You now have uncooked corned beef.
Michael Ruhlman's corned beef recipe here:
One nice thing is that about Ruhlman's recipe is that it includes a recipe for pickling spices. You can use store bought, but why not make your own? Ruhlman's blend makes more than you'll use for the corned beef, so you'll have pickling spices to spare for all sorts of other applications.
Back to pink salt. It is actually a critical ingredient for that traditional corned beef flavor and appearance. You can skip it, and the results will still be very good, but probably not exactly what you are used to. Pink salt is not that Himalayan salt you see everywhere, but a blend of regular salt and nitrite.
Nitrite is a preservative. It does four different things when added to meat. 1) It changes the flavor; 2) fixes the red color of the meat (ever wonder why corned beef was so pink?); 3) Slows fats from becoming rancid (brisket is often fairly fatty, isn't it?); and, 4) inhibits the growth of Clostridium botulinum (aka botulism). It is effective in extremely small amounts, so in order to be able to measure it reasonably in the kitchen, it is blended with regular salt: 93.75% salt and 6.25% nitrite.
Nitrite is poisonous in large quantities, which is why the salt/nitrite blend is dyed pink so that it is not mistaken for regular salt. Keep this stuff out of the way of children and kitchen neophytes, who might mistake it for a finishing salt.
But wait, you say, isn't nitrite bad for you? There is some conflicting evidence that nitrites may be potentially cancerous when cooked in certain methods (high heat grilling), but it isn't clear that eating moderate amounts is damaging in any way. Eat cured meats in moderation and cook them gently (simmering your corned beef, for example) and there shouldn't be too much trouble. In any case, you can skip the pink salt in this recipe - just realize that you're finished corned beef will be brown (not pink) and won't have that "cured" flavor.
One should also be aware that nitrite precursor, nitrate (with an 'a'), is found naturally in green leafy vegetables like spinach, celery, and root vegetables. Bacteria convert it to nitrite. If you check out the ingredient list on an organic hotdog, chances are there will be celery juice or celery extract there. Why do you think they are there? Could it be that brown hotdogs aren't as appetizing as nice pink ones? Could it be the naturally occuring nitrates in the celery juice at work?
You don't need much pink salt and it lasts a long time. It is available online, but I get mine at Surfas in Culver City. I don't use it in all my curing, but I do use it to cure homemade bacon, corned beef and a variety of different sausages, such as my own hot dogs (though I have yet to try dried sausages).
Well, that's it for this week. If you have any questions about food preservation, as usual, feel free to email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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I'll be at the Hollywood Farmers' Market this Sunday if you want to drop by to say hi.
PS. As for shamrock shakes ... make your own at home! Vanilla ice cream, a little milk, creme de menthe to taste - blend - delicious. A little Irish whiskey doesn't hurt either. And, if you want something a little fresher and herbal tasting, infuse the milk with fresh mint. Or go even more radical and make fresh mint ice cream - you'll never go back to extract.