Thanksgiving came and went without a hitch. I know this because my mother in law came to stay for two nights and my husband’s efforts to fix a whole bunch of little things around the house paid off in the form of a relatively pleasant visit.
I get a lot of questions about cooking technique in the weeks leading up to the holiday. This isn’t all that surprising – most people think about food more during the holidays, and cook more during the holidays. Food anxiety apparently plays a much greater role on television as well. We don’t have TV at home – a long story involving a severe, folie à deux-type addiction to late night reality television and a bitter argument with DirecTV seven years ago – but a couple of weeks back, while in Kansas City on business, I took the opportunity to check out the Food Network programming in the hotel room. Let’s just say that holiday cooking doesn’t make me anxious, but if I had been at all worried about achieving a crispy brown skin on a moist turkey, avoiding dry dressing, or producing the dreaded leaden pumpkin pie, I wouldn’t have felt any better after watching Food Network in the two weeks before Thanksgiving. I suspect that’s how they like it, too.
Anyway, as always, I received a lot of questions about brining this year. My answer, again as always, was the same. If you’re going to roast your turkey whole (and there are many, many reasons not to do so), you should consider a short brine. Honestly, though – who really likes turkey all that much, other than my husband? He’s still eating it, by the way, with gusto. We had the leftovers for dinner the other night – and I must admit that they were good, especially the chestnut and sausage stuffing, which tasted even better after the flavors had a few more days to meld – but I really don’t need to eat more than one turkey meal a year, brined or no. Now, the brined food I do like to eat … that’s salt beef, or corned beef.
Corning refers to “corn,” the archaic English term for a hard, coarse, granular substance, like those big grains of salt formerly used for preservation. While in times past one might have preserved meat by packing it in salt corns for a dry cure, today corned or salt beef generally is cured in a wet brine. As much as salt beef is a pretty lowbrow food, enjoyed between slabs of rustic caraway rye and accented with fiery English mustard, the best hot salt beef sandwich I’ve ever enjoyed comes from a distinctly posh venue. The Fifth Floor food hall at Harvey Nichols department store in London has a hot salt beef carving station where you can get a great fatty piece of salt brisket on rye. If you’re tired out from buying expensive clothes downstairs, go sit in the Fifth Floor Bar and order a salt beef sandwich. It comes with pickles, hot mustard, and beautiful plate presentation. Some people say Selfridge’s is best, but those people are nuts.
Use a kitchen scale when making the brine. From chemistry class (and all those metrics lessons in the 70s) you should recall that water weighs one gram per milliliter, so a liter of water weighs one kg. You want a 10% salt solution with adequate sugar, and it is essential that you not include too much curing salt. A note about that curing salt, by the way. Many of you may eschew nitrites, having read about their potential negative health consequences. Since we rarely brine meat these days for preservation, you can omit the curing salt from the brine if you like, without any ill effect. The salt beef will, however, cook to a grayish-brown if you cook it conventionally, since curing salt preserves color. (If you are interested in cooking the salt beef sous vide to preserve color, I do provide instructions.)
1.5 kg (3 lbs) brisket
2 liters (2000 ml) cold water
10g curing salt (Prague Powder #1)
2 bay leaves
4 cloves garlic, peeled
several branches thyme
10g black peppercorn
10g pickling spice [combine whole allspice, cloves, mace, celery seed, juniper]
Bring 200g of the water, and the rest of the brine ingredients, to a simmer until dissolved. Combine with the rest of the water. Trim the brisket of extraneous gristle and place in a large, thick, sealable plastic bag (a gallon bag should do if you have a slightly smaller brisket than specified, but otherwise use a two gallon bag). I strongly recommend double bagging.
Add the brine and seal the bags. To be really safe against leaks or bursting, place the bag in a deep bowl (such as a steel prep bowl). Place in the refrigerator, in the coldest part. Every day for about a week, rotate the bag to ensure that all parts of the brisket are cured consistently. You can cure for up to two weeks but it does become progressively more salty. If you intend to cook sous vide (especially if not using curing salt), pull from the brine after five days and rinse well before proceeding.
After a week to ten days (or up to two weeks), remove the brisket from the bag and rinse in cold water. Discard the brine.
1 onion, quartered
2 carrots, scraped and chopped
1 large celery stalk, chopped
Place the brisket in a large stockpot or Dutch oven with the onion, carrot, and celery. Add water to cover. Bring just to a simmer and keep at a bare simmer for about 4-5 hours, depending on the size of your brisket. When the brisket is ready, it will be fork-tender. During cooking, the brisket will become quite tough for a period of time. This is normal – keep simmering and do not at any time allow the water to boil. Remove the brisket from the cooking liquid. Slice across the grain.
To prepare sous vide, rinse well to be sure that none of the pickling spices adhere to the meat because spices will become unbearably strong otherwise. Bag the brisket and vacuum seal. Cook in the SVS or in an immersion circulator at 136F/58C for medium rare meat, or 140F/60C for medium, about 42-48 hours depending on meat thickness and composition.
Serve on sliced rye bread, with house-made pickles and hot English mustard. As pictured, the sandwich comes with potato chips made by slicing a russet on a mandoline directly into hot oil.
Corned beef hash
What do you do with leftover corned beef? Hash, of course – the blandness of the potato is the perfect foil to the salty meat.
I specify 1/4″ dice because I like it small. Don’t knock yourself out. It’s hash, it’s a rustic dish; if you like larger dice or even a rough chop, suit yourself.
Leftover salt beef, from above, diced about 1/4″
one russet potato, diced 1/4″
one small yellow onion, diced 1/4″
vegetable oil or clarified butter
optional: poached egg
Place a large sauté pan over medium high heat and, when hot, add a little oil. Add the potato to the pan and toss once to coat on all sides; then cook, undisturbed, until golden on one side. Flip the potatoes to turn and add the onion. Brown on the other side and add the corned beef and thyme leaves. Redistribute in the pan and continue to brown until golden. Season with salt if necessary (the beef is quite salty, so you should not need much salt). Season with black pepper and chives. Turn out onto a plate.
If you like, top with a poached or fried egg. Ketchup is not verboten.