One of the greatest things about New York City, gastronomically speaking, is the delicatessen, or “deli,” tradition. At the heart of every deli is sandwiches–warm piles of cured meat (almost always beef, since pork’s not kosher), piled on seeded rye, and other breads, served with tangy deli mustard. And at the center of interest in the world of deli meat is corned beef–usually a huge hunk of brisket that has sat in brine for a couple of weeks, then melted to tenderness in hot water, before being thinly sliced and served on a sandwich. Unless you go to a New York-style deli in other cities (L.A., for example, has several great ones), it’s not easy to find a New York-style sandwich outside of New York. You could buy a corned beef in the supermarket and try to make a sandwich yourself, but the mass-market product always seems, well, more industrial than the real thing. Good news: if you crave the real thing, and live at a distance from it, your troubles are over. Perhaps you’ve never considered doing it, but you will not believe how easy it is to cure your own corned beef–and how much the result of the following recipe tastes like corned beef from a New York deli! The hardest part is finding space in your refrigerator for a big container of beef in brine. I say: clear out those left-overs! This fabulous corned beef is well worth the space it takes. Or, at this time of year…consider the backyard! The name “corned beef,” by the way, does not indicate the presence of corn in the dish. The “corn” part apparently comes from an old English term for any small granule–e.g. a grain of salt is a “corn.” In Montreal–where they also have a great deli tradition–they avoid this confusion entirely by calling their version of “corned beef” “salted beef.”
SEASONAL NOTE: Start thinking now about your home-made corned beef for St. Pattie’s Day?
1 gallon water
1 cup kosher salt
2 teaspoons prague powder, optional (see NOTE)
1/2 cup white sugar
1 tablespoon whole yellow mustard seeds
2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns
2 teaspoons whole coriander seeds
2 teaspoons whole dill seeds
5 bay leaves
5 pounds whole beef brisket
1. In a medium-sized non-reactive pot, over medium-high heat, combine 1 gallon of water, salt, Prague powder, sugar, mustard seeds, black peppercorns, coriander seeds, dill seeds, and bay leaves. Boil, uncovered, until the sugar and salt are dissolved; this will take about 1 minute. Transfer the brine to a non-reactive container with a tight fitting lid (a large pot will do); the container should just be large enough to hold the brisket and brine. Refrigerate the brine, uncovered, until it is cool.
2. Add the brisket to the chilled brine, making sure it is completely submerged. Cover the container tightly. If needed, weight the brisket down with a heavy object to keep it submerged in the brine. Keep covered and refrigerated for 14 days, turning the brisket over in the brining liquid every two days throughout the process; this will ensure even curing throughout the brisket. After 14 days, the corned beef is ready to be cooked.
NOTE: Prague powder is mostly salt, with some sodium nitrate added. If you use it in your cure, the sodium nitrate will insure that your corned beef will have the pretty pinkish-red color that the deli corned beef has; if you prefer to omit the powder, the corned beef will still taste great, but its color will be a much less attractive brown-grey. I use Prague powder in my cure, but some people feel that the consumption of sodium nitrate is risky business. If you happily eat hams, salamis, hot dogs, etc.–all “pinkened” by sodium nitrate–there’d be no reason to leave it out of this recipe. It is, however, tricky to acquire; it’s not sold at the supermarket. You can easily find a mail-order source on the internet.