Thermal Tips: St. Patrick’s Day Corned Beef (2024)

Outside the realm of the Reuben sandwich and the occasional hash, most people think of corned beef as a dish for St. Patrick’s Day. But that needn’t be so! Amazing corned beef has a place on your table all year long, and we have the time and temperature tips to be sure your corned beef is as flavor-packed, tender, and juicy as it can be. Let’s learn how to make this tasty dish—from scratch!

(This method also works for ahomemade pastrami!)

Contents:

  • History of corned beef and cabbage
  • The importance of time and temp for corned beef
  • Homemade corned beef cure recipe
  • Cooking corned beef

Thermal Tips: St. Patrick’s Day Corned Beef (1)

Thermapen® ONE

Smoke X® Long-range Remote Thermometer

Pro-Series® Waterproof Needle Probe

History of Corned Beef and Cabbage:

Corned beef is Irish … kind of. It’s an iconic meal that was developed out of necessity by early Irish immigrants. Beforeimmigrating to the United States, a typical meal for an Irish familywould have been cured pork with potatoes. After traveling to theU.S. in the 1800s, cash-strapped Irish immigrants found that pork and potatoes were fartoo expensive.

The Irish immigrants shared neighborhoods and shops with Jewish immigrants who didn’t sell pork in their butcher shops, and who had learned to cure cheap cuts of beef. The Irish took the cured beef brisket and boiled it with cabbage rather than potatoes to create hearty meals. Corned beef and cabbage may not have originated in Ireland, but it’s authentically Irish-American. A great dish to celebrate Irish-immigrant heritage!

Where’s the corn?!?

People often ask about the corn in corned beef. And the truth is, there is none. The “corn” in corned beef comes from the coarse-grained salt that was originally used to cure the meat. These kernels of salt gave the name “corned” to the beef, with the word corn not referring to a specific grain, but to the old word for anything the size of a grain. So that’s why there’s no corn in the dish!

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Corning is a common term for the method of curing meat with salt. And while preserving meat by way of salt-curing has been in practice for centuries (the chemical composition inhibits bacterial growth), we mainly cure meat now for the flavor and texture qualities inherent in the process.

To properly cure a brisket for corned beef, Prague powder #1 (pink curing salt) is an essential ingredient. The sodium nitriteslowly decomposes into nitric oxide, which reacts with myoglobin in the meat to create the pink color of the brisket. Thisreaction is also what gives cured meat its slightly tangy flavor.

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Why pink?

Curing salt is pink to distinguish it from table salt. The chemical reaction during curing, not added pink coloring, is what turns the meat pink.

A note on brisket

Beef brisket is one toughpiece of meat. This cut is from the pectoral muscleand is heavily worked from bearing much of the animal’s weight. Protein fibers of weight-bearing muscles are very toughand are held together with a web of connective tissue that is primarily comprised of collagen.

The cut’s tough texture and connective tissue require it to be cooked slowly and held for a long time at a relatively high temperature to adequately break down the collagen, transforming it into gelatin. Once gelatin is formed, it can absorb six to ten times its weight in water. Gelatin is essential in arriving at the desired moist and silkytexture so commonly associated with tough cuts like brisket and pork shoulder.

How time and temperature matter for cooking corned beef:

For food safety, the meat’s internal temperature only needs to reach 145°F (63°C), but collagen doesn’t begin to dissolve until 160–180°F (71-82°C). Heat applied to the protein needs to be low and slow to keep it tender, but the tender protein won’t matterunless the connective tissue has rendered down to perform its silky magic. For optimal collagen breakdown and gelatin development, we recommend cooking brisket to an internal temperature of 180–205°F (82–96°C). We’ll dive more into the cooking temperatures later, but for now, let’s just say this needs to be cooked more than, say, a steak.

Cooking Corned Beef

Traditional method for cooking corned beef: boil it hard

Once you’ve cured your corn beef, or if you’re using a pre-cured, raw corned beef, it’s time to cook it. But how? The traditional means of preparing corned beef is to put it in a pot and boil it all day, adding cabbage, carrots, and potatoes in the last 40 minutes or so. Thus it has been for generations. Of course, previous generations were notorious for overcooking vegetables, and they also didn’t have the benefit of high-precision thermometry!

Why an all-day hard boil works

Collagen breakdown

As we said above, brisket is tough meat, chock-full of connective tissue. All that collagen makes for chewy corned beef if it isn’t broken down into gelatin, and the long hard boil will get the meat up into the collagen-melting temperature range —above 160°F (71°C)—that it needs to turn that hard, chewy collagen into soft and yummy gelatin.

No stall

If you’ve ever smoked a brisket, you are familiar with the dreaded ‘stall.’ This phenomenon occurs when the collagen in the brisket starts to break down, releasing water. As the water evaporates in the heat of the smoker, it acts as perspiration, and cools the brisket so that the temperature doesn’t rise—sometimes for many hours—and won’t stop until enough water has exited the meat to allow the temperature to rise again. Bother.

Cooking the corned beef by boiling it avoids the stall altogether. If the beef is covered in water, there is no evaporation, and therefore no evaporative cooling. The only route for heat to escape the water directly is through the surface, and a flame under the pot keeps enough heat coming in so that the relatively small amount of heat venting out the top doesn’t hinder your cook.

Easy to do

Putting a slab of beef in a big pot and hitting ‘go’ is about as easy as cooking gets. Busy immigrant families probably thought of this as an ideal way of cooking (except for the cost of fuel for an all-day stove flame) if there were other things to be done.

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Why an all-day hard boil doesn’t work

Too muchbreakdown

We all know you can overcook a steak and dry it out—let it hit 150°F (66°C), and you may as well give it to the kids, who don’t know any better. And while brisket can take a much higher temperature than a steak can, it too can be overcooked. If all the collagen turns to gelatin, that’s good, but if all the gelatin cooks out of the corned beef, you’ll just have a crumbly, dried out piece of salted beef. After all, there is no stall, but you’re still cooking it for the length of time you would with a stall!

Flavor loss

Also, boiling meat hard all day is going to leach flavor out of it, leaving it a pale shadow of what it could have been.

What would the ideal method be?

In researching how to achieve corned beef perfection, we looked closely at what J. Kenji López-Alt had to say on the subject. After multiple cooks at multiple times and multiple temperatures, Kenji reported that the best method for his taste preference was to cook the corned beef for ~10 hours at 180°F (82°C). This resulted in the texture that he liked best, with a happy medium between structural breakdown and juiciness.

Mind you, that’s his preference. His experiments showed that you can get a flakier—though somewhat drier—texture by cooking the corned beef at a higher temperature for a shorter time.

What’s going on here?

Collagen breakdown is a function of time and temperature. Once you breach the threshold of gelatin creation—about 160°F (71°C)—the meat will begin to soften. But at that temperature, it will take 36 hours to get tender! At 205°F (96°C), that time is reduced to a mere 3 hours. But because the total internal temp will have climbed so much higher, other protein reactions will have happened that make the meat flakier and drier.

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How to cook corned beef perfectly

What we’re looking at here is a fine difference between tradition and modern science. The traditional method is a hard boil all day. The present method is a soft simmer for as little as 3 hours, but up to all day, depending on your textural preference.

To achieve that level of textural accuracy, temperature control is key. So how do you get that control? In principle, you could sous vide it—sous vide is all about careful temperature control. But this recipe for corned beef will be a little too salty, I believe, if you sous vide it. Simmering it in open water draws some of the salt out; vac-sealing it for sous vide will give that salt nowhere to go.

You could also use a slow cooker. Every slow cooker is different, and they all try to maintain different temperatures. If yours keeps a temp that you like for the cook, go for it. But the ThermoWorks demo kitchen doesn’t have a slow cooker, so we broke out the thermometers and rigged up our own system!

We put our beef in the pot and covered it with water. Then onto the stove it went, and we started to monitor the temp once it started to visibly simmer. We tried to maintain a water temp of ~195°F (91°C) in order to balance texture and speed. And because we were taking a more scientific approach to this cook, we used a Smoke X dual-channel thermometer and a Pro-Series Waterproof Needle Probe to monitor both the temperature of the water and the internal temperature of the corned beef. We wanted to know exactly what was going on with both! But if you don’t have a Smoke or ChefAlarm when you cook yours, sporadic monitoring of your water temperatures with an instant-read like theThermapen ONE will also work.

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What temperature is corned beef done?

You’ll want to keep your water temperature at a high simmering temp. If you want very firm but tender corned beef that means 180°F (82°C); for flakier but faster corned beef 190-195°F (88-91°C).

Using Smoke’s receiver is nice for this, as you don’t have to be next to the pot to know what’s going on. But until the internal temp of the beef and the temp of the water start to equalize a bit, there’s going to be a lot of back-and-forth on your stove’s heat to maintain the temperature you want.

Once your corned beef reaches the internal temperature you want, it will still need more time for the collagen to break down. Our target temp was 190°F (88°C), and it took 2 hours after reaching that temp for the meat to reach the consistency we wanted. Yours may take more time, depending on your temperature and texture preference. Test it frequently with your Thermapen ONE once it gets up to temp to check for texture. You don’t want it slipping through like nothing is there, but you don’t want to have to exert a lot of force to get the probe through the meat.

And there you have it! Home-cured, carefully cooked corned beef is far better than the commercial stuff you have tried before. And with our temperature hints, a Smoke X, and a Thermapen,you can get exactly the corned beef texture you like!

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Homemade Corned Beef Cure Recipe

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  • Author: Martin
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Description

A recipe for curing corned beef, adapted from aCorned Beef Brisket recipe from Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats.

A note on curing salt: curing salt is to be added by the weight of the meat. For every 5 lb meat, use 1 tsp curing salt. Weigh your brisket, then make the conversion for how much salt you need. Too much curing salt can be toxic, so don’t just assume that if some preserves it, more will do better.

Ingredients

For every 5 lb of brisket (flat or whole):

  • 3/4 cup kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon pink curing salt (Prague powder #1, NOT Himalayan pink salt, which is entirely different)
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds
  • 2 tablespoons whole coriander seeds
  • 1 tablespoon allspice berries
  • 6 whole cloves
  • 6 bay leaves, roughly crumbled

Weigh your beef, then do the proper conversion based on this recipe for 5lb.

Instructions

    • Pat the brisket dry with paper towels.
    • Combine the salt, pink (curing) salt, ground ginger, and sugar together in a bowl.
    • Place the brisket in a rimmed baking sheet.
    • Rub the brisket all over with the salt/sugar mixture. If there is anyextra salt mixture, pile it on/under the brisket in the pan.
    • Combine the spices in a bowl, then crush them coarsely with a mortar and pestle or in a tea towel with a rolling pin
    • Rub the spices all over the brisket’s surface.
    • Cover the brisket and pan tightly with plastic wrap.
    • Place in the refrigerator.
    • Unwrap it, flip it and rewrap it a few times over the next 7-10 days.

Now you just need to wait 7-10 days…

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How to cook corned beef: recipe

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  • Author: Martin
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Description

How to cook corned beef for best texture.

Ingredients

  • 1 corned beef
  • 1 onion
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 stalks celery

Instructions

    • Rinse the excess salt mixture from the corned beef.
    • Place the beef in a pot. If it’s too big to fit, cut it into smaller pieces and wedge them in together.
    • Cover the beef with at least an inch of water.
    • Insert a probe into the beef and either set up another probe temping the water using a pot clip or dangle a waterproof probe in the water directly.
    • Set the high-temp alarms for both the water and the meat to 190°F (88°C).
    • Bring your water up to your target temperature, and maintain it there by adjusting the heat on your burner.
    • Monitor the internal temp of your corned beef. Once it reaches your target temperature, let the meat cook until it can be easily pierced by a knife—at least 2 hours after the target temp is reached.
    • You may need to add more water in the course of the cook, as some will be lost to steam. You may also want to weigh the beef down with a bowl or plate if it doesn’t want to stay submerged.
    • Once your beef is nearly tender enough, add the vegetables to the pot and simmer them together for at least 20 minutes, or until they reach the texture you like.
    • Remove the beef from the pot and let it cool enough to handle.
    • Slice the beef to your liking, and serve with the cooked veggies and some good mustard.

For the perfect complement to Corned Beef on St. Patrick’s day, see our Irish Soda Bread post.

For another way to cook your corned beef, check out our post on Smoking Corned Beef!

Thermal Tips: St. Patrick’s Day Corned Beef (2024)

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