My neighbor Sharon gave me half a beef brisket last week. She and her husband had taken a steer to the small local abbatoir for slaughter, and were generous in sharing after the animal had been butchered. I decided that whatever I made, they’d receive some back for their kindness.
Brisket, as you know, is the chest, the meat lying around the breastbone. It is heavily threaded with muscles and connective tissue, positioned as it is between the chuck, or shoulder, and the shank. It can be divided into two parts, the flat – a flattish, lean part from close to the ribs, with a nice fat cap – and the point, or deckle, a thicker piece with good marbling. Like the chuck and shank, brisket requires long, slow cooking to become sublimely tender pot roast or corned beef or barbecue. Should I braise it? Or brine it? Or smoke it to make pastrami? Yum.
I settled on making corned beef, which is a week-long process, with the bulk of time spent brining. You might recall from my recent column on salt that brining is a common practice for cooks. Brine – salt mixed with water – magnifies the ability of salt to penetrate meat for the purpose of imparting seasoning while killing bacteria and enhancing juiciness by plumping up the meat at a cellular level.
Brine used in this context needs sugar. Not only does it kick up the flavour but it also dials back the harsher side of salt. I use white sugar for corning beef, but any form of sweetener will work – honey, brown sugar, molasses, maple syrup – each contributing its own flavour to the dish. Then there are the aromatics – the herbs and spices that boost the flavor profile. I add a bit of “pink salt” as well. Based on vegetable-sourced nitrite, pink (or curing) salt keeps the meat pink and adds a characteristic flavour while preventing botulism, particularly vital in making air-cured sausages. You can find it at sausage-makers and some butcher shops.
Bring the brine to a boil to dissolve the salt and sugar, but also to let the herbs and spices infuse the liquid. Cool and chill it before you add the brisket. This keeps the meat safe from spoilage. Refrigerate the brisket for five to seven days to allow the brine to penetrate to the centre.
Next time I am gifted with a brisket, I will brine and slow-smoke it with a dry rub to make pastrami, then I’ll give some back to my friends. While you’re at it, remember to share with your neighbor who doesn’t cook so much anymore. First we eat, then we can talk about other undervalued cuts of beef.
A 5-6 pound slab of corned beef serves a crowd. Leftovers make stellar sandwiches, especially layered with Emmenthal or Gruyere and sauerkraut to make Reubens, sautéed in butter.
1 gallon water
2 cups kosher salt
½ cup white sugar
5 tsp. pink salt
1 head garlic, peeled
2 Tbsp. pickling spice
1 whole star anise
½ tsp. fennel seed or anise seed
5-6 lb. beef brisket (half a whole brisket)
oil for the pan
1 onion, coarsely sliced
1 head garlic, peeled and sliced
2 large carrots, coarsely chopped
2 tbsp. pickling spice
1 bottle ginger beer, ale or white wine
6 cups water or stock (chicken, turkey or vegetable)
green cabbage, in wedges or slices
potatoes, cut in even pieces
yellow turnip, peeled and cut in even pieces
To make the brine, combine half the water with all remaining ingredients, bring to a boil and stir until the salt and sugar dissolve. Cool, then chill. Transfer to a container that will hold the meat and fit in the fridge. Add the remaining (cold) water and the meat. Put a plate on top of the meat to submerge it, and cover snugly. Refrigerate for 5-7 days, turning the meat daily.
Remove meat from the brine, rinse and pat dry. Let stand at room temperature while you prepare the braising liquid.
Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed braising pot. Add the vegetables and sauté until golden. Add the spices, liquid and brisket. Add additional liquid to just cover the meat. Bring to a boil. Cover snugly with parchment paper right on the surface of the meat and liquid, then with the lid of the pot. Cook on slow heat for 3 hours, or until tender. Replenish the liquid if its level drops. Add the vegetable garnish and cook for 30-45 minutes, or cook the vegetables separately as preferred.
Remove the meat from the liquid and let it stand 10 minutes, loosely covered, before carving. Serve with vegetables and spoonfuls of braising liquid.