Corned beef has been a staple of old-school diner menus and Irish American diets for decades. You might find it mingling with sauerkraut in Reuben sandwiches or served next to potatoes at a St. Patrick’s Day supper. Sure, you can buy it already canned or cured at the store, but nothing beats the flavor—and feeling of total accomplishment—of homemade corned beef.
What is corned beef?
Corned beef is essentially just meat that’s been cured in brine. Most recipes use beef brisket and add corned beef spices (aka “pickling spice”) to infuse the meat with extra flavor. But the salt is the real key here. It seasons the meat and breaks down the muscle fibers to make the brisket more tender. Salt also allows the cells to retain more moisture, giving you juicier meat.
Most homemade corned beef recipes also use pink curing salt. This salt is not the same as Himalayan pink salt. You wouldn’t want to eat it like table salt, and it’s usually dyed red to avoid confusion. Curing salt contains sodium nitrite, which inhibits bacteria growth and prevents food from spoiling. It also gives the corned beef its characteristic bright pink color.
Why is it called corned beef?
Corned beef gets its name from the type of salt that was originally used to brine the meat. These were the days before refrigeration, so meat was stored in salt to preserve it. The salt they used was the size of corn kernels, and people started calling the meat “corned” beef. The name stuck, even though most types of salt are much smaller these days.
How to Make Corned Beef
It’s surprisingly easy to make homemade corned beef. The steps are simple, and the flavor payoff is second to none. All you really need is a beef brisket and a curing brine. We make our brine with kosher salt, brown sugar, pink curing salt, garlic and pickling spices.
Of course, corned beef brisket does take time. The brisket needs to sit in the brine for 10 days, so make sure you plan ahead. Schedule it on your calendar to ensure the meat is ready in time for your big event.
How long do you cook corned beef?
We cook a 4- to 5-pound corned beef brisket for three hours. As a general rule of thumb, corned beef takes about 45 minutes per pound on the stovetop. Every brisket is different, so it may take more or less time.
Using a meat thermometer is the best way to know when your corned beef is finished cooking. Probe the corned beef in the thickest part of the meat. Look for a corned beef internal temperature between 180° to 195°F. The lower temperatures result in firmer slices. We prefer a more tender, flaky corned beef that’s closer to 195°.
Corned Beef Ingredients
- Beef brisket: A 4- to 5-pound brisket is usually plenty big enough for corned beef. Look for a brisket with good marbling—the long streaks of white fat within the lean sections of the meat.
- Kosher salt: You can use table salt, but we prefer kosher salt for brining meat. It doesn’t contain added iodine, which can make the brine cloudy and add an off flavor to the meat.
- Brown sugar: Sugar counterbalances the salty flavors in the brine. You can use regular sugar, but molasses-rich brown sugar adds more depth.
- Corned beef spices: Pickling spices give corned beef its signature flavor. Instead of using a store-bought blend, go the extra mile with homemade pickling spice. It’s simple to make, and you probably have most of the ingredients in the pantry.
- Pink curing salt: If you can’t find curing salt at the grocery store, you should be able to order it online. It may be called Prague powder #1. Don’t use other pink-colored salts like Himalayan pink salt or Prague powder #2, which have a different chemical composition.
Step 1: Make the brine
In a large stockpot, combine the water, kosher salt, brown sugar, 2 tablespoons pickling spices, pink curing salt and garlic. Bring the brine to a simmer, stirring until the salt and sugar are dissolved. Remove the brine from the heat, and let it cool to room temperature. Refrigerate until chilled.
Editor’s Tip: If you’re running short on time, use ice to speed up this step. Reduce the water added to 2 quarts. After the salt and sugar are dissolved, add 2 pounds ice cubes to the stockpot. Stir until the ice has melted. Refrigerate the brine until chilled.
Step 2: Brine the corned beef
Place one large oven roasting bag inside another. Place the brisket inside the inner bag, then pour in the cooled brine. Seal the bags, pressing out as much air as possible. Turn the meat over a few times to evenly coat it in the brine. Refrigerate the brisket for 10 days, turning occasionally to keep meat coated in the brine. After 10 days, remove the corned beef brisket from the brine. Rinse thoroughly.
Editor’s Tip: Rinsing the meat removes any excess salt. Don’t worry about rinsing away the flavor. The corned beef absorbs plenty of seasoning as it sits in the brine.
Step 3: Simmer the corned beef
Place the corned beef brisket in a Dutch oven. Add enough water to cover. Add the carrots, onions, celery and remaining pickling spices. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer.
Simmer, covered, until meat is tender, about three hours, adding water to the pot as needed to keep the meat submerged.
Editor’s Tip: You can cut the corned beef brisket in half to fit your pot if needed.
Step 4: Thinly slice the corned beef
You can serve the corned beef brisket warm or cool. Thinly slice the meat, and serve in a sandwich. Or serve with additional vegetables simmered in the cooking liquid until tender.
Test Kitchen Tip: If you’re making the corned beef ahead of time, don’t slice it. Refrigerate the meat whole in the cooking liquid.
How do you cut corned beef?
It’s important to slice corned beef brisket against the grain (the same way you cut steak). To do this, first rest the corned beef to allow the juices to redistribute within the meat. Then look for the grain, the muscle fibers that run parallel to each other. Position your knife perpendicular to these fibers, and slice the corned beef.
Corned Beef Variations
- Skip the pink curing salt: This ingredient contains sodium nitrite, which preserves the meat and gives it a unique flavor and color. If you’re avoiding nitrites, you can skip the pink salt. However, the meat will lack the bright pink hue normally associated with corned beef.
- Add vegetables: To make corned beef and cabbage, add cabbage wedges during the final 15 minutes of cook time. You can also add root vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, rutabaga or turnips during the final 30 to 40 minutes.
Can you make corned beef ahead of time?
Corned beef is a great make-ahead dish. After cooking the corned beef, store it whole (with the cooking liquid) in a covered pan in the refrigerator. When you’re ready to eat, use a spoon to scrape away the fat from the surface of the cooking liquid. Slice the brisket against the grain, and place it in a stockpot. Add enough of the cooking liquid to cover the brisket. Bring the mixture to a simmer, and cook until the meat is heated through.
How to Store Corned Beef
Store leftover corned beef in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to four days. If possible, store corned beef in the cooking juices to keep the meat from drying out. This is especially important if you’ve already sliced the meat!
Gently reheat corned beef in a pan on the stovetop. Add water, broth or cooking juices to keep the corned beef moist. Or use the chopped meat in your favorite leftover corned beef recipes like corned beef casserole or corned beef and cabbage soup.
Can you freeze corned beef?
Freeze leftover corned beef in a freezer-safe container for up to three months. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight, and reheat as directed. The leftover vegetables do not freeze well, as they become soft and mushy when reheated.
Corned Beef Tips
What is the best way to cook homemade corned beef?
There are several ways to make corned beef so it doesn’t turn out tough. Slow-cooker corned beef and cabbage is a great hands-off cooking method that uses the slow cooker’s gentle heat to produce tender corned beef. You can also make braised corned beef in the oven. If you’re running short on time, whip up Instant Pot corned beef, which cooks in around 70 minutes.
What is the best cut of beef brisket for corned beef?
You can use the flat cut or point cut (also called the “deckle cut”) to make corned beef. We prefer to use the flat cut for this recipe. It has less fat and exhibits a more even shape, so it slices easily. On the other hand, the point cut is fattier and has a richer flavor. It’s the better option if you want shredded corned beef. You could purchase a whole packer brisket, which contains both cuts. These larger briskets have the best of both worlds but take longer to cook. Make sure you leave yourself plenty of time—and count on leftovers!
What do you serve with homemade corned beef?
If you’re preparing a St. Patrick’s Day feast, serve corned beef with colcannon potatoes, cabbage and Irish soda bread. It’s never a bad idea to whip up a few green foods to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, too. If you want to serve corned beef with a sauce, try Dijon mustard or a creamy horseradish sauce.