Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Great St. Patrick's Day Experiment

A few weeks ago the subject of the tradition of corned beef for dinner on St. Patrick's Day came up in our conversation.  Although I remember having it every year as a child, I also remember the reaction of my own family being such that many, many years ago I decided never to serve corned beef again. Wayne said it must have been the kids' reaction, because he didn't mind having it once a year.  So, this year I decided that we would give it another try.  I figured maybe one reason we didn't like it was because I wasn't preparing it properly, so I decided to do some internet research to see what I could learn.  I learned a lot!

First off, it's called "corned" beef not because there's actual corn in the recipe (that always confused me) but because the preservation process of the meat included salt, or kernels of salt, which were also called "corns" of salt.

Next I learned that you don't have to buy it at the grocery store, you can make your own corned beef. That was so intriguing that I decided to go that route.  Here's the recipe I found:

4 pounds beef brisket
2 1/2 quarts water
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon peppercorns
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon red chili pepper flakes
8-10 whole cloves
8-10 allspice berries
2 bay leaves, crushed
1 cinnamon stick
5 garlic cloves, crushed.

Combine everything but the beef and the garlic in a large pot and heat until the salt and sugar are dissolved.  Cool to 45° then add the garlic.  Place the beef in a large container (a plastic bag could work) and pour the brine over it.  Soak for several days in the refrigerator.  Rinse the beef and simmer for several hours.

Next I learned that corned beef is not a true Irish tradition.  In Ireland they use pork.  However, in America beef was less expensive than pork, so that's what the poor immigrants could afford, and the tradition was born.  The cabbage and potatoes are added to help dilute the saltiness of the dish.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that of the lengthy list of ingredients, the only spices I didn't have were mustard seeds and allspice berries.  Wayne must have made a recipe years and years ago calling for coriander and fennel, because that's definitely not something I use every day.  My grocery store had mustard seeds but not allspice berries, so I omitted that ingredient.
When I went to Costco to buy the brisket, I was surprised to discover that it cost more per pound than the packaged corned beef.  Maybe it was just a St. Patrick's Day special.  I also didn't see a four pound brisket, the largest was three pounds.  So, I decided to add to the experiment.  I bought one of each and determined to have a taste test.  If we liked the Costco version better, I would know next year to just get that.  If we didn't, we'd know that it was worth the extra expense.  Do you want to know what the results were?  Keep reading.

Tuesday when I got home from the store I made the brine.
Poured it over the beef brisket and stuck it in the fridge.
Sunday morning I removed it from the fridge.  It was no longer pink.  However, that's what I was expecting, because I also learned in my research that corned beef stays pink because of the saltpeter (or potassium nitrate) that is added to the brine.  I didn't want to bother with that, so I didn't.  Besides, I figured it would be a good way to tell the difference between the two once they were on the dinner table.
In my research I also read about a "rinse, cook, repeat" process to help cut the saltiness of the dish, and I decided to give that part a try as well.  So, I removed the beef from the brine, added it to the skillet, covered it with water, and simmered it for about an hour.
Then it was time to leave for church, so I removed it from the skillet, put it in the crock pot, covered it with fresh water, turned it on low, and left for several hours.  
This is what it looked like when I got home from church.  I tasted the broth and it was quite delicious, so I saved it to turn into soup later in the week.
The next step was to chop up some onions, carrots, potatoes, and cabbage.
Then, about 45 minutes before we wanted to eat, I transferred the beef back to the skillet, added fresh water, and the vegetables, and cooked it until the vegetables were tender.  And that was that.  Kind of a long process, isn't it?  If I'm home all day, in the future I may skip the crock-pot step, and just keep it all in one pan, pouring off the old broth and adding new.
But what about the other corned beef?  I cooked it using the same process.
First, remove from the package, set aside the seasoning packet, and simmer it for an hour on the stove.
Second, move it to the crock pot, cover with fresh water, and add the seasoning packet.
Third, put it back in the pot on the stove with fresh water and simmer for another hour or so.
And forget to take a picture of that pot.  There wasn't room to add vegetables, and I was pretty sure we prefer roasted over boiled, but I decided to verify that and do another taste test at dinner.  To roast vegetables, I find it easiest to cut them into chunks, place into a ziploc bag, drizzle with olive oil, then shake and pour into the baking pan.
Sprinkle with salt and pepper and place in a 425° oven for 25-30 minutes.
Don't those look gorgeous?
 And here's the corned beef platter all ready to serve.
Here's the verdict:
We do prefer roasted vegetables over boiled vegetables.  However, for a once a year St. Patrick's Day tradition, I'll stick with the boiled ones. After all, there's already a pot of boiling water going, so that saves dirtying a dish or two.

We liked the homemade version of the corned beef better.  The other one was fine, but there was a slight "chemical/preserved" taste that the fresh one didn't have.  However, since I recall the "pickled" taste being quite prominent in the previous corned beef I've had, I really think the process of "rinse and repeat" definitely helped dilute that.  (I didn't actually "rinse" the beef, just moved it to fresh water.)

We rounded out the meal with Irish Soda Bread and Mint Zebra Cake. We'll have the bread again, but next year will come up with a different dessert.  There you go!  Now you don't have to go to all the work of comparing different recipes, unless of course you want to.  Happy St. Patrick's Day!

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