Corned beef is just comforting. Whether it’s corned beef breakfast hash on a slow Sunday morning or a St. Patrick’s Day get together featuring the classic combo of corned beef, onions, potatoes, and cabbage, few other foods are so rich in flavor without feeling fancy or showy. Corned beef is food for family, friends, and the community, and that’s what makes it special.
When it comes to cooking corned beef, there are definitely some dos and don’ts. But first, the basics…
What is corned beef?
Corned beef is simply salt-cured beef, most often made from the brisket. Originally cured with just salt, it became common over the years to add additional spices to the brining process such as juniper, black pepper, and mustard seeds.
Corned beef gets its famous color from a chemical compound called sodium nitrite. Sodium nitrite adds flavor and helps prevent bacterial growth for longer shelf stability. Because it’s toxic in concentrated amounts, it’s dyed pink so people don’t confuse it with table salt. Some chefs also swap beet juice to get the color without using a chemical [*].
Curing a brisket for corned beef usually takes between 7-10 days, and the process is essentially just creating a salty brining liquid, submerging your beef in the solution, and keeping it in your fridge for a while. You can either cure it yourself or buy pre-brined corned beef from the store.
Corned beef is served in three primary ways: in corned beef hash, in sandwiches such as the reuben, and sliced alongside cabbage and carrots. Cooking corned beef always involves a low-and-slow method. This is because the brisket and other meats used for corned beef are sinewy and tough, and you need low heat to break down the collagen and coax out the best texture.
The best cut of beef for corned beef
When it comes to making corned beef, there’s really only one choice: the brisket — and the flat cut, specifically. Anytime you buy pre-brined corned beef from the store, it’s safe to assume it’s a brisket.
If you don’t have access to brisket and/or are brining your own, you can also make corned beef from any beef round cut (located near the steer’s hindquarters). This may not have the exact taste you’re thinking of, but it will get you close and still be delicious.
Why brisket? Well, tradition! Brisket used to be a cheap cut due to its tough texture, and finding ways to make it delicious were challenges the Irish were up for. Apart from that, brisket is a delicious and meaty meat. It has a distinct flavor that grillers and corned beef lovers the world over have grown to love. Let’s talk a bit more about what brisket is.
What is the brisket primal and why is it best for corned beef?
The brisket is one of the primal cuts taken from the lower breast area of the steer.
This is a big and lean cut of meat, and it usually weighs between 10 and 20 pounds. Because the brisket is used so much in the steer’s life, it is filled with collagen and strong muscle fibers. The brisket is split into two key sections: the flat and the point (more on that in a second).
The brisket is famous for its distinctly meaty flavor and incredible texture when cooked correctly. Once you cook down the collagen with low heat, all of that fat renders into the meat and creates a delectable meal.
What’s the difference between the flat and point cut of brisket?
The flat and the point are two cuts that butchers take from the brisket, and each has its own characteristics. You can either buy the whole brisket, which includes both the flat and point, or you can buy the cuts separately.
If the corned beef you buy just says brisket, then it’s likely the whole primal. If it says flat or point, then you’re getting one or the other. You can always ask the butcher if you aren’t sure.
Both the flat and point cut are delicious but have slightly different uses. Here’s how to use them:
Ideal for: Corned beef, cuts that look rectangular, and pastrami.
The flat cut is the part of the brisket that’s near the ribcage, and it’s known for its leanness and rectangular shape when cut. If you’ve ever been to a good BBQ shop, ordered a brisket, and gotten those perfectly rectangular cuts stacked on top of each other, then that’s the flat cut in action.
The flat cut is the preferred cut for corned beef, but the whole brisket is used often as well. If you are trying to make the perfect looking meal for corned beef, then make sure you pick up the flat. If you’re making hash or corned beef for reubens, then you can use either and have great results.
Ideal for: pot roasts, shredded beef, and meals that benefit from fattier meat.
The point cut (also known as the second cut or deckle) is named because it is shaped like a triangle. It’s the part of the brisket that is closer to the collarbone. The collarbone is less used, which makes it have less muscle and more fat than the flat cut.
If you want to shred your beef for any reason, then the point is your best choice. Some people argue that the fat makes the point cut more flavorful than the flat cut, but we think it comes down to how you use it!
Best practices for choosing the best meat for corned beef
Okay, now that you know your options, let’s talk about quality. Here’s what to look for when picking out your brisket.
Buy a bit more meat than you think is necessary
The golden rule is a half-pound per person, but corned beef shrinks a lot when you cook it down, so aim for closer to ¾ pounds per person.
Opt for grass-fed and finished brisket when possible
Grass-fed and grass-finished corned beef or brisket tastes better. It’s no surprise when you think about all of the junk they feed industrial cattle. When cows live healthier lives, their meat tastes better — and it’s better for you. It’s why the industrial meat you buy from major chains never feels as satisfying as buying from a local butcher or reputable producer. So whether you’re brining your own brisket or picking up a ready-to-cook corned beef brisket, start with the best.
Always use fresh brisket for corned beef
Even if you buy a great brisket, if it’s been sitting in the freezer until it’s close to expired, chances are it won’t taste as good. Buying and using meat well within their “best by” windows is the best way to ensure your meal comes out top-notch, and on a similar note, you should buy from meat producers who are constantly moving and rotating their products — that way you know that the meat you’re getting is fresh.
Where to buy the best brisket for corned beef
The absolute best beef for your corned beef will come from farmers and producers who raise their cattle healthily and sustainably. Grass-raised and grass-finished is the best beef for your body, your taste buds, and the environment. It’s also a great way to support farmers who are fighting against the habits and practices of industrial meat.
Try the best grass-fed and grass-finished brisket in America.
Our favorite corned beef recipes
Now for the best part — cooking! Here are some of the best corned beef recipes we know of. Some walk you through the whole curing process, others are based on buying pre-brined corned beef.
This recipe shows you exactly how to get that perfect St. Patrick’s Day meal with a pre-brined corned beef brisket. The brown sugar crust, the rich cabbage, the small potatoes — I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.
This recipe is all about nailing that perfect corned beef crust and uses a slow cooker and optional broiler to get the job done. This approach is perfect for starting in the morning, going to work, and coming back to an amazing meal.
For the Chef Table lovers out there, this recipe is for you. This is a perfect breakdown of how to cure your own brisket, create an amazing spice blend, and wow your guests.
Corned beef hash is perfect to make from leftovers, but this hash is so good I wouldn’t blame you for making a whole brisket just to use in this hash. You can experiment here as well. Any fresh veggies you have or style of eggs you love make fine substitutes.
As a kid, I loved reuben sandwiches, and that has never changed — especially when it’s paired with a rich dressing and a crunchy pickle. Don’t skimp on getting good bread for this recipe, and enjoy what may be the best reuben you ever have.
The flat cut or whole brisket is the only way to play with corned beef. You can either brine it yourself or buy it pre-brined, but make sure you buy grass-fed and grass-finished beef for the absolute best results. Why go through all the trouble of making corned beef with meat that is subpar?
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Nathan Phelps is a writer, ethical foodie, and outdoors-aficionado hailing from Nashville, TN. He splits his time between helping sustainable businesses find new customers and managing his ever-increasing list of hobbies, which include playing guitar, baking bread, and creating board games.