This is one of the easiest corned beef recipes you’ll find around, but despite that, I think it’s one of the best, most impressive recipes you could make. There’s probably not another recipe with so few ingredients and effort needed to produce such a great product. Anyone who is remotely interested in cooking (and not a vegetarian) should try curing meat at home – it opens up a whole new world of cured meat possibilities. Better yet, while cured meat from a deli or charcuterie is often incredibly expensive, making it at home is so, so cheap. I’m going to geek out a little here so feel free to jump to the recipe instead.
When it comes to food, I’m a sucker for two things: big difficult sounding cuts of meat and big difficult sounding recipes that seem obscure and impressive – but are actually almost completely passive and zero effort. This one is both. I used a gloriously marbled and beefy tasting brisket from Lone Mountain Wagyu (genuinely one of our favorite beef suppliers – though regular beef brisket works wonderfully too) and it was definitely as close to zero effort as a recipe can get. This recipe takes 6 days to make, but almost all of it is passive time where the beef is just chilling out in the fridge. The rest of the time is the beef braising in the oven, so I think the total active time for this recipe is somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes.
Pastrami vs Corned Beef
To be perfectly honest, I’d love to be making pastrami at the same time as this corned beef. Although I’ll be the first to extol the virtues of corned beef, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for pastrami from days of misspent youth and random late night chowdowns with friends at Katz’s years ago. We don’t live near any good delis these days, so before this moment, pastrami was just a long lost dream. Now it seems almost in reach.
The difference between corned beef and pastrami is just the part of the animal used (pastrami uses the fattier part of the brisket closer to the navel) and the cooking process (corned beef is boiled, pastrami is smoked), so as long as you have access to a smoker, you could be making both at almost the same time. And if you do have access to a smoker, you definitely should double this recipe and smoke half of the meat because I think it’s an undeniable fact that the best sandwiches contain both pastrami and corned beef.
The brisket we have is actually perfect for pastrami, but after doing a deep dive on the internet for how to smoke meat while living in the middle of a dense city, I came to the conclusion that whatever I did, it probably wouldn’t come close to the real thing, and would be five times as much effort for a product that most people would agree is on par with the much, much simpler corned beef. For anyone without a big backyard (like us) corned beef is clearly the easier choice.
Pink Salt & Pickling Spice
Although this recipe contains only 5 ingredients plus water, one of them – pink salt – might be a little harder to find. Pink salt, not to be confused with pink Himalayan salt, is actually regular salt mixed with sodium nitrite and dyed pink so that it’s not eaten by accident, and exists to prevent botulism (and listeria) and give cured beef its signature flavor. Should you use it? In theory you don’t need it but it’s completely safe and so easily available on Amazon as well as locally at any good gourmet store that you should take the extra time to find it – it’s also called instacure #1, prague powder 1, or curing salt. Locally, we had to ask for it behind the counter.
The other important ingredient is pickling spice. We use it twice: once to cure the meat and again while braising the meat. Pickling spice is one of those ingredients that everyone seems to have a secret recipe for, and seems to involve cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, mace, nutmeg, mustard seeds, etc etc. There are many recipes on the internet, but they all share in common a need to buy a ton of spices. I avoided all that and just went to the bulk section of the supermarket and bought enough generic pickling spice for the recipe, and it turned out great.
In Steph’s words, the corned beef turned out incredibly OMG dyingly good. It was red & pink all the way through, tangy, beefy, and delicious. The wagyu’s marbling gave it an extra nice little boost in both texture and taste. Steph planned a lot of dishes to make with our 3lbs of beef, but we’ve eaten almost all of it as sandwiches on rye (for me) and hot salt beef beigels (for her) so there’s really not a lot left to work with. It was almost scary how fast we ate the brisket. I’m confident this is one of those recipes where if you don’t live next to a world-class deli in a top-tier city like NYC or London, this is the way to go.
Going the distance
This was a super minimalist recipe, but next time around I plan on putting in a little extra effort:
To make the curing liquid, you should bring your salt, sugar, pink salt, and pickling spices along with 4 cups of water to a boil. Then, stir in ice and cold water until you reach about the 1 gallon mark (16 cups total) and wait until the mixture cools completely before using. I didn’t do this and it turned out great, but this is what I plan on doing next time.
In terms of curing time, this recipe suggests about 6 days (and I’ll be honest, I only went 5 days) Katz’s does theirs for 4 weeks. Next time around I’ll let the cure go for 2 weeks at least.
For the pickling spice, although this time I went with store bought and it tasted more than fine, sometime in the next few tries, I’ll experiment with a Vietnamese inspired pickling mix.
We’d planned a lot of dishes to use this beef for: corned beef hash, corned beef fried rice, corned beef with cabbage and potatoes (of course, for St Paddy’s), corned beef chow fun, corned beef ramen, corned beef grilled cheese, corned beef nachos, corned beef udon, the list goes on and on. But, as mentioned above, we ended up eating all the brisket before any of that had a chance. This is a recipe that I’ll be making again and again though – the next brisket is already curing in the fridge. Hopefully the next one lives longer than 2 days and has a chance to be turned into one of the fun dishes above. Stay tuned.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
The Easiest Corned Beef Recipe
Yields: 1 Corned Beef Brisket
Prep time: 6 days
Cook time: 4 hours
Total time: 6 days and 4 fours
- 3/4 cups kosher salt
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons pink salt
- 4 tablespoons pickling spice, divided in half
- 1 beef brisket, 3-12 lbs
- 1 gallon of water (16 cups or 4 liters)
In a container large enough to contain the brisket plus water, combine all of the water, salt, sugar, and pink salt. Stir until mixed, then add 2 tablespoons pickling spice. Stir briefly until mixed again, then add the brisket. Weigh the brisket down with a plate. Seal and store in the fridge for 6 days total. After 3 days, give the brisket a flip and weigh down again with the plate.
After 6 days, preheat your oven to 200ºF. Find an oven-proof pot (such as a dutch oven) large enough to hold your brisket and fill it halfway with water. Set it over high heat. Carefully remove the brisket from its container and give it a brief rinse. Add brisket and the remaining 2 tablespoons of pickling spice and wait until the pot comes to a boil, then transfer to oven and braise for 4 hours.
Once done, remove the brisket from the braising liquid from and slice thinly. Store any uneaten brisket with the braising liquid and reheat together to retain maximum moisture. Brisket keeps for 3-5 days in the fridge.