Unless you count what the cow might've eaten before its untimely end, there is no corn in corned beef.
In this case, the word "corn" refers to the size of salt used in making the brine. "Corning" might sound unusual or difficult, but in fact it's neither. The process for corning your own beef is as simple as brining a turkey for Thanksgiving, and the result is worlds better than the stuff found in most supermarket delis.
"We were dubious in the beginning," said Greg Frank, a managing partner of The Coopers Tavern, which makes its own corned beef. "But it's amazing how much better the sandwich is."
While it's a myth that corned beef is traditional Irish celebratory fare - more likely they ate pork and potatoes -- it remains popular as a St. Patrick's Day meal in the United States. Coopers Tavern on Capitol Square will be serving house-cured corned beef and cabbage starting at 9 a.m. on Sunday as well as Wednesday, St. Patrick's Day.
Coopers' delicious, meaty Reuben, made with black Jewish rye bread, Swiss cheese, house-made Thousand Island dressing and crunchy sauerkraut simmered in Lake Louie Scotch Ale, is one of the most popular items on the menu. The star player is, of course, four ounces of house-cured corned beef.
"You're basically just making a saltwater brine and marinating, soaking your meat for a week," said Coopers chef Tim Larsen, "and you come out with this delicious product."
To make corned beef as they do at Coopers, start with a great pickling spice blend. You can pick this up at grocery stores, Larsen said, but he makes his own. The dry spices include bay leaves, coriander, cloves, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg and mustard seed. Other additions could include peppercorns, juniper, dried ginger, dill or chiles.
"We toast all our spices to bring out their essential oils" in a dry skillet, Larsen said. "You can search on the Internet and find recipes for your own pickling spices. That's one of the things that will elevate your corned beef."
Pink curing salt (known also as Prague Powder No. 1) is essentially nitrates, Larsen said. The addition of this salt keeps the meat pink -- an aesthetic issue more than one of taste.
"You can definitely make the recipe without the pink salt," he said. "When it comes out it will look like roast beef; it won't have the nice bright red corned beef color."
Also, it's worth noting that the pink salt is the only thing you must exactly measure. Everything else you can adjust to taste; smaller, trimmed cuts of brisket, for example, will cure quicker and cook a little quicker, too.
The biggest investment in quality corned beef is time: the beef takes a good five days to brine. After dissolving the salt and simmering the spices in water, Larsen cools it down quickly with ice to double the volume of the brine. This simply cools the brine faster so he can use it right away.
"There is a chemical reaction that goes on, the osmosis of the meat and the salt -- drawing moisture out of the meat and the salt getting into the meat," Larsen said. "But it's actually a very simple process and it's something that's been done for literally hundreds of years."
Coopers uses beef brisket from Knoche's Old Fashioned Butcher Shop on Old Middleton Road. Brisket cuts weigh about 7-9 lbs. The point cut, on top, has more fat marbling and more flavor, but Coopers uses the leaner flat cut (on the bottom) because slicing for sandwiches is easier.
"Since it is a leaner cut of meat, you cook it longer to make sure it's nice and tender," Larsen said.
Cooking the meat longer than two and a half hours (past 180 degrees) can make it fall apart -- good for the bigger cuts in corned beef and cabbage, for example, but not as good for sandwiches.
Larsen estimated that the corned beef could keep up to two weeks, but freezes easily and reheats well.
For their new brunch menu (starting Saturday and Sunday), Coopers is also making its own Canadian bacon and curing salmon -- a faster, two-day process -- turning it into lox for a variation on eggs Benedict.
"We throw a little bourbon in there to make it a little more flavorful, and within the style of what we're trying to do here," Larsen said, "cooking with beer and booze."
The Coopers Tavern Corned Beef
Note: Pink curing salt contains nitrates. Whole Foods no longer carries it, but the salt is inexpensive and available through americanspice.com. The recipe can be made without the pink salt; the only loss will be color.
1/2 gallon water
2 cups kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 ounce pink curing salt (InstaCure #1; Prague Powder #1)
2 tablespoons pickling spice (store-bought or homemade)
1/2 cup fresh garlic, peeled and crushed
1 ounce fresh thyme (whole)
Ice as needed
5 lbs. beef brisket, flat cut, trimmed of fat
Place first five ingredients in a stockpot and bring to a simmer. Turn off heat, add garlic and thyme and let sit for 10 minutes. Add enough ice to double the volume to one gallon, effectively cooling the brine.
Put brisket and brine into a 2 gallon Ziploc bag and remove as much air as possible. Place in a pan (in case of leaks) and brine beef for at least five days, turning and massaging bag every other day to redistribute spices.
Finally, cook the beef: place brisket in a pot of fresh water to cover and simmer for about two and a half hours or until tender. Check for an internal temperature of 180 degrees.
3 tablespoons Thousand Island dressing
2 1/2-inch-thick slices rye bread
1 1/2 ounces sliced Gruyère or Swiss cheese (try Roth Käse)
1 cup sauerkraut, drained and squeezed of excess moisture
4 1/4-inch-thick slices corned beef (about 4 ounces)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
Spread 1 tablespoon of the dressing on one piece of bread and top with half of the cheese, half of the sauerkraut, and all of the meat. Spread another tablespoon of the dressing over the meat and
top with the remaining sauerkraut and cheese, in that order.
Spread the remaining tablespoon of dressing on the remaining piece of bread and place on top of the cheese, dressing side down. Press firmly to close the sandwich, then evenly spread the butter on the outside of the sandwich.
Heat a heavy-bottomed frying pan over medium heat, place the sandwich in the pan, and press down on the sandwich with a spatula. (Alternatively, you can cook the sandwich in a sandwich press.) Cook until the bread is crisp and golden brown, about 4 minutes.
Flip and cook until the second side is golden brown, the cheese is melted, and the sandwich is warmed through, about 4 minutes more.
From Chow.com; recipe by Aida Mollenkamp.