Friday, October 8, 2010

Ireland's Corned and Spiced Beef

Whenever I think of Ireland, I think of the Book of Kells (an illuminated Irish manuscript) that captivated me when I was a kid...

 green, green grass that made me ask  if the plane windows were tinted the first time I flew there…

Irish Countryside

and corned beef!

The theme for Oxford Food Symposium  in 2010 was “Cured, Fermented and Smoked” and this theme is right up the old Irish alley. A great treat was the rich and varied Irish Food spread cooked by Padraic Og Gallagher of Gallagher's Boxty House  in Dublin that showed off the best of Irish cooking and products (in case you are wondering, boxty is a traditional Irish potato pancake). In keeping with the theme, there was smoked fish (ooh, salmon doused with Connemara Peated Single malt whiskey… say hello to heaven!) as well as smoked and dried lamb, venison and even Irish Chorizo and revelatory Irish potatoes. Kathryn McGowan who has the gorgeous website Comestibles  did a wonderful post about
it with gorgeous pictures of the food (I was having too much fun talking and forgot about taking pictures, so bless her for recording it so well). 

The other item on the meat menu was Guinness and Cider Spiced Beef. This is where I am going to linger for a while.  You notice it is called spiced beef and not corned beef.  To Americans, this is our corned beef. To the Irish, corned beef is only made with salt and no spices.  The word corn originally comes from the “corns” or salt grains, used to cure the meat. It has nothing to do with the grain (that was probably so called because corn means grain and the name stuck for the Indian maize). I know this because of a wonderful lecture I attended given my Mr. Og Gallagher (the chef for our feast) and Mairtin Mac Con Iomaire from the Dublin Institute of Technology. Boy can they tell a story! In it they explored the history of the much-maligned corned beef, and a fascinating history it is… most of it has nothing to do with St. Patrick’s Day!

They tell us that an ever so sprightfully humorous twelfth century Irish poem, Aislinge Meic Con Glinne jests about corned beef in the lines:

Lard, my wife
Sweetly smiles
Across the kale top
Cheese-curds, my daughter,
Goes round the spit
Fair is her fame.
Corned beef, my son,
Whose mantle shines
Over a big tail.

The Irish rarely ate their cattle in their early history, eating mostly grains (until the introduction of the potato) and pork and milk products.  They had a reverence for the animals and wanted them for their milk rather than their meat.   In Darina Allen’s Irish Country Cooking (she is the doyenne of Irish cuisine) I read that in 1625 Fynes Moryson described: “They feed mostly on white meats and …they watchfully keep their cows and fight for them as for their religion and life; and when they are almost starved, yet they will not kill a cow, except it be old and yield no milk.” The exceptions were male calves and the herds of beef cattle of the aristocracy that were eaten or imported to England.

This all changed when the English outlawed the importation of live Irish cattle (1667). After the passage of the law, traditional Irish corned beef became an important commodity. You see, preservation began early in Irish history -- beef and butter were salted and buried in bog holes from early times, often using sea ash (salty burnt seaweed) and later imported salt to keep their food.  One of the reasons for the international success of their corned beef was the Irish had a light tax on imported salt that made it more affordable than in other countries.  The Irish used only top quality imported white salt and their salted beef was the best because of it.  Their beef went all over the world but most especially to troops scattered over the globe.

In Ireland, corned beef was considered a luxury and it is because of this that it became popular to the  Irish immigrants in America where it was no longer expensive and probably because it reminded them of home.  It was thought of so highly that Abraham Lincoln served it for his inauguration dinner with parsley potatoes, cabbage, mock turtle soup and blackberry pie for dessert on March 4, 1861.

I had always bought corned beef in plastic packages, pre-brined and spiced. Honestly, I didn’t know another way.  This time, I decided to change that policy and do it myself after the urging of some of my blogging pals who told me how easy it was (and then no mystery meat!). 

I got lean pieces of grass-fed brisket from my friends at Grazin Angus Acres  and used a combination of recipes from Darina Allen and English writer Eliza Acton for inspiration for my brining spice blend and my dry rub blend and the result was delicious.  The dry rub is especially fine with the addition of juniper.  Acton warns that pink salt will toughen meat.  The dry rub did not soak in the way the brine had and that caused a less red center.   Cooked slowly, they did not shrink as much as corned beef usually does.  I finished them in the oven with a mixture I’ve been using for years that I love and hope you will too.

Corned Spiced Beef (dry cure)

3 T  black peppercorns (I used 2 T black peppercorns and 1 T grains of paradise)
3 T allspice berries (I used 1 T ground allspice and 1 t cassia buds)
3 T juniper berries
2 t. mace
½ t nutmeg
¼ t ground cloves
¼ t cayenne

¼ c light brown sugar
¼ c salt
1 T smoked salt
½ t saltpeter (pink salt)

4 lb brisket, flank steak or rump roast
1 T spice mix
6 potatoes, halved
½ head of cabbage, quartered

¼ c brown sugar
¼ cup grainy mustard
1 T caraway seeds
1 T of Irish whiskey, optional

Grind the first 7 ingredients together and remove 1 T.  Add the rest to the sugar and salts and rub well into the meat ( if you have a fat layer, score it and rub in the spice, otherwise it will not penetrate as well) and refrigerate for 3-7 days (the longer, the spicier) you don’t need to use it all! 

Preheat the oven to 200º.  Rinse off the rub and rub it with the 1 T reserved spice mix. Place the meat in a dutch oven, fat side down. Cover the dish and bake for 4-5 hours or until tender.  Remove from the liquid that has collected and cover the top with the mustard, brown sugar caraway and whiskey mix.  Cover and put back in the oven for 20 minutes to glaze the beef.  Remove the cover and bake 10 minutes more.  Boil the potatoes and cabbage separately till tender.

If you would like to try the wet method for the beef here is the 2nd recipe:

Corned (Spiced) Beef (wet)

Brining Spice:
2 T peppercorns
2 T coriander seeds
1 T mace
1 t nutmeg
2 T allspice
2 T juniper berries
2 t cloves
4 bay leaves

3 T brining spice
2 c kosher salt
½ c light brown sugar
2 t pink salt (optional)

3- 5 lb brisket, flank or rump roast
2 T brining spice
2 carrots,
1 onion
2 stalks celery

6 potatoes, halved
½ head of cabbage, quartered

¼ c brown sugar
¼ cup grainy mustard
1 T caraway seeds
1 T of Irish Whiskey, optional

Take the spices and grind them.  Take 1 gallon of water and add salt, sugar, pink salt and 3 T of pickling spice and bring the water to a boil.  Allow to cool then refrigerate. Add beef brisket and weight it in the brine. Refrigerate for 3-5 days (if you have a smaller brisket, go to as little as 3 days)

Rinse the beef and add enough water to cover.  Add the vegetables, spices and cook at a very low heat (Serious Eats recommended 180º for 10 hours) on top of the stove for 3-5 hours until tender.  A low heat stops the shrinkage. The last hour, add the potatoes.  The last half hour, add the cabbage.

Preheat the oven to 240º.  Remove the meat and vegetables from the brine. Pat the meat dry and make a paste with the brown sugar, mustard and caraway seed and whiskey if desired.  Rub this over the top of the meat.  Place the meat in a baking dish, fat side down surrounded with the potatoes and cabbage.  Cover the dish and bake for 20 minutes to glaze the beef.  Remove the cover and bake 10 minutes more.

Thanks to Gollum for hosting Foodie Friday

Hey guys, Barbara caught the extra directions for the dry rub.. it only cooks for 3 hours... recipe is correct now!


Diane said...

Both these recipes look delicious and very tempting.

I also could not believe how green Ireland was when we went there on holiday. We were lucky we had a week of sunshine and no rain. It was a bit windy but not enough to be a big problem. Diane

La Table De Nana said...

My neighbor lived and loved in Ireland..met her husband there..My ex manager was Irish..I have some Irish in me:) It looks beautiful and the dishes sublime..

Patricia @ ButterYum said...

I just returned from a trip to England, and it was just that green there! What wonderful photos you have - I love corned beef, but the family does not. Sadness.


Cathy said...

I grew up on corned beef and my grandmother always brined it herself. Yours turned out perfectly with great color. Looks delicious.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I love corned beef but had no idea about its origins. I feel like I always say the same thing Deana but I truly love learning about all of these things on your site! :D

2 Stews said...

My mom is of Irish descent and I always figured that is why I just love anything with potatoes. Carbs be damned!! I make corned beef about once a year (don't eat much beef) and I think I'll give your recipe a try. It sounds a lot better than mine with all of the aromatic pickling spices and brown sugar.


Linda said...

Both of these look wonderful Deana...thanks for the recipes and all the background!
It is always such a pleasure to visit you!

Karen said...

I love corned beef and have never attempted making it myself-- will need to change that soon!
Thanks for the recipe

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

Since corned beef is so readily available I've never thought to make my own but I would love to try it one day. It probably tastes so much better! I have tried some of Darina Allen's wonderful recipes.

Once again, wonderful background and history!

Bette said...

The local food co-op makes its own corned beef and it's the best I've ever tried. No pink salt, not overly salty at all. More like pot roast with more flavor. Heavenly in all ways.

Ana Powell said...

You bring life to all your dishes, everything looks so special.
Have a great weekend ♥

Lazaro Cooks said...


Only you would write about what honest Abe served for his Inaguartion. So much great content here. Amazing photo of the lush Irish countryside.

The grass-fed brisket was certainly put to good use. Love the bold flavors with the mace & juniper berries.

I am not the biggest fan of corned beef, but I'd love to try yours.

Stella said...

Hey Deana, I used to love corned beef-this kind not the weird stuff at the store (smile). I think I would probably prefer the wet method, since that's the way my Mom always made it. They both look really wonderful though!
Great post-as always...

Dee said...

Your corned beef looks delicious! I too enjoy Darina Allen’s traditional Irish cooking. She puts me in touch with my Irish roots however I grew up eating my mother's brined corned beef but have never tried doing it myself either. Your recipe makes me want to take the plunge. Have a great weekend. Wonderful history you presented here.

Pádraic Óg said...

Hi Deana,
Great article. So glad you enjoyed the banquet and lecture.
Reading this has got me all fired up for next years Symposium.
Celebrations! Who better than the Irish for this one.

Barbara said...

I'm grinning because corned beef was one of my ex's favorite dishes. Never cared for it myself. I bought that ghastly kind you spoke of and ate carrots and cabbage the nights I fixed it.
I might actually LIKE it if you were cooking it for me! What a difference!

I'm not certain if I was reading the dry cure version correctly, but it sounded as though there was 6 1/2 hours cooking total. Plus the 7 days spent in the fridge.
The wet cure sounds more familiar and convenient. The pickling mixture is fabulous. I would love to try it and the next time everyone is home, it'll be on the menu.

Thanks for taking us along on your Irish adventures, culinary and otherwise!

Sarah said...

This looks fantastic. I will have to try your recipes. I like the idea of a dry cure, myself.

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

So interesting for me to learn that the secret to corned beef is really a "rub." I'll bet your homemade version tops anything we would find commercially.

Babs said...

il tuo piatto è davvero delizioso, complimenti!

Faith said...

I've actually been wanting to make my own corned beef so I can make homemade Reubens! I'm so glad you shared this! That picture of the Irish countryside is breathtaking!

pierre said...

Hi deana
nice very mouthwatering photos !!pierre

Anonymous said...

What a lovely dish rich of history.

tasteofbeirut said...

Enjoyed your post, the historical background and the cute poem; i have always had a fondness for Ireland and the Irish, feel a kinship with these folks, plus the ones I have befriended in the US were always great people very warm and fun-loving ; I have never eaten the canned stuff but have made corned beef and loved it; your recipe of the dry variety sounds scrumptious and I would love to try it for a change! Yum!

Unknown said...

Its been ages since I had corned beef, but now I'm craving some.
I was fortunate enough to visit Ireland when I was in college, and the Irish people are so lovely and friendly. Unfortunately back then, I wasn't really into food like I am now, and didn't get to sample much of their lovely food goodies.
*kisses* HH

Anonymous said...

Corned beef is one of our favorites! These are two excellent recipes! Did you know there was a US release of a very cute movie about the Book of Kells just this month? We got a DVD in the mail already and looking forward to watching it with our daughter!