No, there is no corn in corned beef. And, contrary to what I had been led to believe in the past, corned beef is not made from the meat of corn-fed cows.
Corned beef is salt-cured beef. The “corned” part is more historical than literal because corn, in olden times and before the word was used by English-speaking cultures to describe maize, denotes grains of salt used for curing. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, corn means:
“grain,” Old English corn, from Proto-Germanic *kurnam “small seed” (cf. Old Frisian and Old Saxon korn “grain,” Middle Dutch coren, German Korn, Old Norse korn, Gothic kaurn), from PIE root *gre-no- “grain” (cf. Old Church Slavonic zruno “grain,” Latin granum “seed,” Lithuanian žirnis “pea”). The sense of the Old English word was “grain with the seed still in” (e.g. barleycorn) rather than a particular plant.
Although most of us think of corned beef as canned meat, I discovered way back in high school that such is not the case. We were staying at my uncle’s house once, my uncle was not a great cook, but the one dish that he did exceptionally well was corned beef smothered with mushroom sauce. The corn beef he used was like ham, bought as a cold meat, which he sliced thinly then heated gently with undiluted Campbell’s mushroom soup. It’s not really cooking — it’s cold meat and canned soup, for heaven’s sake — but it was delicious.
The key, of course, was the richly flavored beef. And when you’ve tasted real corned beef, it’s hard to be content with the canned variety. The last time we bought a can of corned beef, I was shocked at the amount of food coloring with which the meat was tinted. And I swore that never again would we buy canned corned beef.
Later on, I would learn that my uncle bought corned beef from Treffpunkt. The deli maker Earle’s (Shopwise, Libis) also sold corned beef occasionally — cured but uncooked. Both establishments are too far from the suburb where we live. So, when I saw an episode of Good Eats where Alton Brown demonstrated how easy it is to make corned beef at home, I decided I was going to do it.
And I did. And this is corned beef heaven. Succulent with layers of flavor. I’ve made sandwiches with my corned beef and a salad too (recipes for the sandwich and salad to follow) and they were fantastic.
So, this is based on a recipe by Alton Brown. However, instead of saltpeter (salitre), I used prague powder (curing salt) which I was able to find at The Landmark in Trinoma. You can just Google “prague powder” for more details and why it is preferable to saltpeter.
Recipe: Homemade corned beef
- 1/2 c. of rock salt
- 1/4 c. of brown sugar
- 1 tsp. of prague powder
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1/2 tsp. of mustard seeds
- 1/2 tsp. of black peppercorns
- 4 cloves
- a knob of ginger, sliced
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 and 1/2 kg. of beef (brisket is traditional; any stewing cut is fine)
- Place all the ingredients, except the beef, in a pot. Pour in six cups of water. Boil until the salt and sugar dissolve. Cool to room temperature then chill in the fridge for an hour.
- Rinse the beef and wipe. Place in a container large enough to make sure that the meat is in a single layer. Pour in the brine to completely cover the meat.
- Cover the container in put in the fridge. Alton Brown says to cure the beef for 10 days but I couldn’t wait that long. I cooked my corned beef after six days.
- To cook the cured beef, rinse under the tap then place in a pot. Cover with cold water. Add whatever aromatics you like. Onion or leeks, garlic, carrot, celery are the basic things. Simmer for two and a half to three or until the beef is very, very tender.
- To make sure that the very tender corned beef won’t crumble when sliced, cool completely first. You can cool it in the liquid or on a plate. If you have time, chill for half an hour after it was cooled to room temperature.
Preparation time: 20 minute(s)
Cooking time: 3 hour(s)
Number of servings (yield): variable, depending on how the corned beef is served.