For the first year in a long time, I did not do my usual DIY Corned Beef for St. Patrick’s Day. The continued time warp caused by COVID, combined with yet another home renovation project that has just begun at our house, has left me a little flustered and out of my routine. So, there’s that, plus a discovery that I made in our freezer.
Last year, we did two huge briskets in my homemade corned beef brine—one was fated to be a classic corned beef with cabbage and carrots, and the other went the extra mile to become smoked pastrami—and I recently uncovered not one, but two packages of said meat that have been hiding in the depths of our freezer drawer. I couldn’t justify making more until we finished what we already had, but what does one do with a pound of vacuum-sealed, sliced corned beef, other than the obvious sandwiches?
I love cooking up fun foods for special occasions, and shepherd’s pie is a classic for St. Patrick’s Day. A typical shepherd’s pie is made with ground meat (usually lamb or beef), peas, carrots and mashed potato topping. But I could not pass over the entire St. Pat’s celebration without the old standby of corned beef and cabbage. Last year, I shared my recipe for colcannon (which I also love), so I whipped up a new batch of that as my pie topper, and I picked up two fun (and Irish) ingredients to give the colcannon extra body and a boost of sharp flavor. Irish white cheddar was a no-brainer, and when I sought out a package of Irish butter (which I only splurge on this time of year), this embellished version jumped right into my basket!
Well, that was lucky! Butter that is already flavored with fresh herbs would make this dish even quicker to prepare.
I channeled my grandmother a little bit in making this dish. She was the absolute queen of leftovers, a real whiz at transforming a random thing from the freezer into a full-blown meal that had leftovers of its own. The shepherd’s pie was delicious, perfectly festive for the occasion, and finally helped me use up the frozen corned beef that I forgot I had.
If you’re staring down your own corned beef leftovers, give this dish a go. If you happen to have leftover cabbage and carrots, or leftover mashed potatoes, too—well, you’re way ahead of the game.
There are three specific components to this easy dish, and I’ll break down the ingredients list and instructions accordingly. Follow along with the slides and scroll to the end of the post for a downloadable version you can print or save for your recipe files.
Corned Beef & Cabbage Filling
2 Tbsp. garlic and herb Irish butter
1/2 small head green cabbage, chopped
1 cup baby carrots, cut into bite-size chunks
1/2 large onion, chopped
1 lb. leftover corned beef, sliced or cubed
Melt the butter in a large sauce pot or skillet. Sauté the carrots, onion and cabbage until the onions are translucent and the cabbage is soft. Season with salt and pepper and transfer to a glass 8×8 oven-safe casserole dish. Set aside, adding the corned beef later when you are ready to assemble the dish.
Colcannon with Irish Cheddar
1 lb. peeled potatoes, cut and cooked until tender (I used 50/50 russet and Yukon gold)
2 Tbsp. garlic and herb Irish butter
1 leek, cleaned and sliced into half-moon shapes
1/2 small head green cabbage, sliced thin
A fat handful of baby spinach leaves, rough chopped
1 cup shredded Irish white cheddar
Get the potatoes cooking (don’t forget to season the water with a generous pinch of salt!) and drain them when they reach fork-tender stage.
Meanwhile, melt butter in the same sauce pot or skillet used for the corned beef and cabbage filling. Add the leeks and cabbage and cook until tender (season them). Turn off the heat and add the spinach to the pan. Toss it around to wilt the spinach. When the mixture is somewhat cool, add it to the cooked potatoes and mash them together. Stir in the white cheddar and set aside.
2 Tbsp. garlic and herb Irish butter
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth (or beef broth)
2 tsp. beef base (optional, to boost beef flavor if using veg broth)
Melt the butter in the same skillet and add flour, whisking until the mixture is foamy with a slightly nutty aroma. Whisk in broth, cooking and stirring until the mixture is thickened. Add beef base, if desired, to deepen the flavor. Or, if you happen to have a Guinness in the fridge… I’m just sayin’.
Put it all together – Preheat oven to 350° F.
Add the corned beef chunks to the cabbage and carrot mixture and toss to mix it in the casserole dish. Pour the gravy evenly over the filling. Top with dollops of colcannon (don’t smooth it) and bake for 45 minutes, until gravy is bubbling from underneath and colcannon has turned lightly crispy on its peaks.
It has been a fun week of St. Patrick’s Day-themed food prep at our house. As I’ve chopped and cooked, hustling from one recipe to another and digging into the history of the foods associated with Ireland, I’ve felt an almost spiritual connection to the Irish people. Theirs is a rich and layered culture, and my background music of choice, the Springsteen album Live in Dublin, gave me additional inspiration. Here’s a taste, for your listening pleasure as you tag along for the rest of my corned beef adventure.
It has been a deliciously rich week, too. We’ve shared these tasty recipes, including two versions of mashed potatoes, a no-yeast bread, a no-bake dessert and some bangin’ sausages. By the time we finish the leftovers, I expect I will have sweet Irish butter flowing through my veins. Wow!
The Irish food party started last week, when I detailed our adventures with making our own corned beef. Whether or not you jumped on the DIY wagon with us, I thought you may appreciate seeing the end result. As mentioned, we avoid meats processed with nitrates and nitrites, so I certainly do not go out of my way to find or use them in our homemade version of this St. Patrick’s Day classic. The ingredients we do use to brine our grass-fed brisket—kosher salt, pickling spices, brown sugar, Irish ale, celery juice and sauerkraut brine—add layers of flavor, and we don’t care about the pinkish color the added nitrates would have otherwise lent.
Let’s pick up where we left off, from the point of pouring the brine over the briskets and sending them to the refrigerator for a nice, long nap. I noted that we would finally make good on our goal of making pastrami from one of the briskets, and we have done that (I’ll share it tomorrow), but corned beef is the guest of honor this week, and the post-brine process is very simple. I turned the briskets each day to help them brine evenly, and the corned beef got an extra day’s soak on Sunday—a total of eight days, which is about right for a nearly 6-pound hunk of meat. I rinsed it thoroughly, nestled it into the slow cooker on top of celery and onion chunks, and sprinkled it with about half a bottle of fresh pickling spices. We have done corned beef nearly the same way for several years, so I decided to try a twist that I saw in my news feed, though I cannot for the life of me remember the source. Anyway, the suggestion was to use white wine in the brining liquid. This makes perfect sense to me, given that I use wine to roast so many other meats, so I tried it. This will become a new standard for us.
This may well be the best batch of homemade corned beef we have ever made. The meat is perfectly tender and easy to slice, and the flavors are richly entwined with every fiber of the meat. The flavor is richer and more complex than any store-bought corned beef I’ve had, and my husband, Les, suggested that it rivaled the delicious corned beef we enjoyed a few years ago at Katz’s delicatessen in New York!
Remove brisket from brine and brush away as much of the picking spice mixture as possible. Discard the brine, and I’d recommend that you pour it through a colander to strain out the seeds, berries, bay leaves, and chunky solids that might otherwise clog your kitchen drain.
Rinse the brisket. Cut up a whole yellow onion and a few stalks of celery. Scatter the aromatic vegetables into the bottom of a large pot or slow cooker. Place the brisket, fat side-up, on top of the vegetables. Sprinkle about half a bottle of fresh pickling spices over the brisket.
Pour in 1/2 cup dry white wine, and enough water into the pot to completely cover the meat. Bring pot to a slight boil, then reduce heat and simmer about one hour per pound of meat, until brisket is desired tenderness.
Carefully remove brisket from the cooking liquid and rest on a cutting board for 15 minutes before cutting.
If you are cooking cabbage and carrots to accompany the corned beef, but them on to boil now, and use the brisket braising liquid to echo the corned beef flavors.
Slice brisket against the grain—opposite the direction of the meat fibers.
You’ll find that the corned beef slices particularly well after chilling. To reheat slices of corned beef, place slices in a steamer basket over simmering water. Or, strain more of the braising liquid into a jar and keep it in the fridge for steaming the leftovers. Why waste that flavor? 🙂
The only thing I can think of to make a chocolate cheesecake better is a little bit of booze, and the only thing that can top that is to make it no-bake. Done and done. This easy, no-fuss dessert comes together quickly, and it doesn’t require gelatin or any special measures to set up firmly. Chocolate-flavored graham crackers provide a dark, flavorful base for this cheesecake, and the filling is sweetened cream cheese accented with a ton of chocolate and a wee bit of Irish cream liqueur. I’ve used My Dad’s Homemade Irish Creme, the same as we made at Christmastime, but if you want to make it super easy, make a quick run to the liquor store for a small bottle of Bailey’s.
I used a springform pan for this dessert, but I’ll bet you could also make it in a pie plate with sloped sides for easy serving. Garnish with a dollop of sour cream and fresh berries or a little bit of Jameson-spiked whipped cream. Or, do what we did and just dig in.
This is a wonderful, sweet finish to our St. Patrick’s Day celebration!
1 sleeve + 3 chocolate graham crackers
4 Tbsp. salted butter, melted
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted (plus a bit extra to grease the pan)
Line the bottom of an 8” springform pan with parchment paper, cut to size. Rub unsalted butter on the parchment and sides of the pan. Break up the graham crackers into a food processor and pulse into rough crumbs. Pour in the melted butter and pulse a few times to combine. The mixture should look like wet sand. Press the crumbs into the bottom of the pan and up the sides about an inch. Refrigerate the pan for at least an hour to firm up the buttered crumbs.
10 oz. semisweet chocolate chips
6 oz. milk chocolate chips* (see notes)
8 oz. pkg. plus 1/2 of second pkg. full-fat cream cheese, room temperature
1/4 cup (superfine) caster sugar
1 1/2 cups heavy cream, room temperature
1/4 cup Bailey’s Irish Cream liqueur*
At our house, we really love the flavors of darker chocolate, but blending with milk chocolate is important for texture. Darker chocolate has lesser amounts of cocoa butter, and it can become gritty in recipes. To ensure the creamy, smooth texture that is a signature of cheesecake, it’s best to include some portion of milk chocolate.
Bailey’s Irish cream liqueur is the simplest thing to use in this recipe, but if you have time to make your own (using My Dad’s Homemade Irish Creme recipe), there’s an advantage to doing so. The homemade Irish creme is twice as thick (less watery), so I was able to incorporate two additional tablespoons of that crazy good flavor.
Here we go with a visual walk-through, and full written instructions are included at the bottom.
Bring a saucepan of water to a simmer. Place a heatproof bowl over the pan and add the semi-sweet and milk chocolate chips. I used a steamer insert in between, as an extra measure to keep the heating gentle. Do not let water or condensation into the bowl with the chocolate. Heat until chocolate melts, stir it smooth, then let cool slightly. I transferred the melted chocolate to a second bowl to cool it more quickly.
In a separate bowl, beat cream cheese with electric mixer until smooth. Gradually add caster sugar to the cream cheese, scraping down the sides as needed so that sugar is fully blended. The superfine sugar will dissolve pretty quickly.
Lightly whip heavy cream in another bowl until thickened, but not peaked. Stir in Irish cream.
Fold cooled chocolate into cream cheese mixture, then stir in the spiked whipped cream mixture.
Spoon or carefully pour the filling mixture into the springform pan over the chilled chocolate crust. Smooth the top, cover and chill at least two hours, preferably overnight.
To serve, run a hot knife around the edge of the cheesecake filling to separate it from the sides of the pan. Carefully release springform ring and transfer cheesecake to a serving plate. Cut into slices as garnish as desired.
Often regarded in the U.S. to be a food for St. Patrick’s Day, colcannon is traditionally enjoyed at Halloween in the old country of Ireland. Cooks there would hide coins or trinkets or charms inside, and legend said that what you found in your hearty spoonful was an omen for the coming season—be it riches or poverty, marriage or singlehood. The exact origin of the dish is disputed, but historians are certain that it has been enjoyed in Ireland since at least the mid-1700s, and there’s no arguing that it is creamy, satisfying comfort food at its best.
Well, did you ever make colcannon made with lovely pickled cream With the greens and scallions mingled like a picture in a dream Did you ever make a hole on top to hold the ‘melting’ flake Of the creamy flavoured butter that our mothers used to make
Oh you did, so you did, so did he and so did I And the more I think about it, sure the nearer I’m to cry Oh weren’t them the happy days when troubles we knew not And our mother made colcannon in the little skillet pot
Excerpt from The Auld Skillet Pot – Mac Con Iomaire
With fiber-rich potatoes, cabbage, onions and butter, colcannon could seriously stand on its own as a meal. My version subs in cooked kale and leeks for the cabbage and onions, and it is a gorgeous addition to our homemade corned beef and cabbage dinner.
2 1/2 pounds potatoes (mix of russet and golds), peeled and boiled until tender
2 fat handfuls fresh curly kale, washed and chopped
1 leek (white and light green parts), cleaned and sliced
8 Tbsp. good Irish butter (divided)
1 cup light cream, room temperature
Salt and pepper
While potatoes are cooking, melt 2 Tbsp. of butter in a skillet or small pot. Sauté chopped kale and sliced leeks until wilted and tender. Season with salt and pepper.
Drain potatoes, return to pot and add 4 Tbsp. of butter and light cream. Mash until soft and fluffy. Season with salt and pepper.
Add kale and leeks to the potatoes and fold to blend. Serve family style with remaining butter on top.
There cannot possibly be a food more deserving of the title “pub grub” than bangers and mash. This hearty, stick-to-your-ribs dish is original to Ireland and other parts of the U.K., and a real treat on St. Patrick’s Day, but its history reflects hard times for the Irish people. During W.W. I meat shortages, sausage makers resorted to stuffing the links with lesser amounts of pork or lamb, substituting fillers and higher-than-usual water concentration. As they cooked, the sausages exploded from their casings with a banging sound. Thus, “bangers.”
Today, you don’t have to look very hard to find a more meat-centric version of the sausages, and I found this delicious variety made by Johnsonville. They are slightly sweet, but with plenty of garlic flavor that I think holds up nicely to the dark stout beer used in the thick onion gravy. If you can’t find sausage that is labeled specifically as “Irish,” I would recommend any bratwurst-type of sausage as a fine substitute.
The Irish, especially peasant populations, have always relied heavily on the nutrient-dense potato, for its fiber, antioxidants and minerals (especially potassium). Potatoes contain a resistant starch that is not absorbed by the body, but provides a vehicle to deliver nutrients to feed our gut bacteria, which is crucial for overall good health. Isn’t it nice to know that a favorite comfort food can actually be good for you? At our house, it’s a rare occasion to have any kind of potatoes other than my beloved’s fabulous garlic mashed, but their richness, and especially the parm-romano flavor, is not quite right for this meal. I’ve taken a different direction, using buttermilk and a moderate amount of butter to cream them up a bit, and a couple of spoons of horseradish, which gives them legs to stand under the intensely flavored Guinness onion gravy.
My version of the gravy begins with sautéed onions, and is finished with a very generous glug of Guinness stout, plus some broth. This gravy is big and bold, and if you wish, you can shift the ratio of stout or leave it out altogether in favor of beef broth—that’s up to you.
The preparation of these three components (bangers, mash and gravy) will happen concurrently; if you are working ahead, the whole meal heats up nicely as leftovers.
Package of Irish banger sausages (or similar substitute)
1/2 cup Guinness stout ale*
2 1/2 lbs. starchy potatoes (I used a combination of russet and golds)
4 Tbsp. salted butter
1/2 cup thick buttermilk
1 1/2 tsp. prepared horseradish
Salt and pepper
Guinness Onion Gravy
3 Tbsp. salted butter
1 large yellow onion, sliced (mine was about the size of a softball)
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 cup Guinness stout ale
1 cup low-sodium vegetable broth
2 tsp. beef bouillon base*
2 tsp. dark brown sugar
Salt and pepper
The Guinness stout ale is very strong, and carries a somewhat bitter note. I believe the secret to making delicious gravy with the stout is cooking it slowly, so the malty flavors remain but the alcohol cooks out and mellows in flavor. If you are averse to the bitter flavor, or avoiding alcohol, substitute a hearty beef stock for similar results. This recipe calls for a 12 oz. bottle; you will use part of it to simmer the sausages and the rest to finish the onion gravy. I purchased the “Foreign Extra” stout, but for less intense flavor, use a Guinness draught stout.
I use vegetable broth regularly for the nutrients and flavors, and I have amped up the flavor with a hearty spoon of beef bouillon base. If you prefer, skip the base and use beef broth.
Let’s run through it together in pictures, then scroll to find written instructions, and a downloadable version you can print for your recipe files.
Peel the potatoes and cut them into large chunks. Cook in salted water over medium-low heat until fork tender.
Drain potatoes in a colander (reserve the water, if you wish, to make a batch of my sourdough potato bread with onions and dill). While potatoes drain, add butter and buttermilk to the cooking pot over medium heat until butter is mostly melted.
Return hot potatoes to the pot and mash, seasoning with salt and pepper. Stir in horseradish and additional butter, if desired.
While the potatoes are cooking, place a medium, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat and pour in 1/2 cup of the Guinness stout. Add sausages to the stout and simmer, turning sausages a few times, until sausage is plump and stout is reduced to a couple of tablespoons. This should be about 25 minutes. Transfer sausages to a separate dish and set aside to make the gravy.
Pour any reduced stout into a glass measuring cup, along with vegetable broth and beef base.
Add butter to the same pot used to simmer the sausages, and add onions and garlic. Season with salt and pepper and sauté over medium heat until onions are soft and translucent, at least 10 minutes.
Sprinkle flour over onions in butter and stir until onions are coated and flour begins to cook. This is a roux that will be the thickener for your gravy. When the bottom of the pan begins to accumulate cooked, stuck-on flour, move the onions aside and pour in about half of the remaining Guinness stout. Stir, scraping up the cooked flour from the bottom.
When the pan is de-glazed, pour in the remaining stout and the broth mixture, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until mixture is thickened and reduced. You should take about 25 minutes for this step; don’t rush it, as simmering is necessary to blend the flavors and reduce the bitterness of the stout. Give it a taste and adjust salt and pepper as desired. If the gravy is overly bitter, stir in the brown sugar and simmer a few more minutes.
Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Swirl in a small amount of olive oil and add the plump banger sausages. Cook and turn until sausages are fully reheated and nicely browned.
Plate the mashed potatoes, spoon on a bit of Guinness gravy, then top with bangers and a generous ladle of the onion gravy.
If you have ever thought, “I can’t make bread,” then this is one recipe I hope you will try. Not only are the ingredients simple, but the method is also very different from a yeasted bread. Baking soda and buttermilk react quickly to give rise to the bread, so you don’t have to wait around for the dough to double in size. No kneading is required or even desired, as the delicate nature of the dough can be toughened with too much handling. Heck, you don’t even need an oven, because soda bread can be “baked” inside a cast-iron Dutch oven, right over an open fire if necessary.
This quick bread, long believed to be original to Ireland, is actually drawn from the history of Native Americans, who were first on record to use soda ash to leaven breads. Early Irish immigrants to the new country took notice of the chemical reaction the soda had with sour milk, and with the eventual advent of modern baking soda, the recipe found its way into a cookbook, which launched soda bread into popularity all over Europe. Today, it is closely linked to Irish-American culture, and very much associated with St. Patrick’s Day.
As if the ease of making it wasn’t attractive enough on its own, this easy-breezy soda bread is also remarkably flexible, and it can take you on a flavor journey to either end of the spectrum of sweet-to-savory. You can make it plain and simple, or dress it up with herbs, oat grains, spice seeds, dried fruit, honey or just about anything else that makes you happy. Other quick breads usually have a moist, tender interior. But soda bread, which has no eggs, butter or oil, is better described as soft and somewhat crumbly. My favorite flavor combination—and the one I’m sharing today—is golden raisins and caraway seeds. It may sound unusual, but it is delicious, especially toasted at breakfast with a generous smear of good Irish butter. I cannot wait to taste it again! 😊
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus some extra for dusting
1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour* (see notes)
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda (not baking powder)
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 tsp. caraway seeds
1 3/4 cups thick cultured buttermilk*, at room temperature
Whole wheat pastry flour is lighter in protein (and texture) than regular whole wheat flour, so it is perfect for a quick bread such as this one. I love this brand, which is available online but sometimes difficult to find in stores. If you cannot find it, don’t worry—just substitute for a total of 4 cups all-purpose flour.
Buttermilk is an important ingredient for this recipe because its acidity activates the baking soda to leaven the bread. Regular dairy or plant-based milks will not work on their own, but if you must substitute, add about 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or white vinegar for each cup of other milk to achieve similar results. You only need enough buttermilk to sufficiently moisten the dry ingredients, so you may not use it all, but have it ready just in case.
Before we begin, do you remember doing this in science class, back in the day? I still love to have fun in the kitchen, so here’s a little reminder of what happens when baking soda and vinegar come together. The reaction between soda and buttermilk is very similar, and helps explain what makes this simple bread rise.
Preheat oven to 425°F, with rack in the center of the oven. I’m baking my soda bread on a baking stone, so that gets preheated with the oven.
Combine flours, sugar, salt, baking soda, raisins and caraway seeds in a large bowl.
Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in most of the buttermilk. Use a wooden or heavy spoon to mix at first, then switch to mixing with your hands when the dough begins to feel stiff. If needed, add the remaining buttermilk, but only enough to moisten and incorporate all the flour.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured countertop or board and knead very briefly, until dough is cohesive but still “shaggy” in appearance. Shape dough into a round ball, about eight inches across. Transfer the dough to a parchment lined (or oiled) baking sheet.
Use a sharp, serrated knife to make deep cuts in the shape of an X or cross on top of the dough.
Bake 25-30 minutes, until golden brown and crunchy on the edges. If you tap the bottom of the loaf, it should sound a bit hollow.
Transfer soda bread to a cooling rack for a few minutes. Enjoy warm or room temperature.
Today is March 9, and we need to talk about St. Patrick’s Day. Why the urgency, you may ask, with eight days to go? In our home, the food preparation for this fun holiday has already begun, in that we have started the brining process for our annual home-cured corned beef. Several years ago, I swore off meats processed with unnecessary nitrate and nitrite chemicals, and though it’s easy enough today to find commercially prepared “uncured” versions of corned beef in supermarkets such as Whole Foods, I get a kick out of doing it myself. This year, my husband, Les, and I purchased two large grass-fed briskets for this purpose. One will be a traditional corned beef preparation, and the other will travel an extra mile to become pastrami. The brining step takes anywhere from seven to 10 days, so we started ahead accordingly.
If this sounds exciting to you, then hightail it to the market today or tomorrow to procure the necessary supplies, and you’ll find directions for brining at the end of this post. Otherwise, sit back and relax for a brief “did you know” lesson on some of the dishes we think of this time of year, and a sneak peek at what I’ll be preparing in the week ahead. For many Irish-Americans, this mid-March holiday is usually a time for lively street parades (especially in Boston and New York), the wearing of the green (lest ye be pinched), toasting to good health with a pint (green or otherwise), and feasting on corned beef and cabbage, colcannon, bangers and mash, or Irish soda bread. But how authentic are these “St. Patrick’s Day” foods, really?
I’ve done some research this week, and honestly, it’s hit-or-miss. But in searching out stock photos from the internet, I’m drooling a bit, just thinking about these delectable foods!
Corned beef is associated with Ireland, but it originated in the U.S., where Irish immigrants found beef to be plentiful and more affordable than in their native land. Traditional Irish cuisine leans more heavily on proteins that are native to the land, including lamb and fish.
Colcannon, a mixture of cabbage and mashed potatoes, is an authentically Irish food, but is traditionally made around Halloween, not St. Patrick’s Day. Playful (or superstitious) cooks might still hide coins or lucky charms (not the cereal!) inside, giving dinner guests a chance at good fortune, though it sounds more like a good shot at a trip to the ER, or perhaps a ruse to convince children to finish their vegetables.
Bangers and mash is a rustic dish of sausage (usually pork or lamb) on top of mashed potatoes with onion gravy. This dish is definitely original to Ireland, as well as other parts of the U.K., and it earned its nickname because of the sound the moisture-heavy sausages made when they “popped” during cooking. I love bangers and mash with Guinness-based gravy, and the immature side of me just thinks it’s fun to say “bangers and mash.”
Finally, soda bread, long considered to be an original Irish food, technically isn’t. Culinary historians credit Native Americans as the first to use soda ash as a leavening agent in bread, but Irish immigrants to the new country quickly recognized the technique as a means to enjoy bread during yeast shortages. When baking soda became available in the U.K., the Irish adopted the chemical leavening trick to make breads from the stuff they had on hand—soft, low-protein wheat flour and sour or cultured milk.
I love food history, and even though some of these foods are questionable in their authenticity to St. Patrick’s Day, I’ll be making (and sharing with you) some version of all of them between now and next week.
Our corned beef is already underway, and if you’d like to play along at home, here’s how to begin. As I mentioned, I do not use the nitrate chemical known as “curing salt,” and it is not necessary for home-cured corned beef. The intended purpose of curing salt is to inhibit growth of bad bacteria while the meat is brining, but between modern refrigeration and the natural nitrites that occur in another ingredient I use, my brisket is well protected. One noticeable difference in nitrate- and nitrite-free corned beef is the color; mine will not have the rosy hue you see in commercially processed corned beef. The flavor, however, is exactly the same (or better).
You will need a container for brining the corned beef. It should be large enough to hold your brisket, plus about a gallon of liquid brine mixture. Choose a non-reactive, sealable vessel for this purpose—in other words, do not use a metal pot! A plastic container with a tight lid is fine, as is a food-grade plastic brining bag (plus a container large enough to hold it). Depending on your container, you may also need a non-reactive bowl or plate heavy enough to weigh down the brisket so that it is fully submerged at all times. For cooking the brined brisket, any slow cooker, roasting pan or Dutch oven will do, but you won’t need that until next week. You will also need enough space in your fridge for said container.
Prepare your brining liquid in advance, and allow time for it to cool completely before adding your brisket. I’ve seen some recipes that begin with cold water, and that may be OK, but the coarse salt and sugar will dissolve better and more quickly over heat, so I usually warm the liquid to incorporate those grainy ingredients, then cool it down (usually with ice cubes) before adding the rest. Do not pour warm brine onto the brisket—this would promote bacteria growth.
About a cup of kosher salt or coarse sea salt* (see notes)
About 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 packet or bottle of pickling spices*
12 oz. bottle Irish ale*
12 oz. bottle celery juice*
1/2 cup real fermented sauerkraut brine*
Kosher salt and coarse sea salt are about the same by volume and can be used interchangeably here. You can also use canning and pickling salt, or fine-textured sea salt, but because the crystals are much smaller, you should use slightly less (somewhere between 3/4 and 7/8 cup). Do not use table salt containing iodine.
Pickling spice is a blend of dry ingredients, usually including peppercorns, mustard and coriander seeds, allspice berries, ginger, garlic, bay leaves and sometimes chile peppers. You could whip up your own blend if you so desired, but the simplest thing to do is purchase a jar of spices ready to go. McCormick makes a good one that you will find in the regular spice aisle of just about any supermarket. You will use the entire bottle, and you may as well pick up two of them so you’ll have extra spices later for cooking your corned beef.
The remaining ingredients are optional, but I’ll explain here why I use them. A few years ago, a guest at our big Super Bowl party had left behind a growler jug of a local IPA that was much more “hoppy” than beers we usually enjoy. Not wanting to waste it, I glugged about a pint of it into our corned beef brine, and it was fantastic. Every year since then, I’ve put a bottle of Irish ale into the recipe and it always turns out great with that little extra layer of flavor. I think a bottle of Guinness would be great, too.
Celery juice powder is a natural source of nitrites, one of the same chemical additives in commercially processed corned beef. I haven’t yet seen the powder available anywhere, but my supermarket carries celery juice in the same refrigerated section as kombucha and probiotic drinks. Check the ingredients of any celery juice product you choose. This one I use is only celery juice and a hint of lemon juice. I don’t want to know who is actually drinking this stuff, but I’m glad it’s available. 🙂
Real sauerkraut is a naturally fermented product, containing loads of healthy probiotics. Good bacteria threaten bad bacteria, so a few splashes of the brine from the natural sauerkraut is my extra security measure during the brining process. I would not recommend using the brine in canned sauerkraut, as it likely contains vinegar and who-knows-what else. But if your kraut came from the refrigerated case, and the ingredients listed on the package are only cabbage and salt, and it says “naturally fermented” or “live cultures” somewhere on the jar, you’re good to go. Hang onto the sauerkraut for all the yummy Reuben sandwiches you’ll make next week.
About the pink color:
I’ve tried a few other tricks to get the reddish color that is typical of commercially produced corned beef, but most did not work and others were only nominally effective. If you feel inclined, try adding about a cup of pure beet juice to the brine (more seems to affect the flavor), or try some beet powder if you can get your hands on it. But if you can overlook the idea of artificially enhanced color, I promise the flavor of home-cured corned beef is even tastier than the pink version you grew up with. It’s a good trade-off.
Ready? Let’s do this!
Heat about 3 quarts of filtered water to a near boil, then turn off the heat.
Add kosher salt and brown sugar. Stir until dissolved, then toss in a couple of cups of ice to cool it down.
When the brine is fully cooled, add the Irish ale, celery juice and sauerkraut brine.
Place your brisket into the non-reactive container. Sprinkle the pickling spice over the top of the meat. Carefully pour the cold brine over the meat.
Use a heavy, non-reactive plate or dish to hold the brisket under the brine liquid. You don’t want the top or any edges exposed to air while the curing takes place. I usually use a flat-bottomed Pyrex dish to press it down, and when I seal the container, it becomes sort of wedged to keep the brisket from floating to the surface.
Refrigerate on the lowest shelf of your refrigerator for at least 5 days for a smallish brisket, or up to 10 days if your brisket is on the larger side. Check on the brisket each day, and turn it so the brine and seasonings make their way into every fiber of the meat. Keep it submerged.
If you don’t have room in the refrigerator, you can do the brine step in a cooler. Be sure the container holding the brisket and liquid is fully sealed, and refresh the ice as needed to keep it cold for the duration of the brining process.
When brining is complete, rinse the brisket under cold running water for several minutes, then proceed with cooking as usual.