Salt beef is quite a rarity these days. I’m aware our American cousins (to whom it’s corned beef) think of it as an Irish thing and eat it with cabbage at St Patrick’s the way we eat haggis, neeps and tatties on Burns Night. Despite having Irish heritage, I’ve never eaten salt beef, in this context or any other (honestly, Irish-American folks, that’s one tradition you’ve made up all for yourselves!). But I was very excited to experiment with the idea when I saw a lovely rolled brisket of beef at our local farm butcher’s shop.
A bit of asking around family brought me the information that my sister-in-law, Beth, and her family, were keen salt beef curers and consumers. She kindly shared her recipe & process with me, which I’ve adapted slightly to suit my purposes.
You will require the following to salt your beef –
- Piece of rolled beef brisket, mine was about 1kg, which was about right for a meal for two plus cold cuts, or would have served four for dinner. You may need to find a real butcher’s shop, since brisket, despite being great value, is rather unfashionable and rarely available in the supermarket.
- Curing salt (I used supracure, which is the pre-mixed salt-and-saltpetre mix I use for making bacon). Alternately you can use plain salt with (or without) added saltpetre. You won’t get quite the same flavour without the saltpetre, and the beef will be grey rather than the characteristic dark pink colour of salt beef.
- Dark sugar, whatever sort you prefer
- Whole peppercorns, juniper berries, cloves, bay leaves (dry or fresh), and a few sprigs of fresh thyme. Or experiment with any other herbs / spices you think might work well!
- A non-metallic bowl big enough to completely submerge your beef in
- Large saucepan, kitchen scales & measuring jug
Once you’ve gathered all your tools and ingredients together, you need to make your brine. First, work out how much brine you need. Put your beef in the bowl and cover it completely with water. Then take the beef out, and measure the water. That’s your target volume.
Now, for each litre of brine you require, weigh out the following into the saucepan –
- 300g of supracure
- 100g of dark sugar
- Approximately 10 peppercorns, 6 juniper berries
- A bay leaf, a clove, and a sprig of thyme (or whatever herbs and spices you fancy!)
Add the required volume of water (the more observant among you will notice that you’re going to end up with slightly more brine than you actually wanted, due to adding the dry ingredients – this is fine, don’t worry!) and heat to dissolve all the dry ingredients. Boil the brine briskly for a few minutes, and then allow to cool (refrigerate once it’s at room temperature to get it down to about 5 degrees centigrade).
Once the brine is cold, add your beef. Weigh it down with a small plate or saucer if required to keep it fully submerged. This is quite a ‘hard’ (concentrated) brine and the beef will tend to want to float up in it. Now put the bowl of brine & beef in the fridge, and apart from turning the beef over in the cure once a day, if you remember to, leave it alone. My 1kg piece of beef was in the brine for 5 days. You’ll want a longer curing time for larger pieces of beef, perhaps up to 10 days or so.
After your curing time has elapsed, take your beef out of the brine. It will have become considerably denser and firmer in texture (surprisingly so, in fact), as well as darker in colour.
The alchemy that is salt-curing has happened now, so you’re going to want to soak the salt beef for 24 hours to reduce the saltiness of the finished product a bit. Wash off the beef and submerge it in clean tap water (it will sink, so you don’t need to weigh it down this time) and return it to the fridge. Change the water at least once during the 24 hours.
I prepared my salt beef in the simplest way, by poaching it gently. Add a quartered onion, a handful of roughly chopped carrots, a bay leaf and some peppercorns to the saucepan, and cover the beef with water. You could also add some celery, but I don’t particularly like it.
Bring to the boil and then simmer, covered, very gently for two and a half hours (longer for larger pieces), until it yields easily to a fork. Then remove it from the poaching water and rest for half an hour, covered with foil. The water you’ve poached the beef in will now look like a rich beef broth.
After resting, slice your beef thickly (it’ll fall apart if you try to slice it too thinly) and serve with your choice of side dishes. Potatoes and cabbage appeared to be traditional (at least in some circles!) so I opted for boiled new potatoes and wilted spring greens, served with a white sauce made from a roux, some of the poaching liquor, a glug of cream and a big spoon of hot horseradish.
It was beautiful, though I say so myself. The beef, served hot, is incredibly tender and succulent. Cooled and sliced, the rest of the salt beef is also beautiful and will make cracking sandwiches. It’s firm and dense, slices nicely, and has a lovely gentle aromatic flavour. Home-cured salt beef is sure to become a regular culinary feature in our household. If any of you have favourite ways of preparing or serving salt beef, I’d love to hear them. Finally, thank you so much to Beth for her recipe and guidance, and I hope you all consider giving salt beef a try some time!
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