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All about brining and curing corned beef and game meat

Corned beef (C.Cancler)Brining, also known as corning or sweet pickling is a good meat curing method for beginners because it is easy and relatively inexpensive to do with delicious results. To make corned beef, you immerse meat in brine, which is simply a solution of salt and water. Besides salt and water, there are a few other ingredients commonly used in a brining recipe for corned beef brisket.

  • Salt preserves the meat, enhances flavor and helps carry sugar and spices throughout the food.
  • Water is the other key ingredient in brine. Use distilled or filtered water if possible. If you use tap water, let it stand for 24 hours to dissipate the chlorine, which can interfere with the curing process. Hard water, water softeners, and fluoride also inhibit preservation action.
  • Nitrite turns meat a reddish-pink color and contributes unique flavor.
  • Sugar contributes sweetness and counteracts saltiness. You can use any type of sugar, including granulated, brown, or dextrose. Dextrose is a refined corn sugar that dissolves readily.
  • Spices add flavor.

Where’s the Corn in Corned Beef?

Corning is an old English term that refers to pellets of salt called corns. Therefore, corned beef is meat preserved with salt and has nothing to do with corn.

Best Salt to use for Brining or Curing Meat

Many brining recipes do not specify the type of salt. Pickling or canning salt is your best choice in brining recipes because it is pure, fine-grained, and dissolves easily. Kosher salt is acceptable, but coarse grains take longer to dissolve. Table salt and sea salt are not recommended because they contain additives or minerals that can inhibit the curing process.

Brining is more Art than Science

There is no universal brining recipe for curing meat. Weak brine increases the curing time and strong brine decreases the curing time. It is generally recommended to use weak brine for poultry, fish, and game birds, and strong brine for beef, pork, and game meat. Brine strength is expressed as a percentage of salt in proportion to the weight of the brine. Therefore, when you make brine, you measure the salt in relation to the amount of water in the recipe.

Brine Formulas: Weight or Volume of Salt per Quart of Water

Brine Strength (% Salt) Any Salt MTPC* MCK** DK***
5.7% (weak) 2.0 oz. 3 TB. 1⁄4 cup 6 TB.
7.5% (weak) 2.7 oz. 1⁄4 cup + 1 tsp. 1⁄3 cup + 1 tsp. 1⁄2 cup + 2 tsp.
15.3% (strong) 6.0 oz. 1⁄2 cup + 1½ TB. 3⁄4 cup + 1½  tsp. 1 cup + 3 TB.

*Morton Table, Pickling, or Canning (MTPC) salt weighs 10 ounces per cup

**Morton Coarse Kosher (MCK) salt weighs 7.7 ounces per cup

***Diamond Kosher (DK) salt weighs 5 ounces per cup

Good brine recipes will give you the formula using the weight of the salt. If dry measures are given, they can be inaccurate unless they specify the type and brand of salt. Using weight, 5 ounces of any type of salt is equivalent to any other kind.

Determining how long to brine meat

Determining how long to brine meat depends on the brine strength, the size and shape of the piece, and the texture of the meat. For weak brine, estimate 3-4 days per pound. For strong brine, start with 2 days per pound. If curing time is too short, you will see uneven color, especially at the center of the meat or under heavy layers of fat. If curing time is too long by a few days, you should not notice any difference.

Note that brining a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner for a day or two merely adds flavor. For preserving, the salt and other ingredients must fully displace the water (the preservative action) throughout the meat tissue, so timing needs to be much longer.

Curing Salts (Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrite)

Saltpeter (sodium nitrate) is a naturally occurring mineral that has been used to cure meat for at least 1,000 years. Nitrate preserves meat by prohibiting the growth of spoilage bacteria (especially C. botulinum) and preventing fats from going rancid.

As it turns out, nitrate isn’t the active agent in meat curing, rather its derivative, nitrite. Nitrite causes the preservative effects, as well as the appetizing reddish-pink color and pleasing flavor that we associate with cured meat. People continued to use nitrates only until nitrites became readily available. Nitrate is still used today only when a slow-cure method is needed for raw-cured products, such as dry pepperoni, dry salami, sopressata, and dry coppa.

Curing salt #1 or pink curing salt is a “fast” cure that contains sodium nitrite. It is known by various brand names, including InstaCure No. 1 (formerly Prague Powder #1), DQ Curing Salt, and tinted curing mix (TCM). The pink color ensures that users will not confuse it with any other type of salt. Use cure #1 only in products that you will cook before eating, such as corned beef and bacon. Never substitute pink curing salt for any other type of salt.

Tender Quick is a brand of fast curing salt made by Morton that can be used to make corned beef. Follow the package directions; Tender Quick is not interchangeable with curing salt #1.

Curing salt #2 is a “slow” cure that contains sodium nitrate in addition to sodium nitrite. It may or may not be pink colored. Cure #2 is used only for making raw-cured products that are dry aged for long periods and will not be smoked, canned, cooked, or refrigerated. Cure #2 is not interchangeable with curing salt #1. Never use cure #2 in brine or substitute it for any other type of salt.

You can buy curing salts online through retailers such as butcher-packer.com, mortonsalt.com, and sausagemaker.com.

Because corned beef is cooked after curing, sodium nitrite is not needed to control botulism. However, it does impart the characteristic pink color and flavor. If a pink color is all that is desired, as a little as 40 parts per millions (ppm) or 1 level teaspoon (0.20 ounce) per quart of water achieves the desired result. For preservative effective, more curing salt can be used, up to 200 ppm (one ounce or 5 level teaspoons per quart of water), the maximum amount recommended by the USDA for safe consumption. Sodium nitrite is toxic in large amounts; under no circumstances should you use more than 1 ounce of curing salt #1 per quart of water when making a brining solution.

If you don’t have or don’t want to use curing salt containing sodium nitrite, you can brine meats without it. Without curing salt that contains sodium nitrite, the color of the cured meat will be gray rather than pink and the flavor is less sweet with a more pronounced “pickle” flavor.

Beef and Game Meat to use for Corning

The most common cut used for corned beef is the brisket or round. Game including antelope, bear, elk, moose, and venison are also excellent meats to preserve by the corned beef brining method. In game meat, brining removes the musky flavor and tenderizes even the toughest meat. As when making corned beef, brisket (lower chest) and round (leg) are good cuts of game meat to use, as well as loin, rump, and shoulder. Pork is commonly cured by brining, including loin, rump, and shoulder for hams and belly for bacon. Lamb and veal do not result in products with good color or flavor, so are not recommended for brining.

Tips for Brining Meats

  • Use noncorrosive containers and weights such as plastic, glass, stainless, or pickling crocks.
  • Prepare enough brine to cover meat completely.
  • Estimate 1 quart of brine for every 4-6 pounds of meat (or 30%-50% brine weight per pound of meat; 1 quart of brine weighs 2 pounds).
  • To dissolve salt and sugar more readily, heat half of the quantity of water and dissolve the salt and the sugar completely before adding the remaining liquid.
  • Always chill brine thoroughly before adding the meat.
  • Always cure meat in the refrigerator (<40°F).
  • Turn or flip over brining meat once or twice daily. Rotation helps meat to cure evenly.

Making corned beef brisket is a good meat curing project for beginners that is easy to do. Corning uses strong brine of salt and water with added sugar and spices for flavor. A small amount of pink curing salt containing sodium nitrite also adds characteristic color and flavor.

For more information about food preservation methods and recipes, see the book The Home Preserving Bible by Carole Cancler, available from booksellers everywhere.

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