Corning beef is laissez-faire DIY, and by that I mean it's set-it-and-forget-it charcuterie. Pickle a beef brisket for five days, then cook it for a few hours, and you'll end up with several pounds of luscious corned beef.
For me, the problem was never in the doing. It was in the quantity. Depending on the cut, beef brisket weighs in at between four and 14 pounds. I just couldn't, I just shouldn't, have several pounds of corned beef in my refrigerator. I do love it, so I set out to find a variation suited for my small household.
It turns out short ribs make a mighty fine stand-in for brisket, and the resulting pickled meat slices and hashes just like any corned beef brisket. Corned short rib is my answer to authentic, right-sized corned beef.
When shopping, look for thick, bone-in short ribs. I first tested the accompanying recipe with the slim, boneless short ribs commonly sold at the grocery store. They were a disaster: The meat was not very thick and, once cured, was impossible to slice. When I used bone-in short ribs, their generous 2-to-21/2-inch-thick slabs of meat proved to be the better option; the resulting corned beef was tender and easy to slice.
It's easy to cut away the bones at home, separating the thick chunks of beef marbled with fat from the flat bones. When you smear those bones with tomato paste, roast them in a hot oven, then cook them for hours with carrots, onions and plenty of water, a brown, beefy stock for sauces or soups is all yours. Or if you have a deserving dog, abandon all thoughts of stock and use the raw bones to reward good behavior.
To become corned beef, the meat spends plenty of time in salty circumstances. Salt is the tenderizer, the preservative, the flavoring. First, a few days in a wet brine that is salty, sweet and aromatic with mustard and coriander seed, bay leaf and cinnamon. Then the beef cooks in a salty bath until tender.
The choice of which salt to use deserves careful attention. "Corning" is a term that first referred to the size of the salt used for preserving. Corn salt, or large rock-crystal salt, was commonly used in the 19th century to preserve meat for travel by ship. Preserved beef became a significant export from Great Britain, corned, canned and transported across the world.
The days of such corning salt are behind us. I rely on Diamond Crystal kosher salt that weighs in at 45 grams per quarter-cup. Morton's kosher salt is denser; the same amount weighs 62 grams. Coarse sea salt weighs even more, 67 grams. So if the latter two are the salts in your home, please use a kitchen scale. (Iodized table salt is never the right choice for corning.)
The goal is a 5 percent solution for brining and a 5 percent salt bath for cooking. Weighing the salt will ensure the most consistent results.
Keeping the meat submerged requires a plate or weighted dish over the bowl, which may take up valuable refrigerator real estate. A better solution is to pack brine and beef into a zip-top bag from which all the air has been removed. Even better: Vacuum-seal the bag.
Every discussion of cured meat raises the issue of nitrites. To retain a rosy pink appearance, I opt to use Curing Salt #1 (also called Prague Powder, DQ Curing Salt or Pink Salt), which is made up of sodium chloride and sodium nitrite. It is dyed a bright pink to ensure it will not be mistaken for table salt. Nitrites imbue the corned beef with an appealing rosy color. If the idea of using nitrites worries you, skip it, but consider adding a small red beet to the cooking liquid to pink up what otherwise would be drably colored meat. After the long brine, the beef cooks for hours. Short ribs do not need a brisk boil, so if there is a slow-cooker collecting dust somewhere in your house, corned beef is the perfect occasion to bring it out. Even a low (225-degree) oven will do, but cover the pot and make sure the meat stays completely submerged in its the liquid. Once the short ribs are done, they are ready to be sliced and stacked, hashed and fried in duck fat with potatoes and carrots, or cooked further with cabbage and served with a suitable swipe of grainy mustard. This is corned beef for the small household.
CORNED SHORT RIBS
MAKE AHEAD: The meat needs to brine for 5 days and then must be cooked for several hours before serving. The corned short ribs can be refrigerated in their broth (submerged) for up to 10 days.
Curing Salt #1, also called DQ Curing Salt, Prague Powder or Pink Salt, is a nitrite, a curing agent. It is made up of sodium chloride (table salt) and sodium nitrite and is dyed pink to distinguish it from table salt. Cathy Barrow uses it to improve the appearance and flavor of cured meats.
Nitrites give bacon, corned beef, salami and many other cured meats their appealing rosy color. If adding nitrites worries you, skip it. Modified celery juice powder works in the same way as Curing Salt #1 and may be substituted equally, gram for gram. It does not provide a hammy flavor, but it does have an anti-oxidizing property to keep cured meats pinkish. Always use gloves when working with any curing product. Curing Salt #1 is available online via Butcher & Packer and Amazon. .
For the brine
• 1 quart water, preferably filtered
• 5 tablespoons (50 grams) kosher or sea salt
• 3 tablespoons light brown sugar
• 1 tablespoon honey
• 2 cloves garlic, lightly crushed
• 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns, lightly crushed
• 1 1/2 teaspoons pickling spice
• 1 teaspoon Curing Salt No. 1 (optional; see headnote)
• 4 cups ice cubes
For the short ribs
• 2 pounds bone-in short ribs
• 2 quarts water, plus more as needed
• 5 tablespoons kosher salt
• 1 teaspoon pickling spice
• 2 medium carrots, peeled or scrubbed well
• 1 small onion, cut in half
• 1 small red beet, cooked and cut in half (optional, for color)
For the brine: Combine the water, kosher or sea salt, light brown sugar, honey, garlic, peppercorns, pickling spice and curing salt, if using, in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the salts and sugars have dissolved; once the mixture starts to bubble at the edges, remove it from the heat. Add the ice cubes (to kick-start the cooling process), and cool completely before proceeding.
For the short ribs: Stand the meat on a cutting board with the ends of the bones visible. Hold a sharp chef's knife against the bone, then cut the bones away from the meat in one fell swoop; discard the bones. Place the meat in a large bowl or zip-top bag big enough to hold both the meat and the brine. Use a plate to weight the meat in the bowl, or remove all the air from the zip-top bag before sealing it, to ensure the meat is entirely submerged. Refrigerate for 5 days, stirring the meat and brine every day.
When ready to cook, rinse the meat under cool water and discard the brine. Combine the water, salt, pickling spice, carrots, onion and beet, if using, in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring until the salt has dissolved.
Add the brined meat; cover and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low. Cook for about 3 hours, covered, until fork-tender. Check the liquid level in the saucepan frequently, adding more as needed so the meat remains submerged.
Remove and discard the carrots, onion and beet. Cool and store the meat in the liquid, in a covered container in the refrigerator, for up to 10 days.
Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.