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With St Patrick’s Day not so far away, it seems apposite to say that preparing brisket, corned (salt) beef and pastrami (smoked salt beef with a layer of pepper around it) are food landmines.

I admit, I had a failure and attempted to recover it, somewhat successfully in the end. I hadn’t intended to make salt beef but a regular brisket with a hint of barbecue flavour.

What follows are my notes on brisket, plain or salt (corned).

(My thanks to Dr Gregory Jackson of Ichabod for the graphic representing me in my usual flour-covered state.)

The following recipes are for a fresh three-pound brisket, which will serve six people. In any event, select one with a good covering of fat, which will help tenderise the meat as it cooks. This is vital; skip the fat, skip the tenderness.


My mother, although not an adventerous cook, could make a fabulous brisket in four hours with a packet of powdered onion soup and water.

Spouse Mouse and I, having watched Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives (‘Triple-D’) on the Food Network wanted something more.  We had no experience of cooking brisket or salt (corned) beef and just wanted a tender brisket without the packet of onion soup.

The following process — more than a recipe — will explain what constitutes a homemade salt beef brisket. If I were to prepare one again, provided I could afford the electricity bill, I would make a regular brisket (not ‘salt’ or ‘corned’) using an India Pale Ale — IPA — or a flavoursome lager (what Americans know as ‘beer’). Bitter or stout will overpower the meat. I would also add some dried fruit, such as prunes or apricots, to the liquid, topping it off, if necessary, with stock.

Cooking instructions will follow, but plan on nine to 12 hours over two days. My apologies for the many emphases, but they are important to the success of the recipe. Personally, I shall not be preparing this again. It is not energy-efficient and more trouble than it is worth. By contrast, I am able to roast a beautiful joint of veal in 50 minutes. Although the veal costs more, it uses less energy and works out cheaper.

Please note that for salt (corned) beef without a smoker or hot pot, you will probably need three to four days. See below.

Salt — corned — beef

What follows is my method for preparing salt (corned) beef without a smoker or pickling spices. (For Americans with a brisket and separate ‘corned’ (brining) spices and pickling agents in a separate packet, please follow the processor’s instructions carefully. As such, you may disregard the following.)

1/ Select your brisket: ensure it has a proper covering of fat layering most, if not all, of the brisket. This is important to help break this part of muscle down into digestible fibres. The greater the covering of fat, the better.

2/ Brine for salt (corned) beef: What follows is my improbable method for preparing salt beef. The result was indistiguisable from corned beef; I have no pickling spices.

a/ Prepare base for brine in microwave in a large mixing jug:

3 tbsp medium (Amontillado) sherry

3 tbsp Port

2 tbsp olive oil

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp sugar

1 tsp balsamic vinegar

a few drops Liquid Smoke (optional)

2 tbsp crushed or chopped garlic

1/4 cup water

Microwave for 1 to 2 minutes.

Allow to cool for 10 to 15 minutes.

b/ Add 1 1/2 to two pints of  cold water to the mix and stir. Add 2 bay leaves OR a sprig of sage and place the meat on top of these herbs. Put the meat in the liquid in a Pyrex or plastic container, ensuring the brisket is covered in it fully and cover with an airtight lid. Refrigerate for 24 hours.

Avoid using a metal container if you use Liquid Smoke. It will make small holes in the pan.

3/ Turn the meat in the brining container halfway through so that all the meat is brined evenly. I saw a photograph of someone’s brisket which was piebald — half pink and half brown.  It was not pretty and would have raised eyebrows with guests.

4/ After 24 hours, rinse the meat in cold water for one to two minutes. This is important in order to get the excess salt off the brisket. You might think that such a small amount of salt isn’t noticeable, but after 24 hours, it is overpowering.

5/ Pat the brisket dry with paper towelling.

6/ In a large Pyrex dish, place the brined brisket fat side up and rub in a mix of the following:

1 to 2 tbsp thyme or winter savoury (or whatever else you have on hand)

1 tsp powdered garlic

1 tsp ground pepper

1 tsp smoked paprika

1/2 tsp balsamic vinegar

1/2 tsp Old Bay seasoning

Mix together and rub lightly all over onto the meat.

Onto any uncovered areas — top, bottom and sides — squirt  or spread your favourite BBQ sauce.

7/ Cover securely and place in refrigerator for 24 hours.

8/ Begin the first four-hour cooking stage. After letting the rub set for 24 hours, remove the meat from the refrigerator, bring up to room temp, add one to two uncooked peeled medium potatoes, two large onions and one bell pepper, both thinly sliced. Place all these ingredients evenly around the meat. The potatoes absorb any excess salt.  Add stock to cover the bottom third of the meat; this helps the meat fibre to break down.

Put the brisket fat side up uncovered in an oven preheated to 220° C (425º F) for 15 – 20 minutes.

Remove the dish from the oven and cover securely with aluminium foil.

Return to oven and cook at a low heat for four hours at 150º C (300º  F).

9/ Remove from oven and place on carving tray to rest for 15 minutes, covered in foil.

10/ Carve against the grain. The grain will be lengthwise, so cut at a 90-degree angle (right angle) against it. If this is unclear, the grain runs across the meat horizontally. Cut at a 90-degree angle, so along the width, or, alternatively, at a bias (diagonal) to the grain. Cut in very thin slices, less than 1/8″ (0.5 mm) slices for best results.

11/ Place the sliced meat into the liquid. Remove one portion of the potato. If it tastes very salty — highly probable — discard it as well as the other portions of potato and onions, as they have done their job.  Add two more medium potatoes, peeled and cut in half, along with another peeled onion cut in two to the meat liquid. Distribute them evenly.

12/ Cover, ensuring the meat is entirely submerged in the cooking liquid, and cook for another four to five hours at 150º C (300º  F) or cool and refrigerate for the following day.

The meat fibres still need to break down after this. The only way this is possible is through continued slow cooking.

13/ If you have refrigerated the meat (see step 12), take it out and let it rest at room temperature for at least one hour or longer before resuming cooking at 150º C (300º  F).  However, skim off any fat before reheating along with the potatoes — in a heavy-bottomed pot with a lid for another three to four hours. In order to do this, bring to the  boil, then lower the temperature.

14/ After this time, you should find the meat fibres breaking down nicely, including the fat.  From here, you should test the fibres for tenderness. If they tease apart nicely with a fork and knife, they are done. If not, let them simmer in their juices for another hour or two.

15/ The end result should be a pleasantly tender, pull-apart salt (corned) beef brisket for you and your guests.

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