Healthy Gray Corned Beef

Gray Corned Beef Touring Ireland, introducing myself, “Hello, I’m Sharon Kathleen”, the responses were often, “Odd, really, ahmmm, you don’t look even a wee bit Irish….”. True, and that’s because there’s not a single drop of Irish blood in me. My mother, raised in a Twin Cities German-Irish immigrant neighborhood, borrowed my names from the Irish culture, equating them with being “good, strong American names”.

She also borrowed the Irish tradition of serving New England Boiled Dinner every St. Patrick’s Day, but in reality, the potato, cabbage and corned beef combination has nothing historically to do with Ireland.

My favorite part was always the corned beef, which isn’t actually corned, but is instead brined in a salt water solution. The addition of saltpeter, potassium nitrate, gives corned beef its rosy-color.

Speaking of rosy-color corned beef, a few weeks ago, I noticed a sign at the butcher shop for “Gray Corned Beef”. Asking the butcher how it was processed, he answered, “Water, Brisket, Salt”. No spices? No saltpeter? The butcher laughed at my speculation that Gray Corned Beef was a new, modern improvement geared toward people like me, trying to avoid nitrates.

“Lady, this has been around longer than you have. Just water, meat and salt and nothing more”, he informed me, in typical matter-of-fact New England style.

Though corned beef is the quintessential dinner to celebrate Irish heritage on St. Patrick’s Day, corned beef could almost be described as the quintessential Yankee dinner since it was once concentrated in New England.

When the Irish emigrated in the 19th century to America and Canada, where both salt and meat were cheaper, they treated beef the same way they would have treated a “bacon joint” — a piece of cured pork — at home in Ireland, according to Pellets of salt, some the size of kernels of corn, were rubbed into the beef to keep it from spoiling and to preserve it.

Immigrants soaked the beef to draw off the excess salt, then braised or boiled it with cabbage, and served it in its own juices with only minimal spicing — maybe a bay leaf or so, and some pepper. Today, brining — the use of salt water — has replaced the dry salt cure, but the name “corned beef” is still used, rather than “brined” or “pickled” beef. Telegram

Grey Corned Beef Saltpeter, added to the brine, is not a traditional Irish-American New England, the end result being “Gray Corned Beef”. The butcher preferred it because it tasted “beefier”. While the color didn’t appeal to me, having corned beef without nitrates, did.

Was It Worth It

After the brining, peeling and chopping organic veggies and finally, the day of cooking, the end result was, by far, the best corned beef we’ve ever had. Not only was the meat much less salty than commercially-prepared corned beef, but I had fun using my own pickling spices, bay leaves, and garlic cloves, creating a complex flavor. The resulting broth was rich, with tiers of flavor infusing the vegetables, every bite bursting with flavor. My home-made Irish Soda Bread was perfect for mopping up every last bit of broth. And yes, the beef was “beefier” tasting, but I preferred that flavor over just a salty flavor of most processed/packaged red corned beef.

Cut of Meat Is Important

The cut of meat should be a flat-cut brisket, a special-order item at most butcher shops. We prefer the nutritional benefits of grass-fed meat, so that takes some extra patience in finding sources, but is well worth the hunt. When you find a source? Order two. This makes a wonderful corned beef hash.

Some recipes call for pickling spices in the brine. Others reserve the spices for the cooking step, which is my preference. South Boston butcher shops use a simple brine of salt and water, which is the method I prefer, adding the spices and flavorings to the cooking step.

Don’t try to speed through the brining process. The brine’s primary function is to push the blood out of the meat, so expect to see the water turn increasingly red – a sign the brining is working.

O’Sharon’s Healthy Gray Corned Beef Brisket
Serve with Oatmeal Irish Soda Bread

Brining Instructions for Gray Corned Beef

BEGIN: 7-10 Days (up to 18 days, if desired) BEFORE your dinner:

  • 6 to 8 LB flat-cut beef brisket (or two 3-lb or two 4-lb if those are easier to handle)
  • 8 cups water – enough to completely cover brisket
  • 1 1/4 cup kosher salt
  • 2 T raw sugar
  1. Heat water to a boil, add sugar & salt, stirring just until dissolved.
  2. Turn off heat, cool brine to room temperature.
  3. Rinse off meat, placing in a ceramic or large glass dish or bowl – deep enough so meat wil be submerged once brine is added. DO NOT USE METAL OR PLASTIC CONTAINERS.
  4. Pour brine over meat; if meat floats, use an inverted heavy bowl on top of meat, to keep it submerged. If more weight is needed, place a 14-oz can on top the bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Note: I do not allow plastic wrap to come in contact with my food.
  5. Refrigerate 7-10 days, checking the brine level every day. If more brine is required, add 3T kosher salt for every 1 cup of boiling water, stirring to dissolve; cool completely before adding to the meat.

Cabbage Cooking Cooking Instructions – Day of Dinner

  • 6-8 lbs gray corned beef
  • Cold Water – enough to completely cover brisket
  • 4 T favorite organic pickling spice mix (cinnamon sticks, cloves, peppercorns, allspice, yellow mustard seed, dill seed, hot red peppers or pepper flakes)
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 6 whole cloves garlic
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 tsp sea salt (if more salt is needed, serve it with the meal)
  1. Remove brisket from brine, rinse thoroughly under cold, running water.
  2. Place brisket in a stainless steel or enameled dutch oven, adding enough water to cover the brisket by several inches
  3. Add remaining ingredients – spices, salt, etc. – to water
  4. Cook, tightly covered, gently simmering for 1 1/2 hours
  • 4 carrots peeled, cut in half, then cut into 1/2-inch wide strips
  • 6 celery stalks whole
  • 4 parsnip cut like carrots
  • 2 medium sliced onions
  • 1 lb rutabaga, cubed
  • 1 lb celeriac, cubed (we love this so much, we ignore the celery stalks and double this)
  • 2 lbs red potato, skin on, cubed
  • 1 medium head cabbage cut into 1/8ths – use wooden toothpicks to hold together, if necessary
  1. Cut vegetables so they’re similar sizes/widths for even cooking
  2. Add all vegetables EXCEPT CABBAGE to the pot of corned beef, cover and cook on low, 30-minutes.
  3. Remove meat, making sure it is “fork tender”. Set aside, covering tightly with foil.
  4. Add cabbage to vegetables, simmering another 20-30 minutes until vegetables are tender.
  5. Slice corned beef on the diagonal, 45-degree angle, in thin slices.
  6. Serve corned beef and vegetables, along with broth, on plates.
  7. We serve stone-ground mustard on the side, as well as Irish Soda Bread.
  8. Flavors are even better the next day – simply reheat the stock, and pour hot stock over sliced meat and vegetables, to prevent them from overcooking.

Additional Reading

Oatmeal Irish Soda Bread

Great Saltpeter Cave History

Saltpeter – Speer Bullets

Boston Brisket Company:

Why Does Salt Preserve Meat?

The History of Corned Beef

Alchemists Build Submarine During Renaissance Using Saltpeter

Feasting & Fasting With Lewis & Clark – Saltpeter was even controversial in the 1700’s

Saltpeter Process Technology