Preserving meat for winter by soaking in a salt brine is a time-honored method. Corning is an ancient technique for preserving raw meat for long periods. It involves rubbing the meat in a mixture of salt and spices and then keeping it covered in the resultant juicy brine for a minimum of two weeks or much longer. The familiar corned beef is one of the few remnants of this practice still popular today.
While it is very simple to purchase corned beef in the supermarket, either in ready-to-cook bags or already cooked and sliced, making it a home is almost as easy and much less expensive. You also have the option of using different cuts of meat. If you like corned beef you will like a corned tongue. The flavor is identical, the only difference is in texture and appearance. After the minimum period of curing, the meat can be cooked and eaten and will be delicious. Longer curing will result in richer flavor and will not harm the meat at all.
Several different cuts of beef as well as the tongue are excellent candidates for corning, in fact, except for steaks, any cut can be brined. Obviously, the brisket is a good choice and boneless chuck roast or round roast are also very fine. An entire eye of round will make a splendid corned beef subject and would be very nice served cold on a buffet.
You do not have to limit yourself to beef, either. For the truly adventurous foodie, a corned pork roast is sure to be a big hit. Occasionally pork or lamb tongues are sold at the supermarket, these are also very good corned. If you live in a rural area where there is a slaughterhouse, call and inquire about getting tongues. Often these tasty items can be gotten for free or a very small cost.
The thing to remember is that while you are actually preserving the meat with salt you are also adding a great deal of flavor with the additional ingredients added to the curing mixture. You will be using black pepper, allspice, thyme, sage, paprika, bay leaf, rutabaga, onions, carrots, and garlic. If doing pork, be sure to collect some juniper berries as they add a special dimension to the flavor of corned pork.
For 10 to 12 pounds of meat, you will need 1 and a half cups of coarse or non-iodized salt (kosher salt is good to use but regular granulated salt without the iodine works just as well), 3 tablespoons of brown sugar, a generous tablespoon of cracked black peppercorns, 2 teaspoons of allspice berries, cracked, five or six sprigs of fresh thyme, a teaspoon of powdered sage, a teaspoon of paprika, 7 or 8 bay leaves, broken into small pieces, a small coarsely-chopped onion, small chopped rutabaga, a chopped carrot, and 6 cloves of garlic, either crushed or finely minced. For pork, add two tablespoons of fresh juniper berries, broken with the flat of a knife. If you are only doing one tongue or roast, reduce the amounts of ingredients accordingly.
The corning process can be done in a large stone crock but is really much easier if you use freezer zip-lock bags. Assemble enough bags to hold all your different cuts of meat, one cut to a bag. Mix all the ingredients together in a small bowl, except the juniper berries. Place all the meat in a roasting pan and cover all sides with the salt mixture, rubbing it in well. Put each piece of meat into a bag and divide the remaining salt mixture among the bags.
If you are doing a piece of pork, add the juniper berries to that bag. Remove as much air as possible from each bag and seal. If you have one of those vacuum sealers, this is a perfect use for it. You want the meat to be bathed in the salt mixture at all times.
Pack all the bags into a large bowl or crock and weight them down under a plate and about 10 pounds of weight (use canned tomatoes or the like). Place in the bottom of the fridge. Check the bags in a few hours. The juice should be running freely from the meat. Massage each bag to work the cure into all the crevices of the meat. Repack into the container, re-weight, and return to the fridge. Turn the bags and massage daily to make sure the cure is getting into all sides of the meat.
If a bag breaks, transfer the meat into a new bag with all the juices and about a quarter cup of salt. Leave the meat to cure for at least two weeks, three is better, before cooking one.
Before cooking, you will have to soak the meat in several changes of fresh cold water to remove the excess salt. The longer the meat is cured, the longer it will take to soak. Twenty-four hours should be enough. The meat will lose its rubbery texture and begin to feel like fresh raw meat again. Because there is no saltpeter in this curing mix, the meat will not be bright red.
Don’t worry, you didn’t do anything wrong, this is what it should look like. If you really want it to look like purchased corned meat, find saltpeter at a pharmacy and add a half-teaspoon to the cure, but this is not necessary and only adds questionable, perhaps carcinogenic, substances to your food. There is no good reason to add nitrates to your food other than aesthetic ones. Get used to grayish-brown corned beef, it is better for you!
Put the refreshed meat in a pot and cover with water. Add a carrot, some celery stalks with tops, a small onion, several sprigs of Italian parsley, some sprigs of fresh thyme, 4 bay leaves, and 5 cloves of garlic, flattened with the side of a knife. Bring to a boil and reduce to simmer. Skim off any foam that rises for the first few minutes then cover partially with a lid and cook at the simmer until the tongue or roast can be pierced easily with a fork. This will take 2 to 3 ½ hours, depending on the size of the meat cut.
If you will be serving the corned beef or tongue cold, allow to cool in the cooking liquid. When cool, the tongue should be removed and the rough skin carefully peeled off. It will usually come off in one or two large pieces and this is MUCH easier if the tongue is still slightly warm. Discard the skin. Also remove any small bones from the large end of the tongue and discard. Put the meat in the fridge for several hours or overnight. Tongue or corned beef should be sliced thinly and served with good rye bread or rolls with mustard. Either corned tongue or other cuts of beef can be heated and served as hot sandwiches too.
Corned pork roast can be served hot with noodles and a fresh tomato sauce. Applesauce or fried apples with cranberries added is also a nice touch.
JUNIPER BERRIES, THE HOW AND WHERE
If you cannot find juniper berries in your local market, look around the neighborhood for juniper bushes. These shrubs are very common in landscapes and you may have some in your own yard. They are usually prickly and bluish or grayish-green, some are very spreading in growth, some upright, and some literally hug the ground.
If you see an evergreen you suspect is a juniper, crush a sprig (careful of the prickles) and sniff. If it smells like gin, you have a juniper, start searching for berries, they may be green or purplish-black. You don’t need a lot, gather about a cup-full into a small baggie and take home.
They can be used fresh and the rest dried on the counter and kept in a small jar until you need them again. Juniper berries are an interesting addition to many different recipes, but especially nice with game meats and pork.