I’ve wanted to make synthetic-nitrate free home-cured corned beef for a couple of years now and I’m so grateful I finally took the plunge! It’s actually really easy and hands off. And I can definitely contest it is way more flavorful and healthy than the sodium, “natural flavor” and preservative laden store bought variety. As a side note, the links between nitrates and cancer are pretty questionable, so if you wish to use them I wouldn’t worry too much (more on that later). I just know my mom is sensitive to them and we weren’t too worried about preserving the color of the corned beef or keeping it for very long- it never lasts more than a few days at our house- so I made ours synthetic-nitrate free.
So what exactly is home-cured corned beef? Basically it’s DIY corned beef. Home-cured corned beef is made from brisket; a flavorful but relatively inexpensive cut of meat. Meat can be preserved in a brine of salt and water; something very useful before the days of refrigeration. After brining the brisket for a week I cooked the meat in the crock pot until it was falling apart and incredibly moist. Normally when my family buys corned beef it mostly tastes like incredibly salty beef, but with home-cured corned beef the pickling spice- mustard seed, cinnamon, peppercorns, chilies, coriander, cumin, ginger, allspice, bay leaf, cloves and turmeric- sung out and made me wish every last melt in my mouth bite would never end.
Now for a word on nitrates. Just to be clear, there isn’t really such a thing as “nitrate free” cured meat. Nitrates are naturally present in a lot of vegetables and it is naturally occurring in celery. The only difference is the nitrates are not synthetically made. There was a scare in the 1950s and 60s after some animal studies showed that nitrite had the potential to form into nitrosamines, a carcinogenic compound. In cured meats nitrosamines can be formed when nitrite is heated at high temperatures. For bacon it must be cooked at least 338 degrees Fahrenheit.
In 1975 the Food and Drug Regulations were amended to limit nitrite in cured meat. However, the health concern is about nitrosamines rather than nitrite, and Vitamin C (absorbic acid) and erythorbic acid can be added to inhibit nitrosamines from forming. Since then the U.S. National Toxicology Program carried out a multi-year study on nitrite and concluded in 2000 that there is no association between nitrite and cancer. So considering the lack of evidence linking nitrites/ nitrates to cancer I think using a little in your cured meats is ay-oh-kay, but you can make that decision for yourself! None the less I have left the nitrates out of this recipe, because they weren’t necessary. However, if you want your meat to keep longer than a week and stay extra pink here is a recipe for home-cured corn beef cured with pickling salt (aka salt with added nitrates).
Corn beef doesn’t call for many ingredients. Just salt, beef and pickling spice (and if nitrate free celery juice and whey). So there isn’t much to worry about when it comes to sourcing ingredients ethically.
Pickling spice: I try to find fair trade and organic spices, but fair trade is my priority.
Beef: Be sure to find cattle who lived their whole lives on open pasture eating grass and hay (dried grass). The term for these cattle are grassfed grass finished. Looking for the American Grassfed Association logo, which is a third party association that audits grassfed claims and has strict standards for the care of animals.
Salt: For salt I used sea salt, because it has not been stripped of trace minerals through heavy refining.
Whey: I got my whey by draining it out of some grass fed, whole milk, live culture yogurt. I used St. Benoit brand. I put the yogurt in a cheese cloth, tied the bag onto a wooden ladle with a rubber band and hung the cheese cloth bag above a bowl for a few hours as the whey drained out.
Celery: I used one bundle of sustainably raised celery to get to cups of juice.
Brown Sugar: I used organic, fair trade sugar. Sugar farmers are often exploited and not paid well for their work
The process of brining all these ingredients together is really simple and I have a short video (under a minute) on Get Cultured Kitchen’s instagram showing you just how to do it!
I also have a recipe here for made from scratch 1000 island dressing, because making reubens in my favorite thing to do with corned beef! For about a year now I’ve had an unusual, and possibly lofty goal of making a reuben sandwich 100% from scratch. This year I made sauerkraut, home-cured corned beef, and the dressing, but I still have yet to tackle the bread or making swiss cheese. If you have any good instructions for making swiss cheese send them my whey (heehee). I know it takes weeks for it to age and develop it’s characteristic snappy flavor. Hopefully I’ll have accomplished this goal by next year, but I’ll keep you posted. I just know you are hanging by the edge of your seat dying to know how this progresses! 😉 The 1000 island comes together pretty quickly. In mine I only put mayo, ketchup, horseradish and dill pickles and it was delicious. Of course I made all of those things from scratch as well, but to save time using store bought varieties will work in a pinch. If you can find lacto-fermented pickles definitely go that direction, use organic ketchup and mayonnaise with pasture raised chicken eggs. However, if you are interested in making thousand island truly from scratch I will have recipes for lacto-fermented dill pickles, ketchup and mayo up by the end of the week in time for Saint Patrick’s Day!
Yields 8 servings
Home-cured corned beef is much easier than you think and way more complex and flavorful than store bought. Plus it's synthetic nitrate free!
15 minPrep Time
8 hrCook Time
8 hr, 15 Total Time
- 5 lbs brisket
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1 cup sea salt + 1/8th cup
- 1 qt water
- 2 cups celery juice
- 1 cup whey
- 3 tbsp pickling spice + 1 tbsp
- 1/4 cup mayo
- 2 tsp ketchup
- 1-2 tsp horseradish
- 1 pickle spear (1/4 pickle) diced
- Bring 3 tbsp pickling spice, brown sugar, 1 cup salt and water to a boil in a large pot.
- Stir brine until sugar and salt are dissolved.
- Transfer brine to a large glass bowl and allow to cool in the fridge.
- Meanwhile massage about an 1/8th cup of salt into the meat and let sit on counter while the brine cools.
- Once the brine is cool to the touch add the meat to the glass bowl and weigh down the meat with with small plates or ceramic weights. Make sure the meat is submerged under the brine.
- Cure in a dark place at room temperature for two days or in the fridge for 5-7 days flipping over once a day.
- Put the corned beef and 1 tbsp pickling spice in a large crockpot and cover the meat with at least an inch of water, two inches for less salty meat.
- Cook the home-cured corned beef on high for 8 hours. The meat should fall apart easily.
- For the thousand island dressing combine all the ingredients in a dish and stir until well incorporated.
- Happy St. Patrick's Day.