You can pack a Reuben sandwich six different ways, but the tried-and-true meat is corned beef, a staple that the 17th-century Irish exported to the cow-crazy British, as well as to everybody else, until the crown's American colonies started stealing the show a century later.
"Salt was the main reason Ireland became the hub for corned beef," wrote Smithsonian magazine in March. "Ireland's salt tax was almost 1/10 that of England's and [the Irish] could import the highest quality at an inexpensive price. ... But, this corned beef was much different than what we call corned beef today. With the meat being cured with salt the size of corn kernels, the taste was much more salt than beef."
So there you have the etymology. But to truly understand corned beef as it begs to be understood today — as a meat that now stands on its own in taste and texture, to say nothing of its place in St. Patrick's Day feasting — you can do better than grabbing a few industrial ounces off the shelf.
When I set off to make my own for the first time, I thought it would be a heroic task of do-it-yourself fervor mixed with made-at-home principles. But it was actually ridiculously easy — so easy that I was pretty sure I was doing it wrong the whole time.
The prep begins
I started in early December with a note to chef Kevin Campbell, of Full Circle Cuisine and Ranch Foods Direct, asking his opinion on using packaged nitrites to cure the meat, versus "natural" methods. The stuff I had in mind — pink salt, also called Tinted Cure, or Prague Powder, or DQ Curing Salt — is a mixture of regular sodium chloride and 6.25 percent sodium nitrite or nitrate, depending.
The resulting chemical reaction is what makes bacon look and taste like bacon and not ham, and turns a brisket into a bit of bright-red-and-delicious. It's also busy destroying bacteria and keeping the meat's myoglobin from changing into metmyoglobin, preserving the initial color.
"You need the nitrates for color, flavor & to eliminate the risk of botulism," he wrote back. "You can find 'natural' nitrate derived from celery, but nitrate is nitrate & pink salt is safe to use. Food marketing & advertising fuckos love lying to us [with] 'Nitrate free bacon & sausage.' But, it's nitrates from leafy green vegetables. There is actually more nitrates in a cup of celery than 1 lb of bacon."
A mutual love of meat also resulted in an agreement that he'd join the fun and whip up some pastrami — basically smoked corned-beef, Jewish in origin — and meet up for a Great Taste Off somewhere down the line.
Before that, and before I found out I could just buy it at Savory Spice Shop, I ordered a pound of curing salt from Amazon for around $18 out the door, which is more than enough: One pound of salt is roughly equal to around 75 teaspoons. I only needed five.
I then hit up Andy's Meat Market on East Platte Avenue for 4.3 pounds of trimmed, USDA Choice (never use Select) flat brisket. After that, it was a trip to Savory for some pickling spice ($3).
I'd wanted to use the recipe listed in the Culinary Institute of America's The Art of Charcuterie, but the measurements were for 12 pounds of beef and listed almost everything in ounces or grams. I came here to eat, not to convert ratios, so I combined some of its basics with a recipe found in Michael Ruhlman's Charcuterie and boldly went forward with a bastardized version.
Combined in a large, boiling stockpot, the ingredients filled my house with the warm smell of spiced apple cider and looked like storm-drain runoff: coriander, cloves, bay leaves, about two cups of kosher salt and the like clumping, swirling away and regrouping, ad infinitum. Anyway, the mixture cooled, and in went the meat.
"The idea is that initially, the salt should draw juices out from the beef through the action of osmosis ..." explains a 2011 post by J. Kenji López-Alt on the Serious Eats website. "Once the liquid has exited the beef, it would form a highly concentrated brine by [dissolving] the salt on the beef's surface. This brine in turn would dissolve protein filaments, allowing the beef to retain more moisture, and causing it to eventually reabsorb the brine, which should gradually work its way towards the center of the meat."
My "gradual" was three days, though I was thinking I should probably wait five days, and why did I think I could do this at all in the first place? Waiting sucks.
But the fated Sunday finally came, and something between shock and awe set in when I pulled a grayish mass of beef from a pot of fresh water, where it had been boiling for three hours after leaving the fridge, and sliced away to find bright-red beef just starting to separate at its natural striations. It was deeply flavored, like corned beef in stark relief, the juices packed with a little sour, a little salt and lots of rich, sharp, meaty notes. My co-taster (and food writer) Matthew Schniper commented how he could smell clove in the air as soon as he walked in, and found the beef deliciously bold, thinking of how it would stand out in a sandwich.
Enter Campbell, who rolled in with a cooler sloshing from six inches of steaming brown juices leaking from the foil-wrapped meat inside. One was a smoked beef tongue that tasted like really good bologna and came still branded with a USDA seal that looked like it had come straight from National Treasure. The other was a bottom round roast, cured for five days with salt, peppercorns, coriander, garlic and mace, and smoked for four hours over hickory. It was peppery and delicious and illustrated a fine point about the importance of using enough salt when the middle revealed a small, brown circle of uncured meat.
We didn't notice so much, though, when we decided to play on the flexibility of Reubens and make the mother of them all. Toasted Prussian rye from Whole Foods got a pile of Campbell's homemade pastrami, moist corned beef and round, thin discs of tongue, with sauerkraut, whole-seed mustard, and smears of Thousand Island and Hudson Valley foie gras. It was an insane creation, and a fine way to show that while home may be where the heart is, it's definitely where beef is what's for dinner.