The idea of magic, of alchemy, of starting with one substance and transforming it into a completely different substance has fascinated me since I was a little girl, and I couldn’t help but think of that as my husband and I used a mysterious solution to transform brisket into corned beef a few weeks ago.

Corned beef is beef cured in a brine for a few days, then braised. The “corn” in corned beef refers to the grains of salt used to cure it.  We followed a recipe in our trusty tome, blending a gallon of water with two cups kosher salt, a half cup sugar, five teaspoons pink salt, garlic, and a spice mixture (containing peppercorns, mustard and coriander seed, red pepper flakes, allspice berries, mace, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaves, and ginger).

After the brine cooled, we put the brisket in and weighted it down with a plate to keep it under the brine. Five days later, thanks to the pink salt, which contains nitrates, we had transformed a 5-lb slab of beef from something pale pink grey to a brilliant red corned beef ready to be made into a boiled dinner. (Note: it’s called a boiled dinner, but don’t ever boil it. Boiling meat dries it out. Instead, simmer…)

Here’s the odd thing: my husband and I are very adept at braising, so we kept the meat at a simmer, but it failed to loosen up the way a brisket usual would. Instead, the meat stayed firm. We went whole-hog on it, setting it in the oven overnight at 250 degrees in its enameled cast iron. In the morning, it was still tough.

Perhaps the lesson here is that, in cooking and in life, some things stay tense no matter how much time you give them. The resulting brisket, which sliced well but was perhaps a little dry at the edges, went into sandwiches laden with homemade sauerkraut and corned beef hash over the next week.

We still have the other raw half in our freezer, so next time we’ll braise it for 3 hours instead of 10.

The Alchemy of Corned Beef
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