The corned beef was terrible, Mr. Flay said: “That smell!” It still is, too often: cheap cuts, cheaply preserved for a long life cycle. The chef Seamus Mullen got his first kitchen job in the cafeteria of his high school in northern Massachusetts in the early 1990s. He recalled the beef they used to make corned beef there. “It came out of a box labeled ‘Grade D, edible,’” he said. “Oh, man.”
But, look: The heart wants what it wants. St. Patrick’s Day looms, and for some a real and abiding desire for corned beef comes along with it. Mr. Flay sometimes serves the dish for staff meals in his restaurants. Mr. Heffernan, for his part, makes a corned salmon. Mr. Mullen, scarred by experience, does neither, although, he allowed, “It could be great.”
Credit Melina Hammer for The New York Times
Exactly! What if you could make a great corned beef? What if you could make it taste the way it does not in the Irish pubs of memory but in the reality you sometimes see in the hot baths of Jewish delicatessens, where it sits aside pastrami, its smoked and spiced cousin: ruddy pink and salty and fatty and meltingly sweet?
You can do it easily, said Michael Ruhlman, a passionate advocate of the process and the author, with Brian Polcyn, of “Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing.” You need only start by corning your own beef. “You can achieve tastes that aren’t available in the mass-produced versions,” he said. “Also, it’s a genuine thrill to transform plain old beef into something so tangy and piquant and red and delicious.”
Corned beef takes its name from the salt that was originally used to brine it, the crystals so large they resembled kernels of corn. Curing and packing plants in Ireland used that salt in the 19th century to cure slabs of beef that went into barrels, later cans, and onto ships to feed, among others, British colonists, troops, slaves and laborers across the globe. Eventually someone in Boston or the Bahamas fished out a cut of beef neck or a brisket and boiled it into submission with a head of cabbage, and that was dinner.
We live in different times. The curing process may now lead you down long alleys of taste experimentation as you consider what pickling spices to use in your brine: Coriander, mustard seed and black peppercorns, for sure, along with maybe allspice, ground ginger, bay leaves and cinnamon — or just a few tablespoons of a blend from a spice market or grocery you trust.
But it does require, Mr. Ruhlman suggested, that you go out of your way to find the curing salt that turns the meat pink: sodium nitrite. The substance was used originally to forestall the growth of bacteria. That may not be an issue for the refrigerated, modern age, he said, but it still delivers big, complicated flavor to home-corned beef.
It won’t harm you, he added, for the benefit of those who fear nitrates and nitrites. He was vigorous on this point. Mr. Ruhlman’s view: We already ingest a lot of nitrates in the form of vegetables that draw nitrogen from the soil. A few tablespoons of sodium nitrite added to a gallon of brine once or twice a year isn’t going to cause anyone problems. “It’s not a chemical additive,” he said. “It’s not red dye 40.”
Credit Melina Hammer for The New York Times
Micah Wexler, the chef and an owner of Wexler’s Deli in Los Angeles, agreed. “It’s an unnecessary freak-out,” he said, to worry about curing salt. “Never mind the preservative power. That stuff adds an almost indescribable flavor. It’s beefier than beef, more of itself. I don’t like that ‘umami’ word, but it’s there. You need it. It’s not like you’re sitting there eating the stuff with a spoon.”
So curing salt and pickling spices for the brine. Add a three- or four- or five-pound hunk of brisket to the solution, weigh it down and leave it in the fridge for five days or more. Corned beef requires forethought. It requires hardly any work.
Then when you are ready to cook, Mr. Wexler said, don’t boil the meat. Don’t get close to boiling it. Cook it at a bare simmer in liquid, or wrapped in foil in a low-temperature oven, “low and slow, for a really long time,” he said. Use science, he added. “Get a probe thermometer and use it,” he said. “We’ve found that if you want it on the tender, still sliceable end of the scale of doneness, well, that’s an internal temperature between 185 and 190.”
If you’re cooking in liquid, you can be a traditionalist and slide some cabbage and carrots into the liquid for the last hour of cooking — that is a boiled dinner in the New England tradition and a standard of the Irish-American canon, served with strong mustard. But you don’t need to. I told Mr. Mullen that I make a bright cabbage slaw instead, and use it for tacos, wrapping the meat and vegetables in flour tortillas.
“Yes,” he said, warming to the idea. “Not corn tortillas. That would be too fusion-y. I like it.”
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