Ah, to be sure! Corned beef has a way of making us a bit Irish come this time a year. I'm not sure how the serving of corned beef came to be a St. Patrick's Day tradition but it certainly has. One local corned beef processor in my area told me that corned beef sales increase almost beyond belief come early March. It's more than just a day, you know. The "wearin-o-the-green" may be on the day itself, but the lit'l bit of Irish in all of us seems to seep out for the better part of two or three weeks, if corned beef sales are any indication.
I find it amazing that there is so much interest, and such a taste for corned beef - particularly at this time of year-and so little interest in corned anything else. Very few companies "corn" anything besides beef. One company, "Roberts," in my little corner of the world, corns legs of pork and pork hocks, but companies that corn anything besides beef seem to be rare.That's really a shame. There are all manner of meats that take well to "corning," whose flavor is remarkably enhanced by the process. Even beyond the legs of pork and pork hocks that Roberts corns, there are other cuts of pork - almost any cut of pork - that taste great corned before they're cooked.
In many parts of the world, lamb is routinely corned. Among the peoples of the USSR and some of the satellite countries, corned lamb and mutton are regarded as a delicacy. Corned beef tongue is a delicacy in my book, and if you haven't tasted corned turkey cooked on a Weber kettle over charcoal, you haven't lived. With all due respect to the Irish, there's more to corn than beef.
Corning is a term synonymous with curing or "salting." According to Master Chef Louis P. DeGouy in his book "The Gold Cook Book," "the word `corn' was synonymous back in the 16th century and prior thereto with the word `grain.' What we call corn was not known outside the New World in those days. About 1550, the manufacturers of gunpowders used the term `corned' to indicate that their product had been spread out and allowed to dry in single grains. Shortly thereafter, people applied the term to the sprinkling of grains of salt on meat in order to cure or preserve it. To this day, the word `corned' still stands to indicate the use of grains of salt in the curing of meat."
Corning meat of all kinds in your own kitchen is really simple and you can achieve some wonderfully tasty results. The only equipment you need is a good-sized (5-gallon) crock, or equally large plastic bucket and a little extra room in your refrigerator.
Some meats, country hams, for example, are "dry cured" by rubbing the salt with other curing ingredients over the meat, then letting them rest in salt for a period of time. But the best method to cure meat in your kitchen is in a brine solution. Salt, sugar and saltpeter* dissolved in water provide the basic brine or "cure" to which can be added different spices and seasonings depending upon personal taste and the meat you are curing. To the basic curing brine recipe given below you might add a tablespoon of whole black peppercorns, a few bay leaves, and a few cloves of peeled garlic for a beef brine; for poultry, a teaspoon each of sage, onion powder, and whole cloves might be good. Use your imagination with the seasonings.
The time it takes to cure meat depends on the type of meat and how salty you want it to be. The standard rule-of-thumb for most meat is a day of curing time for each pound. But since the curing we are talking about here is more for flavoring than preservation, much less time is usually sufficient. A sizeable pork loin resting in a seasoned brine for only 24 hours can take on a marvelous new and unique flavor.
-Chronicle Features, 1989
Basic Curing Brine
1 gallon water
1 pound fine sea salt
1/4 pound brown sugar
1 ounce saltpeter*
Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan or stock pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, add any desired seasonings and allow to cool. Place the meat to be cured in a crock - glass or plastic container of adequate size - and pour on brine. Weigh the meat down with some non-metallic weight - a large glass jar filled with water works well. Do not allow any of the meat to project above the curing brine. Cure one day per pound of meat, more or less, depending upon the meat. A thick piece such as a leg of pork may take longer. Thin cuts like spare ribs may only need a few hours or overnight.
After curing, rinse the meat with fresh water and pat dry before cooking. Brine cured "corned" meats can be grilled, roasted, barbecued, simmered . . . cooked in any way you would cook a comparable cut of fresh meat. And both before and after cooking they should be kept refrigerated just as you would fresh meat.
* Saltpeter: It's an interesting, if somewhat sad, commentary on our times that saltpeter (sodium nitrate or potassium nitrate) once available in any drugstore in the country, is now a little hard to find. Any druggist can, and probably will, order it for you - but few are apt to have it on hand. "I don't like to carry it," my local druggist told me. "It's one of the things people use to make explosives."