A Beginner's Guide to Corned Beef and Cabbage

A Beginner's Guide to Corned Beef and Cabbage

Kelli Foster
Mar 7, 2017

If this is the year you finally make corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick's Day, we're here to help! From buying the ingredients to choosing a cooking method, here is everything you need to know about making this Irish-American classic.

Corned Beef & Cabbage: Start Here

If you're getting ready to cook corned beef and cabbage for the very first time, or even if you need a little refresher, this guide will walk you through everything you need to know.

We're starting at the very beginning and introducing you to the essential items you'll need to pick up at the grocery store, and what to expect when they eventually hit your plate. We'll take you step by step through the process of prepping and cooking corned beef, and give you a few ideas on what to do with all the leftovers.

What Is Corned Beef and Cabbage, Anyway?

As we near the middle of March, mentions of corned beef and cabbage start to turn up everywhere. But what exactly is corned beef? How did it become associated with this holiday? And what on earth does it taste like?

The short story: This meal of seasoned, brined brisket with braised or boiled cabbage has been associated with the Irish-American community since the 19th century when corned beef became an affordable cut of meat, replacing more expensive salt pork.

Read more: Here's Why We Eat Corned Beef on St. Patrick's Day

What Does Corned Beef Taste Like?

Corned beef is typically made from brisket, but it doesn't quite taste like ordinary roast beef, thanks to the brining process it undergoes. The meat is cured before it's cooked, and so just like any other cured meat such as salami or bacon, it takes on the strong flavors of its curing agents. Corned beef hits the dinner table with a soft, tender texture and a balanced taste that's salty, spiced, sour, and meaty all at once. The briny flavors are assertive, but not overwhelming, especially when balanced with earthy wedges of boiled cabbage and mild-mannered potatoes.

The Key Ingredients in Corned Beef and Cabbage

A successful corned beef and cabbage supper starts at the grocery store. Corned beef is traditionally made with brisket; you can buy it pre-brined and ready-to-cook.

If you're feeling ambitious, you can buy the brisket and cure it yourself at home.

In addition to the classic green cabbage sidekick, starchy potatoes are a nice accompaniment. Carrots and onions are typically cooked along with the meat for more flavor.

The Corned Beef: What to Buy and How to Prepare It

No, corned beef isn't a prime cut of beef you've been overlooking at the grocery store — it's what we call the resulting meat, most often brisket, after it's undergone a long curing process. The meat is cured using large grains of rock salt, or "corns" of salt, and a brine. It's then boiled or slowly cooked, turning a tough cut of beef into one that's super tender and flavorful. The "corning" is what gives corned beef its unique, briny taste, infusing the beef with a salty, sour, spiced flavor.

If you're planning to cook corned beef, you have two options for buying the meat. You can buy a ready-to-cook corned beef that's already cured, or you can buy a beef brisket and cure the meat yourself. Each has its own merits, but time is a huge deciding factor. It takes at least seven days to brine your own corned beef, but you're in control of the flavor. Purchasing it pre-brined is more convenient, but there aren't many options available in terms of seasoning and size.

How much to buy: While our golden rule is eight ounces (or a half-pound) of meat per person, corned beef is an exception, since this cut will significantly cook down. When buying a brisket for corned beef, plan on about 3/4 pounds per person, or up to one pound per person if you want to make sure there are leftovers for things like sandwiches and hash.

Curing Corned Beef at Home

Have you ever brined your turkey at Thanksgiving? How about weeknight pork chops? Using a brine to cure brisket for corned beef is no different. The toughest part is starting early enough to give it sufficient time to cure. For a four- to five-pound brisket plan on at least seven (and up to 10) days to cure the meat.

The brine is made by heating water, salt (kosher or curing salt), and a combination of spices (like peppercorns, whole cloves, mustard seeds, and juniper berries, among others). Once cooled, the meat is submerged in the liquid and stored in the refrigerator for about a week.

Try it: How To Cure Corned Beef

Buying Ready-to-Cook Corned Beef

If you prefer to skip curing a brisket at home, there's an easier way to make corned beef. Look in the meat section of the grocery store for ready-to-cook corned beef. You'll find it packaged in a vacuum-sealed bag in brine, weighing an average of three to five pounds. Ready-to-cook corned beef can be cooked exactly the same as one that was cured at home.

For better slices, rest the meat first: Slicing through a hot, tender brisket is a messy affair. Want to get nice, firm slices of corned beef? Give the meat about 10 minutes to rest and firm up before taking a knife to it.

The Cabbage: What to Buy and How to Prepare It

Cabbage is traditionally boiled alongside the beef and served on the side. One medium head of standard green cabbage (about two pounds) is enough to get the job done.

Prevent mushy vegetables by cutting large pieces: In addition to cabbage, potatoes and carrots are popular additions to the dish. Because of the lengthy cook time, vegetables cuts into small pieces have a tendency to become mushy. Avoid this by cutting cabbage and onions into quarters and carrots into pieces a couple inches long.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy )

Cooking the Corned Beef and Cabbage

It doesn't matter whether you cured the brisket at home or bought a ready-to-cook corned beef, the cooking methods are exactly the same. The easiest and most basic cooking methods for success are simmering corned beef and cabbage on the stovetop or preparing the meal in the slow cooker.

The Stovetop Method

Corned beef is traditionally covered with water, brought to a boil, and then covered and gently simmered on the stovetop over low heat, with the cabbage added in the last 30 minutes of cooking. A three-pound corned beef takes about three hours to become ultra-tender.

For corned beef that's soft and tender rather than tough and chewy, it's important to cook over low heat and make sure the meat is always fully covered with water.

The Slow Cooker Method

If you prefer a hands-off approach to corned beef and cabbage, get out your slow cooker. Cover the meat with water and mix with chopped onion, carrot, and spices. The low, slow cooking leaves this otherwise tough cut of meat super tender and soft. Depending on the size of the meat, this method will take about eight to 10 hours, cooked on low, with the cabbage added in the last couple hours of cooking.

A recipe for both cooking methods:

How To Make Corned Beef

Finishing Touches Make the Meal

If you want to keep it classic, fill your plate with slices of corned beef, a wedge of boiled cabbage, thick potatoes, and a big dollop of grainy mustard. Not a fan of boiled cabbage? Take cabbage in another direction instead. Consider roasting thick wedges topped with strips of bacon, swapping it for roasted red cabbage paired with a mustard vinaigrette, or even a raw cabbage slaw. Fantailed Hasselback potatoes make a nice stand-in for boiled spuds, while creamy kale is a festive green addition to the table.

While corned beef isn't tough to prepare, it does take more work than your average weeknight dinner. But you'll be rewarded with a totally satisfying meal and plenty of leftovers. Sure, you can enjoy this iconic meal a second time around, but remember that corned beef is versatile and can be easily reimagined into meals from breakfast through dinner.

Put the leftovers to work: 10 Ways to Enjoy Corned Beef This St. Patrick's Day

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