Salt beef, also known as corned beef, has different names and preparations across the United States. While some regions have distinct local names and styles for salt beef, the terms “corned beef” and “brisket” are the most widespread names for this salt-cured beef product in America.
What is Salt Beef?
Salt beef refers to beef that has been cured and preserved through a process of dry-brining or pickling in a brine solution. The term comes from the “corns” or large grains of salt used in the curing process. The salt acts as a preservative, infusing the meat with flavor and extending its shelf life. This was an important food preservation method before refrigeration.
Traditionally, salt beef was made from the brisket cut of beef, which comes from the breast or lower chest area of the cow. Brisket has a lot of connective tissue that breaks down into gelatin when cooked low and slow, keeping the meat tender. The brining process further tenderizes the meat.
Common Names for Salt Beef in the USA
Some of the most common names for salt beef in different regions of the United States include:
- Corned beef – The most widespread name, used across the country
- Brined beef – Also a common name, highlighting the brining process
- Salt beef brisket – Emphasizing it comes from the brisket cut
- Pastrami – When spices are added to make a deli-style pastrami
- Barbecue brisket – When smoked low and slow for Texas-style barbecue
- New England boiled dinner – When boiled with vegetables in New England
- Salt horse – A slang term used sometimes in New England
So while “corned beef” is understood everywhere, regional food cultures have adopted their own names and preparations for salt-cured brisket.
Origins of “Corned Beef” in America
Using the term “corned” to refer to salt-cured beef originated in 17th century England. It refers to the corns or kernels of salt used to preserve meat before refrigeration.
Irish immigrants brought corned beef and many other food traditions with them to America. It became strongly associated with Irish-American cooking. The popularity of corned beef hash for breakfast is one such example.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe also brought their own corned beef traditions. Their brined and smoked brisket style, known as pastrami, became a signature in New York Jewish delis. Now pastrami is seen by many as a quintessential New York food.
So while corning beef has roots in England, it was the Irish and Jewish immigrants that really popularized it in America.
Regional Names and Styles
While corned beef or brined brisket is found everywhere, some regions of the US have their own distinct names and preparations. Here are a few examples:
In New England, corned beef and cabbage is a traditional Irish-American dish. Sometimes it is referred to as a “New England boiled dinner.” The corned beef is gently boiled with vegetables like cabbage, carrots and potatoes.
New Englanders also slangily refer to corned beef as “salt horse.” This name may refer to the strong, briny flavor of heavily salted beef.
In the Midwest, corned beef may be called brined beef or salt beef brisket. Chicago and other Midwestern cities have a history of Irish immigration and corned beef is popular there. A classic Chicago sandwich filling is corned beef paired with Swiss cheese and sauerkraut.
Texas puts its own spin on salt beef brisket by smoking it low and slow to make Texas-style barbacoa or barbecue brisket. The meat is rubbed with spices, smoked for hours over wood, charred and sauced with barbecue sauce. Barbecue brisket sandwiches are a Texas specialty.
On the West Coast and in the Western states, pastrami is a more common preparation for brined brisket. During the California Gold Rush era and early 20th century, many Jewish immigrants came to California and the West. They brought a love of pastrami – smoked and spiced corned beef.
Pastrami on rye sandwich stacks are a classic deli staple in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas. Utah and Arizona also have strong pastrami culinary traditions.
The Northeast and New York
Like the West, New York City and the Northeast are strongly associated with Jewish deli-style pastrami. In the mid-late 19th century, many Ashkenazi Jews emigrated from Eastern Europe, especially Romania, Ukraine and Germany. They brought old world corned beef traditions that evolved into New York pastrami.
Pastrami in New York is defined by the abundant use of coarse pepper and spices, steam cooking, and serving rare on rye bread. The famous New York Jewish delis Katz’s and Carnegie Deli exemplify this tradition.
How Salt Beef is Prepared
While recipes can vary, salt beef brisket is essentially prepared through the following process:
- Selecting the cut: The brisket cut from the lower chest region of the cow is ideal for making corned beef because of its high collagen content.
- Trimming excess fat: Some of the surface fat is trimmed off the brisket, leaving a layer of fat to keep the meat moist.
- Curing with salt: The brisket is dry-brined by rubbing salt directly on the meat, or wet-brined by submerging in a saltwater solution known as pickle.
- Adding spices and flavorings (optional): Spices like peppercorn, mustard seed, bay leaves, cloves, allspice may be added to the brine solution or dry-brining salt for more flavor.
- Curing time: The brisket cures in the brine solution or salt mixture for 4-14 days. This tenderizes the meat and infuses salt flavor.
- Rinsing: Once cured, the brisket is rinsed to remove excess surface salt.
- Cooking: The corned beef is cooked by methods like boiling, steaming, braising, smoking – depending on the recipe.
- Slicing across the grain: Once cooked, the brisket is sliced across the grain of the meat fibers before serving.
The video below from America’s Test Kitchen shows the basic process for making homemade corned beef.
Corned Beef vs Pastrami
While both corned beef and pastrami start with a salt-brined brisket, they diverge in preparation and flavor profile:
|Brined in saltwater and pickling spices||Brined in salt, sugar, saltpeter and spices|
|Boiled, steamed or braised||Smoked and steamed|
|Slice across the grain||Sliced across the grain|
|Served warm or cold||Typically served cold|
|Beefy, salty flavor||Robust, peppery flavor|
So while both are made from brisket, corned beef has a cleaner beef flavor, while pastrami is spicier and more peppery.
Popular Dishes and Sandwiches
Some iconic salt beef dishes and sandwiches from around the United States include:
- Reuben Sandwich – Corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, Russian dressing grilled between rye bread. Originally from Omaha, Nebraska.
- Corned Beef Hash – A diner-style breakfast hash made with chopped corned beef, onions and potatoes. Often seen in New England.
- New England Boiled Dinner – Corned beef boiled with cabbage, carrots, potatoes and turnips. An Irish-American tradition.
- Pastrami on Rye – Thinly sliced pastrami stacked high on rye bread. A deli staple, especially in New York and Los Angeles.
- Chicago Sandwich – Corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut on rye bread. A Windy City specialty.
- Texas Barbecue Brisket – Texas-style smoked brisket dressed with barbecue sauce. An icon of Central Texas barbecue culture.
Buying Corned Beef
When purchasing corned beef, either vacuum-packed or from a deli counter, look for:
- Uniform pink to red color
- White fat marbling throughout the meat
- Firm, dense texture without dried or mushy patches
- Strong corned beef aroma
- No unpleasant odors
- Clean, clear cryovac packaging without holes or tears if pre-packaged
High quality corned beef should smell pleasantly beefy with a mild salt and spice aroma. Avoid any off smells. The meat should look moist and firm, not overly dried out. Prices range from $3-15 per pound based on the cut and quality.
Storing Corned Beef
For storage, fresh corned beef has a relatively short shelf life compared to other cured meats due to the lack of added preservatives like nitrites. Follow these guidelines for maximum freshness:
- Fresh corned beef lasts 3-7 days refrigerated.
- Vacuum sealed corned beef lasts 2-3 weeks refrigerated from the pack date.
- Store corned beef in the coldest part of the refrigerator, ideally at 32-34°F.
- Use a shallow dish to avoid stacking or enclosing the meat. This prevents moisture buildup.
- Rinse off brine and rewrap in fresh butcher paper after opening, if not using immediately.
- Cooked corned beef lasts 3-4 days refrigerated.
- Freeze for longer term storage up to 2-3 months. Thaw overnight in fridge before using.
Properly stored, corned beef stays fresh for a week or more. Cooked corned beef has a shorter fridge life of just a few days.
How to Cook Corned Beef Brisket
Corned beef brisket can be prepared using moist or dry heat cooking methods. Here are some common techniques:
Braising involves browning the corned beef first, then gently simmering in liquid for 2-3 hours until fork tender. Aromatics like onions, garlic, and potatoes can be added to the braising liquid. The flavorful cooking liquid makes a wonderful gravy or sauce.
A New England boiled dinner is made by simmering the corned beef in water or broth with vegetables for a few hours. Once cooked through, the corned beef is served with boiled potatoes, cabbage, carrots and other vegetables.
Steaming avoids drying out the corned beef by cooking in steam rather than boiling water. Place the meat over a steamer insert or vegetables. Cover and steam for 2-3 hours until very tender all the way through.
To make Texas-style smoked brisket, smoke the corned beef “low and slow” at 200-225°F for up to 12 hours with wood chips and charcoal. This imparts incredible smoky flavor to the meat.
Corned beef can be oven roasted uncovered at 325°F for about 1 hour per pound. Add aromatics like onions and garlic and baste the meat with pan juices as it roasts.
The meat is fully cooked when it reaches an internal temperature of 205°F. Slice across the grain before serving.
Beyond sandwiches, try serving corned beef in fun new ways:
- Corned beef hash – Chop and pan fry with potatoes and onions
- Eggs Benedict – Top poached eggs and English muffins with slices
- Pizza – Thinly slice and top pizza with corned beef, sauerkraut and cheese
- Tacos – Dice or shred corned beef and stuff into tortillas
- Salad topping – Thin slices on a spinach or wedge salad
- Appetizers – Dice and skewer for easy finger food
- Beans and cabbage – Braise corned beef with beans and vegetables
Get creative with leftovers! Corned beef makes great nacho or omelette fillings too.
Benefits of Eating Corned Beef
Corned beef offers some good nutrition, in moderation:
- Protein – A 3 ounce serving provides 15 grams protein to build muscle, enzymes and hormones.
- Iron – Corned beef provides heme iron, the most bioavailable form. This aids oxygen circulation.
- Vitamin B12 – Necessary for red blood cell formation and nerve tissue health. B12 is found only in animal foods.
- Zinc – Supports immune function and wound healing. Also needed for senses of taste and smell.
- Selenium – An important antioxidant that protects cells from damage and infections.
Be mindful of the high sodium content, about 800 mg per 3 ounce serving. Enjoy corned beef in moderation as part of a balanced diet.
Downsides of Eating Too Much Salt Beef
While delicious, regularly eating processed meats like corned beef does come with some health concerns:
- High in sodium, which may raise blood pressure
- Often contains nitrates/nitrites that convert to cancer-causing nitrosamines
- Heavily processed and high in saturated fat
- May increase risks for heart disease, diabetes and colon cancer
- Can contain other preservatives like lactates, phosphates, erythorbates
The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends limiting processed meat intake to just 18 ounces per week and avoiding nitrates/nitrites. Enjoy corned beef and pastrami sparingly as part of an overall healthy diet.
Corned beef enjoys popularity across America, from Irish-American New England boiled dinners to New York Jewish pastrami sandwiches. While regional traditions vary, both “corned beef” and “brisket” are common names for this salt-cured cut of beef brisket.
The rich, salty flavor of corned beef is cherished across the country. Just be mindful of health risks with too much processed meat. In moderation, salt beef brisket can be enjoyed as part of a varied, balanced diet.