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Why do you soak corned beef in water?

Corned beef is a salt-cured meat that needs to be soaked in water before cooking to remove excess salt and bring out its full flavor. The soaking process, also called desalting, helps make the corned beef tender and palatable. There are several reasons why soaking corned beef in water is an essential step when preparing it.

To Reduce Excess Salt

Corned beef gets its name from the large corns of salt used to cure it. Salt acts as a preservative, helping to keep the meat from spoiling. However, too much salt can make the corned beef taste overly salty and dry. Soaking helps remove some of the excess salt from the meat.

During the curing process, the salt penetrates deep into the meat. Simply rinsing the corned beef does not remove enough of the absorbed salt. Soaking allows the salt to slowly diffuse out of the meat into the water. The end result is corned beef that is seasoned but not excessively salty.

To Rehydrate the Meat

The curing and cooking process draws moisture out of the meat, making it dried out. Soaking corned beef in water rehydrates the meat by allowing it to absorb liquid. This makes the meat more juicy and tender when cooked.

Water moves into the areas of the meat where moisture was lost during curing. Given enough soaking time, the meat can absorb up to 10% of its weight in water. Rehydrating the meat in this way allows the fibers to become more succulent when cooked.

To Soften the Meat

The salt and spices used to cure corned beef can make the meat tough. The high salt content causes proteins in the meat to become denatured, making it firm and dry. Soaking helps break down those proteins and restore moisture.

As the meat soaks, the muscle fibers absorb water, become more pliable, and loosen up. The end result is meat that is more tender and easier to slice and chew. With sufficient soaking, even the chewiest corned beef will become mellow and tender.

To Mellow Out Spices

Corned beef is often cured with strong spices like peppercorns, mustard seeds, bay leaves, and cloves. While these spices add great flavor, their flavors can become overpowering if the meat is not soaked. covering the meat with water allows the pungent spices to leach out into the liquid.

This mellows out the spice intensities and produces a more balanced flavor profile. The corned beef will still have plenty of seasoning, but soaking prevents it from being too peppery or strong.

To Equalize Curing

The curing process may not penetrate fully evenly through the cut of meat. Some areas may be more heavily cured than others. Soaking lets the salt and seasonings migrate through the meat until it is cured evenly throughout.

Given enough time, the denser, thicker parts of the meat will reach the same curing level as the thinner areas. This helps prevent some slices being way saltier than others. Overall, soaking leads to more uniform curing and seasoning.

To Develop Flavor

Soaking is about more than just removing salt and spices. It also enables subtle chemical changes that bring out new flavors. The water draws out meat proteins and other compounds that then mix and interact.

This mingling during soaking allows flavors to develop and bloom. The end result is corned beef with a more complex, rounded, and meatier taste compared to uncured brisket. Given the right soaking time, new aromas and tastes will emerge.

To Remove Impurities

The unpackaged corned beef may have picked up unwanted odors and flavors from the butcher shop or market. Things like plastic or rubber from storage containers can impart chemical notes. Soaking washes away these impurities.

Leaving the meat to soak gently cleanses it and results in a fresher, purer meat taste. This is especially important for commercial corned beef that comes in vacuum packing. A good soak ensures any “off” flavors are removed.

To Prevent Overcooking

Without soaking, the seasoned corned beef would cook up extremely salty and dry. To make the meat suitably moist and tender, you would have to drastically shorten cooking times. This often results in undercooked meat.

Presoaking means you can cook the corned beef thoroughly until tender without drying it out. The meat retains moisture so you can cook it properly all the way through without overcooking the outer areas.

How Long to Soak Corned Beef

To effectively desalt and tenderize corned beef, it needs to soak for an adequate amount of time. Here are some general guidelines for soaking times:

Corned Beef Size Soaking Time
2 – 3 lbs 6 – 8 hours
4 – 6 lbs 8 – 12 hours
Over 6 lbs 12+ hours

The thicker the cut of meat, the longer the soak required. Boneless brisket flats need less time than full briskets with bones. Refrigerate the meat during soaking to prevent bacterial growth.

How to Soak Corned Beef

Soaking corned beef properly is easy with just a few steps:

Use a Nonreactive Container

Place the corned beef in a nonreactive bowl, pan, or zip top bag. Avoid metal bowls that can react with the meat juices and lead to off-flavors.

Cover with Water

Add enough cold water to submerge the meat fully. Use at least 4 cups of water per pound of corned beef. The water should come 2-3 inches above the meat.


Keep the soaking corned beef chilled in the refrigerator at 40°F or below. This prevents microbial growth during prolonged soaking.

Change Water Periodically

Every few hours, drain the water and add fresh cold water. This helps accelerate desalting. The water will get cloudy as the salt and spices leach out.

Soak the Time Recommended

Soak for 6-12 hours or as long as needed based on the meat’s size. Larger briskets need longer to become fully desalted and tenderized.

Rinse Before Cooking

Drain off the water then rinse the corned beef. Pat it dry before roasting, simmering, or cooking.

Cooking Without Soaking

In a pinch, corned beef can be cooked without soaking. Keep the following tips in mind:

Trim Excess Fat

Trim off any thick external fat layers to prevent the meat drying out.

Cook in Liquid

Boil, braise, or simmer the corned beef in water, broth, or beer to keep it moist.

Use Moist Heat

Roasting unsoaked corned beef may cause it to dry out. Use moist cooking methods like steaming or slow cooking in liquid.

Add Vegetables

Cook vegetables like potatoes, carrots, and cabbage alongside the meat. They add moisture and absorb excess salt.

Slice Thinly

If the corned beef still ends up a bit dry after cooking, cut it into very thin slices to make it more palatable.

With these techniques, you can skip soaking in a time crunch. But for best results, always soak corned beef when possible.


Soaking is a vital step when cooking corned beef. It removes excess salt and spices from the cured meat. Rehydrating the meat also allows it to become tender and develop its signature flavors. Allowing enough soaking time based on the meat size results in corned beef that is perfectly seasoned, textured, and tasty.