It’s all about osmosis. The movement of water molecules from a place of their abundance to one of their scarcity across a selectively permeable membrane. Lest we forgot the last part in italics – I can still hear my adored Biology teacher from senior school putting a heavy emphasis on that part. We’d already learnt about the diffusion of molecules, any old molecules from a high to a low concentration and learning about osmosis was the next step up on the ladder to Biological enlightenment. And oh how I loved every moment of those classes. How I treasured every lesson she taught me, how I hung on her every word.
She nurtured my love of science and helped mould me when I turned my back on a career in the arts for a career heavily, but not entirely, based in science. Little did I know how when I was a teen sat on my high wooden stool behind the lab table, taking down every symbol, every word of her magical teachings from the rollable chalkboard that osmosis would not only explain so much of the basic science I still had to imbibe myself but also how this humble joint of brisket would turn into the most succulent salt beef I could imagine. It knocked the corned beef of my childhood, eaten as a hash or in sandwiches with brown or curry sauce (I was an odd child) out of the park.
It’s taken me some time to finally make my own salt beef. I’d umm’d and ahh’d until I’d almost given up on the idea until one day, a friend shared this link from which my recipe is very much inspired, if not adapted from. Alex, the wee little Irish fairy as I like to call and think of her posted it in my foodie group and it was descended upon like bears to honey. In the UK, a great many of us only know salt beef as corned beef, which only comes in packets like processed sliced ham or in cans.
Salt beef doesn’t really exist outside the foodie community at the moment unless you’re well travelled, culinary if not geographically speaking. It’s a great shame but as more of us make our own at home to spread the word alongside the odd cafe or restaurant in London I’ve heard of specialising in salt beef, hopefully it will catch on. As it is one of the tastiest savoury things I can possibly imagine eating.
Much of the online reading I did about how to go about making my own salt beef was somewhat contradictory. Some sources brined their meat in a specific solute (spices) to solvent (water) ratio, others were far from precise. Some brined for a mere 48 hours, others 2 weeks. Some didn’t brine their meat by immersing in water but simply rubbed the spice blend into the meat and turned on a fairly regular basis over the course of a week or so.
The exact blend of spices used varied from two or three key ingredients to a very long shopping list of exotic whole and ground spices. Don’t even get me started on which type of salt to use and the reasons for your choice. In the salt beef world, the is a special and recherché sort of salt called saltpetre which is used primarily for the purpose of turning the brined meat a pinky-red colour which always made me think it was somehow raw meat as a child.
So it is mainly aesthetic. Some sources claimed it was to do with food safety and implied that using this salt in some way was safer than the common or garden sea salt we all have in our cupboards today. I am not convinced of that but I won’t say to much more as my evidence base is lacking. Other writers yet warn about using saltpetre as it can be toxic in too high a quantity and needs to be measured with precision. For me, I decided to go without the first time as a control experiment if you like and see whether I thought if my beef was lacking. The one interesting thing I would say is for those recipes who only used saltpetre, the amount of salt used was a tenth of the amount of sea salt.
Please do what you feel happy with. Recently, a fellow doctor tickled me by saying, hands palms up towards the sky, eyes gazing upwards “it’s all witchcraft, JoJo” regarding medicine in general and I couldn’t help but cast my mind to my brisket, bobbing about in its sterilised container in my fridge…
There are two things I personally feel you should know and think about before you buy your brisket, the cut of choice for this recipe. One, it is more moreish than you could know by the sight of it in brown, spice heavy sludge-like water in your fridge for its brining time and two; you lose almost half the quantity of meat by the process of brining so buy a bigger piece than you think you will want.
You see the magic of osmosis is that when you bathe your fresh brisket in a very concentrated solution of salt, sugar and spice, the water in the meat (remember how every living thing is made up of more water than seems plausible) diffuses out of it, across the meat cell membranes (the selectively permeable membranes) to try and dilute the brine. In return, as the concentration gradient evens out between the meat and the brining liquid, the spices diffuse into the meat and lend their flavour.
It really blew my mind when I pulled a still hot piece of brisket away once it was cooked and allowed the taste sensation to dance on my tongue. I just could not believe that with no effort at all from myself, I’d produced such a richly spiced piece of beef that didn’t at all taste salty, just rich in star anise, cinnamon bark, fennel seed, all spice berries, multi-coloured peppercorns… My, I am sad that it’s all gone now!
When it’s time to finally eat your salt beef, there are a few ways to go. Cooking potatoes and cabbage in the beef stock and serving hot would give you a classic Irish, homely meal. Hubby is not enthused by boiled potatoes nor cabbage sadly. We piled shreds of meltingly soft beef onto freshly baked rye bread spread generously little home-made mustard mayo, studded with minced up dill pickles and slices of habanero spiked cheddar before showing to the grill, topping with another slice of rye making a sandwich fit for heroes!
I’ll be sharing the marbled rye loaf recipe with you next post – Laurie didn’t have a digital copy of her recipe so I did some research and came up with my own. You’ll have time to kill whilst waiting for that brine to do it’s thing anyway. Another way we had it was as a traditional, northern corned beef hash – which is essentially chopped up pieces of salt beef folded into mash potato and topped with more cheese which is then grilled to finish.
You’ll find different versions all over the UK but this is how me and Hungry Hubby’s families have done it all our lives and I must say, I never thought it was a dish which could be surpassed until I tried it with this osmotically active, superbly spiced salt beef.
- Approx 1.5kg brisket
- 2 tbsp mixed peppercorns
- 5 dried red chillies
- 1 tbsp allspice berries
- ½ tbsp mustard seeds
- 1 tbsp coriander seeds
- 4 bay leaves
- 2 star anise
- ½ tsp whole cloves
- ½ tbsp dried thyme
- ½ tbsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp ground mace
- 2 crumbled cassia bark cinnamon will work too
- 150 g sea salt see blog post for more info on types of salt
- 125 g demerara sugar
- 1 onion quartered
- 1 large carrot cut into large chunks
- 2 ribs of celery cut into chunks
Find a pot big enough to take your brisket and some water around it and clean and dry very thoroughly. A large tupperware is great as the lid will be air tight.
Toast all your spices briefly in a large saucepan until you smell the aromas they release – I would stir constantly as some of the spices are delicate (like the whole chillies) and will burn if left unsupervised.
Add 2 litres of water, the salt and sugar and bring to the boil. Simmer for 5-10 minutes then take off the heat and leave alone until completely cold. Do not be tempted to put your beef in warm brine! I chilled mine until fridge cold before popping the beef in.
When ready to submerge the meat, I found it useful to take a small ramekin and use it like a wedge – once the lid was on the pot, the beef was held under the liquid completely. You need to ensure it remains submerged for the full length of time you brine it.
Seal the lid very well and tuck away in your fridge for at least 5 days – I left ours 10. Turn half way through to ensure a more even infusion with the spices.
When ready to cook, remove your beef from the brine and wash it very well. It will have firmed up considerably and will appear a little shrunken. Discard the brine and spices. At this point, you could take the beef and soak just in cold water over night in the fridge if you are concerned it may be too salty. I don’t think it’s necessary but this is one of the techniques I discovered online in my research.
Pop in a large pot or casserole with the fresh vegetables and top up with fresh cold water then bring to the boil. Turn down to a simmer and cover, cooking for approx 3 hours until the meat is fall apart tender. Remove from the stock and drain on a rack briefly before flaking off chunks to eat warm. When cold, it is just about sliceable. See blog post for serving suggestions.