Dear Straight Dope:
We all enjoy corned beef on our reuben sandwiches, but how does one "corn" beef? What is the process of "corning?" Can I "corn" other things, like, say, corn?
Dex and Ken reply:
According to our dictionary, the “corn” in corned beef isn’t the pride of Iowa. It refers to the salt used to preserve the meat. Why don’t they call it salt beef then? We’ll get to that. First we’ll cover food production, then etymology.
We start around the year 700 AD, give or take a century, when salt production saw a great technological advance. Salt in those days was obtained by trapping seawater in a pond, closing it off, and waiting for the sun to evaporate the water. The great advance was building a series of ponds, with pumps and sluices. The water in the first pond evaporated a little, increasing its salinity, then was moved to the next pond, while a new batch of seawater was let into the first pond. Call it an assembly line, way before Henry Ford. When the brine became dense enough, the salt crystallized and fell to the bottom of the pond to be scooped out. The process probably took a year or more using only solar heat. Of course, this would be done most efficiently in an arid climate with no rainfall to dilute the ponds. The process produced coarse salt, nowadays also called “kosher salt,” not the fine-grained table salt you’re used to.
Now we leap to the Middle Ages, when the Irish started salting beef and pork. Basically, they de-boned the beef and soaked it in brine for several days (this is called “curing” or “pickling”). That was the origin of what is today known as Irish corned beef, sometimes called pickled beef. Corned beef was highly valued because it didn’t spoil. By the mid 1500s, Irish salted beef was traveling around the world. The French used it as a cheap, high-protein, durable food for slaves in the profitable sugar colonies of the Caribbean. The British navy fed it to sailors.
Later, the Hawaiian Islands took up the process, providing salted food to British, French, and American ships traveling the Pacific. Richard Dana, writing in Two Years Before the Mast in the 1830s, described the terrible salted beef that sailors had to eat in the Pacific, which they called “salt junk."
The name “corned beef” arose in the 1600s. “Corn” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for granule or pellet, referring to the grains of salt used to make the brine in which the beef soaked. As the Master has taught us, Europeans used the word “corn” to mean any common grain. When they came to the New World, the commonest grain was the maize the natives grew. Europeans called it “Indian corn” and later just “corn.”
Today, one distinguishes between Irish corned beef and English spiced beef. Either one is a far cry from the “salt junk” of two hundred years ago, partly because of modern refrigeration, which permits use of a much weaker brine. Less salt means a more palatable end product.
Recipes are available for making your own corned beef from scratch. You can find several online.
First, you need brine – water, coarse salt, and seasonings. An Irish recipe by Theodora Fitsgibbon, quoted by Mark Kurlansky in his wonderful book Salt: A World History (2002), calls for adding bay leaves, cloves, mace, peppercorns, garlic, allspice, brown sugar, and saltpeter to the brine. The meat is usually a brisket – ribs and meat from the chest of the cow – which you soak in the brine for a week. (Other recipes use other cuts of meat and different periods of soaking. One recipe we saw called for four days, another for four weeks. We presume it has to do partly with the amount of meat.)
After the soaking period, wash the meat thoroughly under running water to remove the surface brine. Then cover it with fresh water, add carrots, onions, and herbs, and simmer for five hours. During the last hour, add a half pint of Guinness, says Fitsgibbon. (To the meat, silly.) Serve hot or cold.
One caution: don’t use too much salt, a common mistake of beginners.
While we’re at it, pastrami is cured in a completely different way. There’s no brine involved, but rather a dry mix of sugar, crushed peppercorns, chopped garlic and coriander seeds (again, recipes differ). The pastrami is smoked for several hours, then simmered in fresh water or steamed.
Frankly, we’ll stick to buying ours at the kosher deli, thanks very much.
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