You Should Sous Vide Your Corned Beef

St. Patrick’s Day just doesn’t feel like St. Patrick’s Day without corned beef, cabbage, and lots of beer and/or whiskey. I didn’t feel like sous vide-ing any whiskey—we’d already kind of done that before—but the super moist, low and slow cooking method seemed perfectly suited for the cured, salty slab o’ meat.

As you probably already know, the “corned” in corn beef has nothing to do with yellow kernels—it’s just another word for curing or pickling. “Pickled beef” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, though, so we’ll stick with the corn.

To get an idea of exactly how big of an impact my Anova would have on our pickled brisket, I bought three hunks of cow: two that were pre-packaged and already cured, and one untreated brisket (the flat cut portion) for curing at home.

Using Meathead Goldwyn’s curing recipe, I whipped up a mixture of salt, prague powder (sodium nitrate), brown sugar, pickling spices, and garlic. I then realized that the only container I had that was big enough to house such a situation was my produce drawer, so I moved my very impressive collection of fruits and vegetables (three clementines and one sad head of romaine) to a shelf. I then scrubbed the drawer thoroughly with the hottest and soapiest of water, gave it a good rinse, and filled it with meat and salty-sweet water.

I then covered the drawer with plastic wrap, shoved it shut, and let it live there, rent free, for a week. After seven days had elapsed, I removed the meat, patted it dry, and gave it a rub down with a mix of herbs and spices.

To make the mixture, I (mostly) followed ChefSteps rub recipe from this piece, but I didn’t have coriander (I used caraway) and didn’t have enough black pepper, so “85 grams” turned into “as much as I have in this little jar.” “Dill seed” also became “straight up dill,” because I had straight up dill and wanted to use it up.

Anyway. I rubbed my unique spice blend all over that beef, then sealed it in a vacuum bag. I then grabbed one of the store-bought beefs, sprinkled in the spice packet, and sealed it in its very own vacuum bag. While doing this, I noticed that the store-bought specimen had a slimy, kind of gelatinous feel to it that kind of creeped me out. (It just didn’t feel like meat.) This was probably due to the fact that it was treated with papain, a tenderizing enzyme that has all sorts of neat uses. Both beefs went into a 145-degree bath, where they stayed for a total of 48 hours.

About seven hours before the sous-vide beefs were due out, I grabbed the other store-bought corned beef and chucked it in the slow cooker, along with half a cup of water and the spice packet, as directed by the instructions. (Did I trust those instructions? No, but this corned beef was more a of a control than anything.) Once everyone had been in their cooking vessels for the appropriate amount of time, we were ready to taste.

I started by comparing the two pre-packaged pieces. As you can see from the above photo, the beef cooked in the slow cooker kind of shriveled up into a claw-like shape. It was also a quite dry, and not super flavorful.

The texture of the sous-vide sample however, was so tender, it was practically self-shredding, and started to fall apart while being moved from the bag to the cutting board.

The meat was super supple—almost too supple—and it had that “store-bought corned beef” flavor, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It was as good as a cheap grocery store corned beef can hope to be, is what I’m saying, though you could cut the time down to 36 hours if you want slices that hold their shape a little better.

I had weighed each piece of meat before and after cooking, and was surprised to find that they lost pretty comparable amounts of weight (about two pounds).

Though this one didn’t fall apart like the papain-treated brisket, it was still tender and juicy, and it had a better, slightly sweeter, meatier flavor, thanks to Meathead and ChefStep’s respective recipes. Rather than falling apart with a glance in its direction, this beef ate more like a super tender steak, if that steak had been pickled. Its only shortcoming were little greyish streaks of not-quite-cured beef, which had nothing to do with the sous-vide circulator, and could be solved with just a couple more days in the salty bath.

Whether you buy a pre-cured slab of brisket or corn your own, the immersion circulator is your friend. For a store-bought beef that’s been treated with tenderizing agents (such as papain), cook it sous-vide for 36 hours at 145℉. If you’re curing the beef yourself, increase the cook time to 48 hours. Don’t have that long? Don’t fret: If you’re using a store-bought corned beef, you can increase the temp to 180℉ and drop the time to 10 hours. (I haven’t tested this cook time and temp with home-corned beef, but you can always try 10 and go longer if needed.) The beef will have a slightly different, more “braised” texture, but it will still be tender, juicy, and—most importantly—corned.

This story was originally published in March 2017. It was updated on March 16th, 2021 to reflect Lifehacker’s current style guidelines. 

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