Smoked Corned Beef is a delicious meal with aromatics of spices and herbs and the rich and salty brine giving it that signature red color. Making your own corning spices is pretty easy, it just takes time, some special curing salt, and an understanding of how the curing salt process works. Smoking the brisket when it’s all done adds to the rich flavor.
This post is sponsored by Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner on behalf of the Beef Checkoff, all opinions are our own. And our opinion is that this recipe is an awesome way to learn about curing resulting in incredible Corned Beef.
What is Corned Beef
Corned Beef is a salt cured beef cut that has soaked in a wet curing brine (versus dry brine for salami) for several days. The distinctive red color comes from a specific ingredient, Prague powder 1, and the mix of salt, herbs, and spices giving a distinctive aromatic and salty flavor.
While the root word evolved from German, referencing “small seeds” (like those used in corning spices), the English made corning more popular as a phrase referencing large rock salts used for curing. The Irish then continued with the popularity as English influence in Irish cuisine evolved. Irish immigrants brought the dish to America where it’s traditionally enjoyed boiled with cabbage, corning spices, and vegetables.
Our dish is smoked versus boiled for a distinct flavor. We also have an article about a Corned Beef Round if you are looking for ideas on other cuts.
Technically any beef cut can be used to corn, but certain cuts lend themselves to having enough intramuscular fat and thickness for good flavor and texture. The most popular is beef Brisket Flat-Half. A Beef Round Roast is another cut you will find corned.
For this recipe we use a 5-pound Brisket Flat that we have cut up from an entire full beef Brisket. Many butchers will have Brisket Flats already cut up. We recommend you call ahead to see if they have pre-cut Briskets available. Target 5 pounds based on the ratio for the wet brine that we are recommending in this recipe.
In the example we have below, we started with a large full Brisket, also called a packer trim Brisket, (because that was what was available to us) and trimmed it down to the 5-pound Flat-Half, which we are using for our Corned Beef.
One thing to note when deciding what cut you want to use is how much time you have to brine. The thicker the cuts (like those from the round or sirloin), the longer it takes for the brine to work its way through the interior of the meat. So, you either have to give it more time to work its way through the meat or consider injecting the meat with the brining solution in addition to soaking it.
Wet Curing versus Brining
Brining is a form of a “wet cure” used to add flavor and preserve foods. Brine is a salt-based liquid that you immerse meat into for additional flavor. Osmosis kicks in and the salt from the brine infuses with the cells of the meat to add flavor and moisture.
Adding sodium nitrite in the form of Prague Powder 1 (a mix of salt and sodium nitrite) also helps give a distinctive color to the Corned Beef. You will see that the salt will be a bright pink color. The color is meant to stand out, so you do not use this salt as table salt. It’s only meant for curing (not as an everyday table salt). The pink color on its own does not add any flavors.
As the meat sits in the wet brine, the nitrites help the curing beef retain a red color even when cooked all the way through, versus an ashen grey that can result from simply salting. The level of nitrites also inhibits the growth of food spoiling bacteria. So, in the case of Smoked Corned Beef, you see the distinctive red color from the resulting meats reaction to the nitrite.
Note that you should NOT substitute Prague Powder 2 for 1. Prague Powder 2 is intended for dry curing. Generally, when building the ratios for this recipe, we are using a 5-pound Brisket Flat Half and we are considering 4 quarts of water. Based on the weight of both the meat and liquids, we are using two leveled teaspoons of Prague Powder 1.
Corned Beef Spices
We’re using a combination of sugar, salt, herbs, and spices to provide a balanced yet very aromatic flavor.
- Water – We use 4-quarts as it makes the ratio for the curing salt easier with a 5-pound Brisket Flat Half.
- Salts – Kosher Salt and Prague Powder 1
- Brown Sugar – You can use dark or light brown sugar. You can also use cane sugar if you prefer. The brown sugar just adds a touch of the molasses element.
- Aromatics – Mustard Seed, Coriander Seed, Cardamom Pods, Bay Leaves
- Heat – Whole Black Peppercorns, Red Chili Pepper Flakes
If you planned to make traditional Corned Beef and cabbage, you would reserve 2 tablespoons of the Corned Beef spices to flavor the water boil.
Steps for Curing
As we mentioned, Curing Corned Beef just takes time. It is not overly complicated. And once you have selected your cut you can determine about how much time it will take to make.
- Make The Brine – In a large stockpot, add the 4 quarts of water. To the water add sugar and salts. Stir until the solids incorporate into the water. Finally add the Corned Beef Seasoning. Note – If you plan to boil your Corned Beef, this is the time to reserve 2 tablespoons of the spices to use for the boil. If you aren’t saving spices for a boil, then just throw all the ingredients in the pot.
- Boil – Bring to a boil, then turn off the burner. Stir the brine to incorporate the flavor from the spices. The heat helps the aromatics escape the seeds and spices versus leaving the water cool. At this point you can cool in the refrigerator or you can add ice to bring the temperature of the water under 45 degrees F.
- Trim – While the brine cools, this is a good time to trim the brisket of any excess fat.
- Brine – Once the brine is cool, place the Brisket Flat Half into the stock pot. You do not want to place the meat into a warm brine to prevent food borne bacterial growth. Store in the refrigerator while it brines.
- Rotate – Each day remove the Brisket from the pot and flip it over, and then re-submerge. This flipping allows a more even cure. If the Brisket floats, consider adding something heavy to the Brisket to weigh it down.
- Rinse – After 7 days for a Brisket Flat Half, and up to 10 days for a thicker cut, like a cut from the round or sirloin, remove from the brine. Rinse the beef of excess brine and pat dry with a paper towel. Discard the brine. Now it’s time to smoke it.
*As mentioned, you can inject the meat with the same brine solution and soak the meat to speed up the curing process. Injecting the meat can allow the cure to set in as little as 5 days. If you have a thick cut, or you don’t have a full 7 days to brine, inject the meat in 1-inch cubes using the brine to help incorporate the cure faster.
Steps for Smoked Corned Beef Brisket
- Prepare the smoker targeting 250 degrees Fahrenheit using a fruit wood like apple or cherry. Oak and hickory are good options if you want a more pronounced smoke flavor.
- Season the rinsed and dried Corned Beef with your favorite beef rub. We go light on the rub because there is already a good amount of salt from the brine. If you have any aversion to salt, consider a rub that is salt free or low salt.
- Place the Brisket Flat Half on the smoker, fat cap side down. Insert a meat thermometer probe into the beef and smoke, unwrapped.
- You will smoke the Brisket Flat Half until the internal temperature of the beef is 200 degrees F, or when the meat thermometer easily inserts into the Brisket Flat Half with little resistance. *Plan roughly one hour per pound.
- Remove from the smoker, wrap in foil, and place in a cooler with no ice. The cooler will allow the meat to rest while keeping the temperature of the rest over the 140 degrees needed for the safety zone. Remove the Brisket from the cooler and then slice to serve.
*Start checking the temperature of the Brisket when the internal temperature starts reaching 190 degrees. All Briskets cook a little differently, so you should always cook to temperature and not time. Probe the Brisket Flat Half in multiple places to make sure it’s the desired temperature.
Side Dishes for Smoked Corned Beef
While we grew up with boiled potatoes and cabbage, these sides bring the traditional element but on the grill.
Other Holiday Beef Inspirations
- Smoked Corned Beef (using a pre-Corned Beef Round)
- Corned Beef Sandwich with Guinness Spiced Au Jus
- Reverse Seared Beef Tenderloin
- Cottage Pie