Demystifying Corned Beef: The Step-by-Step Process Behind This Salt-Cured Meat

Corned beef holds a special place in many people’s hearts and stomachs. This salty, pink meat stars in beloved dishes like corned beef and cabbage, Reuben sandwiches, and hash. But have you ever wondered how exactly corned beef gets that distinctive flavor and texture?

The curing and cooking process transforms a tough cut of beef into the tender, robustly flavored meat we know and love. Let’s unpack how corned beef goes from brisket to brined to braised perfection.

What is Corned Beef?

Contrary to what the name implies, corned beef contains no corn. The “corn” refers to the coarse rock salt kernels historically used to cure meats, not maize.

Corned beef starts with a brisket – a cut from the cow’s lower chest. Brisket is naturally tough with fat marbling that needs to be broken down through wet curing and slow cooking.

The brisket is submerged in a brine solution for 4-10 days. This salty pickle-like mixture infuses flavor and tenderizes the meat. Spices like peppercorns, bay leaves, and mustard seeds add more depth.

The brined brisket is then simmered for hours until fork tender. Sliced thin across the grain, this deli delight can be enjoyed hot or cold.

The Step-by-Step Process Behind Corned Beef

Making corned beef is a simple process involving just two main steps – brining and cooking. But what exactly happens to the meat during each phase?


  • A fresh beef brisket is trimmed of excess fat. The brisket grain runs in one direction.

  • A brine is prepared. For commercial corned beef, it contains water, salt, spices, sugar, and curing salts like sodium nitrite.

  • The brisket is fully submerged in the brine solution for 4-10 days depending on thickness.

  • Salt penetrates the meat, dissolving tough muscle proteins. This tenderizes and firms the texture.

  • Spices and sugar impart flavor. Nitrites preserve the meat and turn it pink.

  • The brisket is removed from the brine, rinsed, and patted dry. It is now considered corned beef.


  • Corned beef must be gently simmered in liquid to finish cooking.

  • Aromatics like onions, carrots, celery, and garlic are added for richness.

  • The low moist heat breaks down collagen and fat into succulent gelatin.

  • Tough brisket transforms into fork-tender strands in 2-4 hours.

  • Some cooks include potatoes, cabbage, and other veggies during the last hour.

  • The cooked corned beef is sliced across the grain into thin pieces.

Specialized Ingredients in Corned Beef Brine

Commercial corned beef brines contain some specialty ingredients not found in your average pickled cucumber recipe. These play specific roles in flavoring, curing, and coloring the meat.

Pickling Salt

Table salt is too harsh. Pickling salt’s fine grains distribute evenly. The lack of iodine prevents discoloration.

Sodium Nitrite

Prevents bacterial growth and gives the pink “cooked” hue. Also imparts a unique tangy flavor.


Counteracts harsh saltiness. Caramelizes the exterior during cooking for a crust.


Whole peppercorns, bay leaves, coriander, mustard seeds, and allspice add layers of flavor.

Is Corned Beef Healthy?

Corned beef provides protein, iron, vitamin B12, and other nutrients. However, the high sodium and fat content should be considered. Corned beef is also processed red meat, which experts recommend limiting.

Enjoy corned beef in moderation along with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains for balanced nutrition. Pickled dishes call for celebration, so save it for special occasions.

In conclusion, corned beef’s signature flavor and texture comes from the salt-curing and slow cooking of brisket. Now that you know the secrets behind this timeless cured meat, you can better appreciate the care and craftsmanship involved.

This Is How Canned Corned Beef Is Really Made


Is corned beef highly processed?

Processed meat refers to any meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or using preservatives. This includes sausages, ham, bacon, salami, pate, and canned meat such as corned beef. It may also include other meats such as sliced luncheon meat made from white meat, such as chicken and turkey.

How is processed corned beef made?

Corned beef is most often made from beef brisket (a relatively inexpensive, tough cut of beef) that’s been cured in a salt brine with a mix of spices, like bay leaf, peppercorns, mustard seed, juniper berries, coriander seed, and whole cloves.

Is canned corned beef healthy for you?

Canned corned beef is a processed food high in saturated fat, salt and cholesterol—a type of fat that clogs arteries. Dr. Heena Akbar explains that these are all things that contribute to why diabetes and heart disease are more common in Pacific Island populations. “It’s processed, it’s fatty.

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