I’ve always loved corned beef and its cousin pastrami, especially in Reuben sandwiches. As a child I always wondered how in the world they got the beef that pretty red color. And what in hell was with the “corned” part?
Years later, when I began to make my own sausages and salami, I occasionally came across recipes for corning beef, typically a brisket. At first I passed them by, as I don’t really buy beef.
But I do hunt deer and antelope and elk – and that might as well be beef, right? So I tucked away in the back of my mind the idea that I would make corned venison with a big leg roast. Someday.
That was in 2007, which also happened to be the last time I shot a deer; I killed two pronghorn antelope on that trip, too, and must say that I prefer these odd prairie goats to deer — mild and lamb-like, with an aroma almost floral. For those of you who hunt antelope, know that you need to get them chilled down as fast as humanly possible because, being high-strung and jumpy, antelope run hot. Add to this the fact that antelope hide holds in that heat like nobody’s bid-nez and you have a recipe for stanky, spoiled meat if you don’t watch out. Fortunately I had an understanding guide.
I digress. I never made corned antelope or venison that fall. Slipped my mind. (I did make a bresaola out of the backstrap of one of the ‘lopes that was fantastic even a year later, though.) Fast forward to a few weeks ago — and I think you know where I am going with this — and I find this hunk o’antelope buried in my box freezer. It was more than a year old. Thank heaven for vacuum sealers.
I opened the package and soon realized that the antelope was little worse for wear. Smelled OK, texture was fine. A tangent: Holly and I shot quite a few ducks and geese this year and I have been planning (hopefully) clever ways to prepare them, and I thought I’d make corned goose breast. Why not? OK, so that’s the reason I was again thinking about corning meat. This antelope roast was a sign: Do it now. So I did.
In the process, I learned a lot about ”corning.” Corn, as many of you might know, is what the old English called any grain. And back in the 17th century (or possibly earlier), the rock salt used to cure the beef was known as corns, as they were about the size of grains of grain. I suspect that we still call it “corned beef” because it just sounds better than “pickled beef.” Calling it pickled meat evokes the spectre of pickled pig’s feet, and even I turn my nose up at that one.
I used as a point of departure a recipe in Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie, a book I highly recommend when starting to learn the craft. Know that the essence of corning is curing the meat in brine. That’s it — you are preserving the meat in a salt pickle. Everything else is nuance.
Do you add flavorings to the brine? Yes, you do; it’s what makes your corned meat different from mine. Do you add sugar? Probably, as it softens the salty twang of a salt-only brine. Do you add nitrite? Yes. And this is where I defend the stuff: Nitrites are what give you that pretty rose color. Nitrites add flavor. And most importantly, nitrites defeat botulism, which is among the most toxic substances known to man.
Can you make corned meat without nitrites? Yes. But it will look gray, lack the proper flavor — and you will have a small-but-real possibility of dancing with your new friend clostridium botulinum. And it will be a brief dance. Do nitrites cause cancer? Not in the levels used in modern meat. The poison’s in the dose, like a lot of things. Booze for one. Fat for another. OK, I’ve said my piece. If you hate the notion of adding nitrites to your brine, leave them out.
Back to the corned antelope. Basically you make a tea out of salt, sugar, spices and a little nitrite, let it cool and soak the meat in it. How long? Depends. How salty is your brine? How big is your meat? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Five days is typical, but you might need to go as long as two weeks with a big honkin’ slab of brisket. But basically this is a pretty forgiving process. Leave it in as long as you think it will take the osmotic elves to reach the center of the meat. And then leave it another day or two.
On to the cooking. Strike that. I need to tell you that once the meat is brined it is at its most stable. It is, after all, very very salty now. Should you want to save it for later, leave it in the brine in the fridge for a week or two extra. But if you are thinking about doing this, you will want a strong brine.
Now on to the cooking. All you do is simmer ye olde hunk of meat in water for many hours until it is meltingly tender. Easy, right? Sorta. Trust me on the water thing, though — there is a ton of flavor in the meat and you don’t need to muddle things with fancy broths and sauces. Here are a few tips:
- Cut a piece off the roast and fry it to test. If it is only a little too salty for your taste, submerge the meat in water in a pot not much larger than the roast itself. This will prevent the osmotic elves from leaching out too much salt and flavor into the water.
- If you screwed up and the meat is not salty enough (again, you can cut off a test morsel), add salt to the cooking water to the point where it tastes like the sea. Remember to leave the meat in the brine longer next time.
- If you think your meat is REALLY salty — if you have left it in more than a week it might be — Use a larger pot of water, and the elves will take care of things for you.
How long to simmer? At least 3 hours, and up to 6 for a slab. Check on the water to make sure it still covers the roast.
Eat your lovely corned beef — or lamb, antelope, venison, yak, nutria or whatever — in slices, hot or cold. Mustard is a must. I like sauerkraut with it , too. Don’t gild the lily, though. Simple is best here.
You don’t need to have large lumps of meat lurking in the dark corners of your freezer to make a spectacular series of sandwiches — obviously this is best with fresh meat. But know that even after this antelope had spent 17 months in the deep-freeze, after the transformation of the corning process it was so good I’d happily serve this to anyone. Really.
This began as one of those, “why not?” experiments that turned out far better than I had expected. So good in fact that any deer hunter out there really ought to learn this technique — you will get far more enjoyment out of the leg roasts from your venison. The technique is simple: Brine your meat, then simmer it into tenderness. It takes several days, but it isn’t labor-intensive at all. Once cooked, the meat will last a couple weeks in the fridge, if you can hold off eating it that long.
A word on nitrates. I use them, for color, for flavor and for safety. Can you do this without pink salt? Yes, but your meat will be gray and you will lose some flavor. You can buy Instacure No. 1 online.
Makes 1 3-5 pound corned roast.
Prep Time: 5 days
Cook Time: 3 hours
- 1/2 gallon water
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/2 ounce Instacure No. 1 (sodium nitrite)
- 1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
- 1 tablespoon toasted coriander seeds
- 12 bay leaves, crushed
- 1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 6 cloves
- 5-6 chopped garlic cloves
- A 3-5 pound venison roast
- Add everything but the roast to a pot and bring it to a boil. Turn off the heat and cover, then let it cool to room temperature while covered. This will take a few hours.
- Meanwhile, trim any silverskin you find off the roast. Leave the fat.
- Once the brine is cool, find a container just about large enough to hold the roast, place the meat inside and cover with the brine. You might have extra, which you can discard.
- Make sure the roast is completely submerged in the brine; I use a clean stone to weigh the meat down. Cover and put in the fridge for 5-7 days, depending on the roast’s size. A 2-pound roast might only need 3 days. The longer you soak, the saltier it will get — but you want the salt and nitrate to work its way to the center of the roast, and that takes time. Err on extra days, not fewer days.
- After the week has passed, you have corned venison. To cook and eat, rinse off the meat, then put the roast in a pot just large enough to hold it and cover with fresh water. You don’t want too large a pot or the fresh water will leach out too much flavor from the salty meat — it’s an osmosis thing.
- Cover and simmer — don’t boil — the meat for 3-5 hours.
- Eat hot or cold. It is absolutely fantastic with good mustard and some sauerkraut on a sandwich.