Wednesday, March 17, 2010
To Corn Beef--Part 1
I’m not a St. Patrick’s Day person. I love the color green, I like beer, and I love parades and festivities, but why do they all have to come together on this drunken, boisterous “holiday”? My good friend and next door neighbor is freshly imported from Ireland. He says they don’t even truly celebrate St. Patty’s over there, and he tells me that the British, not the Irish, eat corned beef. I know I’m being a cynical party pooper sitting at my laptop griping while many friends and classmates are out having a raucous time. Hey, I’m happy right here!
Fortunately, my fiancé feels the same way about these shamrock laden festivities. He probably abhors the holiday even more than I do. In fact we met three years ago exactly, on St. Patrick’s Day, in a loud bar. We were out celebrating with mutual friends. He was even less happy to be there than I was, as the drunk girls in mini-skirts poured beer down the back of our necks. The first thing he ever said to me was “I’m grumpy and I don’t want to be here.” We fell in love. Now we’re getting married, and I think I saved the relationship on its first day with corned beef.
Three years ago, I bought the beef pre-corned from the market and braised it on top of the stove with some cabbage and potatoes. Just as my relationship has progressed, I think my cooking skills have as well. This year I decided to make the corned beef myself. Luckily I have local guidance. I live in the same zip code as the wonderfully inspiring Michael Ruhlman. Ruhlman is a writer by trade but also an expert on food and chefs. He wrote the book Charcuterie on how to salt and cure meat, including corned beef. I put myself up to the Charcuterie challenge.
The secret ingredient to corned beef, it turns out, is sodium nitrite. For food preparation purposes, sodium nitrite is packaged as pink salt, curing salt or Prague Powder #1. Sodium nitrite is not easy to come by, and I spent two whole days in my car tracking it down. Even Michael Ruhlman himself didn’t know where to find it locally and suggested I buy it online. When I did find the illustrious pink crystals, the woman selling the salt to me told me not to touch it. How could I put something in my mouth that wasn’t safe to touch?!
Why is sodium nitrite crucial to the composure of corned beef? And is it really toxic?
Sodium nitrite has been used in food preparations for hundreds of years. Nitrites serve multiple purposes: they add to flavor, they both preserve meat and maintain the red color of the meat. Multiple studies show the effective bactericidal (bacteria-killing, just like homicidal is people killing) properties of nitrites when preserving meat.
In 1972, the Swift Company along with the FDA contaminated canned ham with various concentrations of Clostridium botulinum (botulism) and various concentrations of nitrites . They showed that with higher levels of nitrites, botulism was completely inhibited. Although ridding food of botulism seems benign now, botulism used to be a serious threat.
Nitrites are also known to destroy other bacteria as well, although the effect is more complex. The effect of nitrites on the highly pathogenic and sometimes deadly bacteria, listeria monocytogenes, is heavily debated. Listeria has been isolated from nitrite cured meats such as hot dogs. The current theory is that nitrites damage the bacteria, but do not kill it. Once the bacteria consume the nitrogenous compounds, they can rebound and grow rapidly after the shelf life of the meat has expired .
To make your own nitrated meat, Ruhlman was kind enough to publish the exact corned beef recipe on his blog this week. While I normally write my own recipes or adapt them significantly, I followed the corned beef recipe point by point. I had no idea how to make it! For the recipe, go here. Just make sure to have a lot of patience, and that you plan at least five days ahead of time. And to find out if corned beef is toxic…stay tuned for “To Corn Beef—Part 2”.
1. Christiansen, LN., et al. “Effect of nitrite and nitrate on toxin production by Clostridium botulinum and on nitrosamine formation in perishable canned comminuted cured meat.” Applied Microbiology, v. 25 issue 3, 1973, p. 357-62.
2. Nyachuba, DG.; Donnelly, CW.; Howard, AB. “Impact of nitrite on detection of Listeria monocytogenes in selected ready-to-eat (RTE) meat and seafood products.” Journal of Food Science, v. 72 issue 7, 2007, p. M267-75.