Deli-cious: A Recipe for Corned Beef

Deli isn’t the bland-long-ago-sliced-meats-wrapped-in-plastic one finds at the local hyper-market. Who actually buys that stuff?

Deli – short for delicatessen – is the somewhat forgotten art of cured meats, the showpiece of 20th century Jewish urban restaurant culture.

If you’re in Toronto, visit Caplanski’s deli near Kensington or Panzer’s up north on the Jewish corridor of Bathurst St. In Montreal, hit Schwartz’s on the Main (St. Laurent) – wait in line, it’s worth it. In New York, go to Katz’s in the Lower East Side. Except for Caplanski’s which is relatively new, these restaurants are old and iconic centres of Jewish culture past and present.

In Halifax, well, unfortunately, there’s no where to go.

As a deli-loving Jew and former-Torontonian, I had to find a way to cure my favourite meats myself, because my mother was starting to suspect that the frequent flights back home weren’t to visit her. I decided to start learning how to make the delicious stuff here in Halifax.

I started with corned beef, which I consider the most-Torontonian of all possible deli meats (Montrealers have smoked meat, New Yorker have pastrami). “Corned” just refers to the salt brine used to preserve the beef – corns were bits of any thing, and you’ll use lots of “corns” of coarse salt in this recipe. It’s not strictly a Jewish food (more likely it is Irish in origin), and it is known as salt beef in Britain.

The most important ingredient in this recipe is the beef, and you’ll need to find a good supplier because deli-less Halifax also has no independent butchers. Brisket is the cut Jews like (apparently also Newfoundlanders and Texans) because it’s inexpensive and fatty, and is wonderful when cooked slowly. I ordered a few briskets at once from Oulton’s Farm in Martock (near Windsor NS), and their meat seems to be among the best in the province.  I hear the Newfoundland store may also be able to bring briskets in. Brisket is tough and useless unless you want to cook it a long time, which is why it is usually a cheap cut of meat.

Ok, let’s get to work.

250ml kosher/coarse salt
125ml brown sugar
15ml saltpeter
1 cinnamon stick, broken
5ml mustard seeds
8 whole cloves
5ml black peppercorns
8 whole allspice berries
12 juniper berries
2 crushed bay leaves
3ml ground ginger
2kg (circa) beef brisket

note: saltpeter is difficult to source as a consumer in Canada. It is a common preservative used in all manner of cured meats and sausages (potassium nitrate), but unfortunately, it is also an important ingredient in gunpowder. I called many pharmacists who at one time would have carried it in small quantities – and they all were very curious as to what I wanted to do with it; I said that if what I was making (i.e. corned beef) exploded, then something went very wrong. It is the ingredient that will give corned beef its normal pink colour – I left it out and other than the colour being all wrong, my corned beef was delicious. If you need pink beef, there are a few chemical suppliers in NS that will be able to source it for you. There are also butcher supply houses that would be able to mail order it.

1. add the brown sugar, salt and saltpeter (if used) to 2L of water and bring to a boil. Boil just until everything is dissolved, then turn off the heat. Add all the spices and let the mixture cool. Do not proceed to the next step until the brine is cool – if the beef cooks in the water, your corned beef will be ruined.

2. while the brine is cooling, trim the large areas of fat wherever possible – mostly from the bottom of the brisket. Do leave a little.

3. put the brisket into a bowl or bucket made of a non-reactive material (glass, plastic) – I found a food-grade bucket normally used for making wine was perfect. Cover the brisket with the cool brine from step 1. The brisket must be completely covered in brine – fill a glass jar with water to weigh the beef down and keep it below the water line. Put it in a refrigerator for 10-12 days. This is a long time.

4. After the 10-12 days have passed, remove the brisket from the brine and rinse it in cold water. Put the meat in a large pot and cover it with water. Bring the water to boil, and then reduce to a simmer. Simmer the beef for 4 hours.

5. Remove the beef from the water and serve. Cut into coarse slices, cutting against the grain of the meat wherever possible. May I recommend serving it hot, open faced on rye bread with some hot mustard? A little side of coleslaw or sauerkraut? A dill pickle?

My housemate came home just after I finished making my first batch and he found me dipping hot fatty pieces of the beef in mustard with my hands. He stared for just a moment before continuing on his way.

preserving notes: There’s only so much of this salty meat a healthy person should eat in a day, and to keep myself from having a sandwich every 5 minutes, I decided to freeze most of the meat and only take it out as needed. I cut the brisket into usable chunks (always cut against the grain) and wrapped it and froze it. I find it is still very good
after freezing. You could also just refrigerate, and as it is cured, it should last a good while.

If you’re interested in more deli news and lore – look for the book “Save the Deli” by David Sax. We went to summer camp together in Ontario long ago, and Sax knows more about deli than probably anyone on earth right now.

Next up: knishes. pastrami. chicken soup.

Adam Fine /

(Marla’s note: When buying beef, ask for grass-fed, NS beef.)

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