Corned beef and cabbage: not Irish, but it’s all good
Saint Patrick’s Day is here, and my family always celebrates with this Irish-American classic. Yes, corned beef and cabbage is technically Irish-American, not Irish per se: in Ireland, the locals didn’t have access to beef—apparently that more expensive meat got shipped off to England back in the day. So if you want a more authentically Irish dish, you’d be better off making lamb.
In much the same way, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the United States—with their green beer, green rivers, green everything—are nothing like the celebrations in Ireland. But, like many families in the U.S.—with or without roots to the old country—corned beef and cabbage is the dish that Phil and I have been eating since childhood to celebrate the holiday. So that’s the tradition we keep.
Another familiar moniker for corned beef and cabbage is New England Boiled Dinner, which is a bit more illuminating as far as the roots of the dish. Whatever you prefer to call it, corned beef and cabbage is just about the easiest slow-cooker-and-go recipe around.
I use the brisket-in-a-vacuum-sealed bag strategy, seasoning packet and all. These briskets are pre-brined to stay hydrated and tender during the long cooking process, but they do contain nitrates: someday, my mission will be to brine my own brisket. Saltpeter and other scary-sounding stuff is involved. For now, it’s vacuum packs for me. If you have your own recipe for brining a brisket, well—you’re my hero.
Preparing corned beef and cabbage: work ahead
I find that Guinness makes a darned fine braising liquid for corned beef and cabbage—especially for a good Irish-inspired meal. Don’t worry: it won’t taste like alcohol. The meat will put out quite a bit of juice on its own and the alcohol will almost completely cook off. (If you’re concerned, use beef broth instead.) For veggies, I use a bag of baby carrots, some red potatoes, and an onion.
Now, I’m going to level with you. Beef brisket is a one of those strange, formerly cheap cuts of meat that—even if you low-and-slow it for 8 hours—is still likely to come out tough. Why? Brisket is a cut that is chock-full of collagen, a protein found in large amounts in connective tissue, particularly in muscle. In order for meat to be tender, the collagen has to melt. And in order for the collagen to melt, the meat has to be heated to a certain temperature over a certain period of time. Melted collagen turns into luscious gelatin, which not only makes meat incredibly succulent, but also enhances its flavor.
I have made corned beef and cabbage for many, many years. For a number of those years, my corned beef came out at approximately the consistency of shoe leather. This is when I made the realization that 8 hours of low and slow isn’t enough. In fact, if I returned my shoe leather to the pot and cooked another 4 or so hours, the result was almost always fantastic. So at least the SECOND meal of corned beef and cabbage was awesome—not to mention the to-die-for Reuben Sandwiches.
As a result of this revelation, I have begun making corned beef and cabbage the night before. I put the corned beef in around 8 in the morning and let it go until 8 at night (removing the potatoes and carrots at 5 or 6), followed by a simple reheat on the stovetop the next day. (You may know from elsewhere on this site that I’m a big fan of making sauces and stews the day before anyway because the flavors have a chance to deepen and meld.)
Another result of corned beef and cabbage badness is undercooked AND mushy vegetables. Yes. You can have both if you add all of the vegetables at the beginning of an 8-hour slow-cook. Honestly, the safest strategy for the veggies would be to par-cook them (for example, steaming for 6-8 minutes until you can pierce them with a paring knife, but they’re still somewhat firm). Then add them to the slow-cooker with the cabbage for the final hour on high.
But I totally get it if you don’t have the time or energy to futz with the vegetables that much. You can totally add the potatoes, carrots, and onion—but don’t you dare add the cabbage!—at the beginning. The onion will dissolve away into nothing, but that’s not a big issue to me, since its main function is to flavor the meat and broth. The potatoes and carrots will likely be done after 8 hours (so in my 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. scenario, I would check the veggies at 6 p.m. and take them out if they’re done).
For the cabbage, I use a half of a large head (save the rest for stir-fry!) and cut it into wedges lengthwise, with the core still attached (you can see how I’ve done it in the photo). This keeps the leaves together. So in the run-up to the final hour of cooking, I remove the potatoes and carrots, put the meat in the bottom of the slow-cooker so it’s submerged in the juice, arrange the cabbage around it, and turn the slow-cooker to high. Cooked this way, the cabbage retains some of its texture rather than turning into non-descript, greenish mush.
After this final hour, I let the meat, juices, and cabbage cool down slightly before putting them in the refrigerator.
Remember that collagen I mentioned before? By now, it should all be melted. Putting the meat in the refrigerator gives the resulting gelatin a chance to redistribute and set up throughout the meat—a huge flavor boost, not to mention that the meat will be tender and succulent as a result.
The next day, I simply add everything to a Dutch oven and reheat over medium-low until everything is heated through. I let the meat rest about 10 minutes before slicing into it.
About slicing. It’s important to slice it against the grain. If you slice with the grain, you’re practically guaranteed stringy, tough shoe leather. As you probably know, “the grain” refers to the orientation of the muscle fibers. “With the grain” means that you’re cutting the meat along the length of the muscle fibers so that they stay intact and give you that nasty, tough, stringy texture. “Across the grain,” on the other hand, means that you’re cutting those muscle fibers up, which results in tender meat.
I also like to slice the meat fairly thin. I arrange the meat on a platter with the drained veggies and serve with Dijon mustard. I obviously like a ton of vegetables and just a few slices of corned beef (see photo). My motives are two-fold: first, it’s healthy, and second, I have more leftovers for Reuben Sandwiches. SCORE.
For the most part, this corned beef and cabbage method is more of a braise, since the meat sits up on top of the veggies and only has the lower 1/3-1/2 in the broth. While it’s cooking, the meat is continually basted by the juices that condense on the lid of the slow-cooker and drip back down on the meat. To me, the result is more flavorful and tender.
Sure, it’s a bit more work. But it’s totally worth it—and since it’s spread across two days, it’s very do-able. You can always choose to follow the standard 8 hours of low-and-slow: your results will still be delicious. Just remember that if the meat comes out tough, it needs more cook time. Suffer through a few thin slices of the meat, but put the rest back in the pot and cook it a couple more hours.
- 1 pound red potatoes, quartered
- 1 1-lb bag baby carrots
- 1 large onion, quartered
- 1 3-3.5-lb. corned beef brisket (with spice packet*)
- 6 whole peppercorns
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 14.5-oz can Guinness stout
- ½ of a large head cabbage, cut into wedges with the core still attached
- *If no spice packet is included, use 2 tsp. corned beef seasoning
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Rinse the brisket well under cold water and pat dry with paper toweling. I always cut off most of the fat cap, but I leave that up to you.
- Place the potatoes, carrots, and onion in the bottom of a 6-qt. slow-cooker. Add the brisket, fat side up. Pour the Guinness around the beef and sprinkle with seasonings. Add the bay leaves and peppercorns.
- Lid the slow-cooker and set on low; leave alone for a minimum of 10 hours and up to 12.
- After 8 hours, check the seasoning, adding salt and pepper as needed. Check the potatoes and carrots: remove if done. Cool and refrigerate overnight.
- During the last hour of cooking, add the cabbage and change slow-cooker setting to high. After an hour, remove the meat, cabbage, and juices. Remove any peppercorn or bay leaf Cling-ons. Cool and refrigerate overnight. Combine all vegetables, juices, and meat in a large Dutch oven and reheat on medium low. Remove meat when heated through and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Slice thinly against the grain and serve with carrots, potatoes, cabbage, and a dollop of Dijon mustard. Enjoy!