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Sous Vide: Corned Beef (and Cabbage)

When people say corned beef, the phrase "with cabbage" is almost always attached to it. If you don't like cabbage, you still have options!

Ingredients

Cured (corned) beef brisket, anywhere from 2 lbs/1 Kg to whole: approximately 15 lb/6.8 Kg.

Carrots, 0.5 per person served.
Celery, 0.5 stalks per person served.
Onions, 0.25 per person served.
Potatoes, Russet or red, 3 oz/90 g per person served.
Cabbage, 6 oz/175 g per person served–approximately 1/6 head.

Butter, 1 oz/30 g per person served, melted at service.

Parsley, chopped, 1 teaspoon per person served.

Horseradish, prepared, 1 oz/30 g per person served.

Equipment requirements

Immersion circulator, portable or stationary.
Heat rated container, minimum of 2 gallons/8 liters.
Heat rated sous vide bags.
Channel or chamber vacuum device.
Ziploc gallon freezer bags.
Vegetable peeler.
Manual or mechanical slicer.

Serves 2-3/lb or 4-6/Kg.
Level of difficulty 2.75

Procedure:

Handling an entire corned brisket:

Some savings can be realized if you opt to buy an entire corned brisket at one of the big box stores. Although the cut is usually around 15 lb/7 Kg, if you divide the cut into seven packages you will have just about enough to meet your needs over an extended period of time. Sealed in the pouch and properly chilled, the corned beef will keep refrigerated for at least two weeks. Frozen, it will keep indefinitely. I usually turn some into pastrami, linked HERE.

Above: from the skin side. The left end is where the cut connects to the shoulder. The right end becomes the belly.

That ribbon on the bottom is where the cut connects to the sternum/breast bone.

With the skin side down. The “flat” is most plainly visible, with the large coarse grain. The point is on the right end, concealed under the flat.

Needless to say, there are many ways to break down the brisket. Many butchers and pitmasters separate the point from the flat, which makes it easier to remove the layer of fat that sits in between them. I try to cut 2 lb/1 Kg pieces that make it intuitive to slice against the grain. The lean pieces from the left side are the flat, a little dry by nature. The fatty pieces on the right I rub with pastrami seasonings and then smoke.        

Preparing the vegetables:

Assuming you plan to prepare the traditional corned beef and cabbage meal, the vegetables can and should be prepared in advance. They can then be conveniently shocked cold and stored in the refrigerator. Sous vide vegetables require much higher temperatures than proteins, so they do not usually share the sous vide vessel. If you have more than one sous vide device, you have more flexibility. I will assume that you do not. Yet! I have several, but my situation is admittedly a little different. Even so, I usually do the vegetables before the corned beef, so there is less scurrying on the day of service.

Preheat the sous vide bath to
183 F/84 C.

Peel the carrots and cut into bite sized “barrels.” Save the peels and the ends for the stock. Use the vegetable peeler to lightly strip away the tough part of the celery on the outside surface (optional, but easy). Cut the celery into pieces approximately the same size as the carrots. Again, save the trim.

Cut the STEM end of the onion off.

Cut the onion in half along the spine. The root end serves to hold the onion intact. Cut each half into thirds and peel. Carefully trim the roots.

Combine the trim from the carrots, celery, and onions and put in a Ziploc gallon sized freezer bag. Add the packet of kernels that came with the corned beef. Put the bag on top of the water in the bath and gradually add 2 qt/2 L water to the bag–it will slowly sink. Drape the opening over the edge of the container and secure with the lid. (not shown).

Trim the outer leaves from the cabbage and cut along the spine just like you did with the onion–the root end will keep it intact. Cut each half into three wedges. Stage the cabbage into a vacuum or Ziploc gallon bag and add 2 cups/500 ml water to the bag. Seal if possible or lower the bag into the bath and drape the opening over the edge of the container.

Peel the potato and cut into quarters. Seal the carrots, celery and onions in vacuum pouches and stage into the bath. Seal the potatoes in a vacuum pouch and stage into the bath. Set the timer for 45 minutes.

When the time has elapsed, shock the bags cold in iced water until they achieve 70 F/21 C. Refrigerate to 40 F/4 C until day of service.

Processing the corned beef.

Preheat the sous vide bath to
140 F/60 C

Stage the corned beef into heat rated vacuum bags. The size of the roast has very little effect on sous vide processing time intervals. However, a full sized brisket may not fit in a standard sized bag without being cut in smaller pieces. I recommend processing pieces approximately 2 lb/1 Kg for several reasons.

Smaller pieces are easier to handle, easier to shock cold and easier to store. Remember–as long as the seal is not broken on a properly processed and chilled protein, it will keep refrigerated for at least two weeks. Once the seal is broken, food safety guidelines suggest that it be consumed within four days.

Going big?

A full sized roast will not take significantly longer than a 2 Kg roast–usually a matter of a couple of hours or so. Sous vide time intervals are almost indifferent to bulk and are mostly dependent on the shortest distance from the surface of the specific protein to its geometric center. The temperature parameter remains exactly the same, regardless of the size of the roast.

If you are determined to process a whole corned brisket, extra large sleeves will be required. They are available on line. Sealing the extra large bags can also present a challenge. They are usually sealed twice, at opposing angles. First, the empty sleeve is turned at 45 degrees to seal half of the opening on the Foodsaver heat bar. The bag is turned and the remaining “half” opening is sealed.

After loading the whole roast into the large sleeve, the other end of the bag can also be sealed at angles. Vacuum is only applied for the last step. Sans vide is another good option for this–one end of the bag is sealed at angles, but the other end/opening is draped over the edge of the tank and secured by the lid.

Anticipating the holiday

Once you have loaded the corned beef into the appropriate pouch, stage the sealed roast into the sous vide bath. Set the timer for 48 hours. However, the process is more likely to take 72 hours. Time determines tenderness, but the clock cannot be used to MEASURE tenderness–more on that in a moment. If you are planning on serving corned beef on St. Patrick’s day, you should start it no later than the evening of March 14th, because the holiday falls on March 17th.

Sous vide should never be rushed any more than a barbecue should be rushed. There is a reason that the temperatures used are lower than conventional methods. The higher the temperature used, the greater amount of moisture is released from the meat, and the more overall damage to the protein matrix occurs. However, if you have no other choice, the corned beef can be sous vide processed at 165 F/74 C for approximately 24 hours with acceptable results–you will notice that there is a lot more liquid in the bag at the end of the process..

Pinching goes with St. Patrick’s day

Rather than pinching people who are not wearing green, you should use the pinch/poke method linked HERE to determine if your corned beef is properly tenderized. Sous vide is very forgiving and there is no precise “moment” before which the roast is under cooked or after which it is ruined. Sous vide intervals are always open to a certain amount of interpretation and preference. Temperatures should always be used with attention to precision.

Once you have determined that your corned beef is appropriately tender, reduce the temperature in the bath to
129 F/54 C.

This will stop the tenderization process. Conversion of collagen to gelatin is the difference between tough and tender, and this conversion does not occur in significant amounts below this temperature.

At this temperature, the corned beef can be kept hot safely in the bath for 24 hours, or even longer. Its quality will not deteriorate. How can this be? The corned beef is pasteurized, so any bacteria present have been disabled, and meat will not  autolyze (“spoil”) at this temperature.

Most sous vide operations include a finishing step that involves searing or smoking the otherwise finished product. Because of the rustic traditional presentation, corned beef is one of very few sous vide items that I recommend to serve “right out of the bag.”

If your corned beef is ready and you intend to serve immediately, skip the Preservation step and proceed to “Service.”*

Preservation:

When the processing time has elapsed, shock the roast(s) in iced water until they achieve 70 F/21 C. This is a very important safety procedure for roasts of this size–whether you are processing sous vide or not. A roast (or a turkey) of this size should NEVER be cooled at room temperature–it just takes too long to meet established safety guidelines.

How can you tell when the internal temperature of a large roast–or even a small one–has achieved 70 F/21 C? That is an excellent question.

Be cool, Man
The packaged roast is first submerged in a container of iced water that is at least twice the volume of the roast. Without explaining the details of how this is calculated, consider that meat is almost the same density as water. In this case, we use a vessel or sink that can hold at least 3 gallons/12 liters of cold water. One way to do this is by siphoning the water out of the sous vide bath and replacing it with iced water from the tap. The ability to do this depends on the logistics of your station/kitchen.

Then what?
Regardless of its size, submerge the roast in the filled vessel/sink. Wait until the ice has all melted. The temperature of the water will be approximately 70 F/21 C. Return in 15 minutes and use a probe or infrared thermometer to measure the temperature of the water. If it is above 70 F/21 C, then the roast is not completely chilled. Drain the vessel/sink, refill with cold tap water and come back in 15 minutes. Repeat this process until the water steadies at 70 F/21 C. Then you will know that it is safe to refrigerate the roast at 40 F/4 C.

Service*

Cut the corner of the bag of stock and strain into a sauce pot. There may be a few pebbles of spice in the stock–that’s okay. Discard the bag with the vegetable trim in it. This is the easy, no mess method. Cut the corner of the bag with the corned beef and drain the liquid into the stock. Bring to a boil and a raft will develop on the top. Strain through a paper coffee filter or paper towel to remove the albumins.

Return the stock to the pot and add the vegetables. Simmer to 183 F/84 C until the vegetables are hot. Taste the stock for salt, but the liquid from the corned beef will usually provide almost enough by itself. Stage into a large platter to facilitate service. Drizzle with butter.

Drain a wedge of cabbage well and place in the center of a plate. Arrange the vegetables around the plate–use the carrots to make the most of the color.

The onions provide shape and height.

The celery heart can be used too–just trim the root a little bit, slice, cut the corners to form the “arrowhead” and process with the other vegetables.

Arrange the slices of corned beef–shingle from right to left, that’s sort of an old school rule that nobody pays attention to any more.

Don’t forget the parsley!

Drizzle the corned beef with a little melted butter.

Happy Holiday!

Norm King

About

There is no corn in corned beef. In ancient lexicons. "corn" could refer to anything that vaguely resembled a kernel. The barleycorn used to make whiskey refers to barley, not corn. Coriander, mustard seeds, pepper "corns" and other spices adopted the term.
The ancients knew that salt applied to fresh beef brisket preserved and flavored. They also believed that the spices were somehow part of the chemistry. Now, we know that they are not. The flavors and aromas of that little packet of spices cannot penetrate the surface of the meat--they do, however, fill the kitchen with that familiar bouquet as the corned beef simmers. Sous vide makes the most of this.

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