Healthy "Gray" Corned Beef

Image Pickl-It Gray Corned Beef

Our youngest child, Matthew, is our self-appointed "Inspector of New Pickl-It Experiments", 9 times out of 10 announcing, "Good job, Mom! I can't wait to try this!"

Then there's that other time - the 1 time out of 10 - that he sounds the "Maawwwwmmm???" alarm.  When he spotted the latest addition to my collection - a 5-liter Pickl-It packed with 7-pounds of Scottish Highland brisket - his alarm was nearly operatic, sustained for five ear-splitting seconds. 

The rest of the family came running, expecting to see the kitchen splattered with my blood, or engulfed in flames. Or both. When I pointed to the  Pickl-It of brining meat, as the source of our son's alarm, my husband nodded, then patted Daniel on the head, telling him, "I understand".   He then asked me if I, "perhaps stole a specimen jar from Doc's biology laboratory on Cannery Row in Montery." (Note: Arranging a private, fascinating tour rich in local folklore,  is well-worth the time.)

Hmmpfff and haha.  While I knew he was teasing (I think), my children informed me this was one Pickl-It experiment they weren't going to taste. "No way. No how".

I knew, however, when their turned-up noses caught a whiff of the gently simmering brisket, they'd change their minds.

Image Corned BeefWe eat first, using our eyes, and then our sense-of-smell. 

Pickl-It corned (brined) beef's color is roast-beef-brown, and not the reddish-pink of traditional corned beef. 

"Close your eyes", I told my dubious family. A few bites later, both children exclaimed, "It tastes 'normal' just like 'real' corned beef!"

At dinner's end, they thanked me, calling it the, "Best corned beef! Ever!"

The only thing missing in my gray corned beef? Saltpeter, (potassium nitrate), the chemical-of-choice dating back 5,000 years, used to lock in the "normal" red color of cured meat.   

Modern food processing no longer uses saltpeter, instead using the more ready-available sodium nitrate which works in much the same way. 

"Nitric oxide combines with myoglobin, the pigment responsible for the natural red color of uncured meat. They form nitric oxide myoglobin, which is a deep red color (as in uncooked dry sausage) that changes to the characteristic bright pink normally associated with cured and smoked meat (such as wieners and ham) when heated during the smoking process."

While Autism groups such as Talk About Curing Autism urge avoidance of nitrates, viewed as a neurotoxin, there are others who present a compelling case that nitrates, at least in leafy greens, may not be harmful-to-health, and may even be protective.  To put things in perspective -

"It has been reported that people normally consume more nitrates from their vegetable intake than from the cured meat products they eat. Spinach, beets, radishes, celery, and cabbages are among the vegetables that generally contain very high concentrations of nitrates (J. Food Sci., 52:1632). It has been estimated that 10 percent of the human exposure to nitrite in the digestive tract comes from cured meats and 90 percent comes from vegetables and other sources. Nitrates can be reduced to nitrites by certain microorganisms present in foods and in the gastrointestinal tract. This has resulted in nitrite toxicity in infants fed vegetables with a high nitrate level. No evidence currently exists implicating nitrite itself as a carcinogen."  University of Minnesota, Nitrite in Meat

I'll continue to research, especially as I gain skills toward the goal of brining and preserving meat for long-term storage.  In the meantime, the goal continues to be nitrate-free.

Gray Corned Beef Is Traditional

Image Brine Beef BarrelWhen we moved to the New England area 10-years ago, we discovered that gray corned beef is the traditional choice of Irish Bostonians, who prefer it over its red saltpeter-cousin.  About a month before St. Patrick's Day, Costco and BJ's (Eastern seaboard equivalent of Costco) have gray corned beef available in the modern, plastic packing.

"When the Irish emigrated in the 19th century to America and Canada, where both salt and meat were cheaper, they treated beef the same way they would have treated a 'bacon joint' -  a piece of cured pork - at home in Ireland. Pellets of salt, some the size of kernels of corn, were rubbed into the beef to keep it from spoiling and to preserve it.

"Today, brining — the use of salt water — has replaced the dry salt cure, but the name 'corned beef' is still used, rather than 'brined' or 'pickled' beef." Taste of New England

Gray corned beef's flavor is sometimes described as "beefier" then its pink version. We haven't found that to be the case, but that may be because we don't use grain-fed, feedlot beef, instead, buy locally pastured, grassfed, humanely-butchered beef.  

Our Pickl-It gray corned beef has a mild, pleasant, rich flavor which is versatile, equally tasty whether used to make Reuben sandwiches, New England-style corned beef and cabbage dinners, or corned beef hash,  one of favorite breakfast foods.

Brisket LocationFlat-Cut Brisket: the Cut You Need

Some conventional butcher shops may carry flat-cuts in their meat case. If not, most are happy to special-order cuts. 

Grass-fed flat-cut brisket is a little more difficult to find, so when it is available, we buy multiple pieces, either freezing them for later use, or brining them, using several 5-liter Pickl-It.   After simmering to perfection, we slice and/or shred them into frozen meal-sized portions.

Down to the Basics:  Picking a Brining Method

The brining-length - 2-days? 21 days? - as well as whether the brine is spiced or plain, are two key decisions.  Just a reminder:  Brine = salt + water. Spices are always optional. 

Bullet 18wide2-day brine, is great for poultry, but is not enough time to "cure" beef.  A 2-day "brine" for beef is a moisturizing process, keeping the meat from drying out during smoking, grilling or baking, but will not completely remove blood from the meat - a goal of traditional brining.  

Bullet 18wide

A traditional 21-day "brine" for beef is best left to the professional butcher-shop. The proteins undergo chemical changes, beneficial for long-term food storage, but 21-days without some type of chemical intervention, beyond salt, may just be a botulism invitation.

Bullet 18wide

My goal was something in the middle - longer than 2 days, but not the full 21-day traditional brine, which shouldn't be attempted without saltpaper or nitrates, which control meat fermentation (sour meat is never a good flavor profile), or botulism, which thrive on meat protein.

Inspiration for Pickl-It gray corned beef came from three sources:  

Bullet 18wide

 Nourishing Traditions corned beef recipe, page 237; uses whey and a 2-day "brine"; if you're unsure of your meat-source, are disturbed (like I was!) by the idea of brining meat, this recipe is a great place to begin.  Just remember, this is not a "curing" brine.

Bullet 18wide Rebecca Wood's online recipe Homemade Corned Beef, stresses the importance of anaerobic conditions; she opts for a spiced brine, spicing the brine as well as the cooking water.  She's chosen a conservative amount of brine-time - 7-days - sufficient time to force the blood out of the meat, replacing it with a nice level of salt.

Bullet 18wide Local South Boston butchers who specialize in the 21-day brine-cure for a small segment of "discriminating" customers (who dislike buying cured products in plastic casing - Boston Brisket) discouraged me from a full 21-day brine (refusing to divulge their secrets) but did encourage me to try a 10-day brine, something they felt was well within the "safety" zone, considering the Pickl-It offers a encouraged me to try a 10-day brine, which would not compromise the safety or flavor of the beef.

Don’t try to speed through the process, brining the brisket in less 7-days. The brine’s primary function is to push the blood out of the meat, so expect to see the water turn increasingly red – a sign the brining is working.  

What if life gets in the way?  Part of my "job" is to experiment, pushing the outer limits of traditional, anaerobic lacto-fermentation.  Figuring that schedules and life aren't always perfect - unexpected travel, meetings or family emergencies arise -  I let one brisket brine for 10-days in a refrigerated Pickl-It.

A 10-day ferment was no more discernably different than a 7-day brine. There didn't appear to be more blood-extraction in the 10-day process, than the 7-day.  The 10-day brined-meat was just as tender, not mushy, rich in flavor, not sour and it tasted exactly like I hoped a truly "pickled" beef would taste. Delicious!  

Lactic acid fermentation has played a key role for centuries, in preserving meat and is the subject of current-day industrial-food research looking for healthier ways to preserve factory-created products.

Bottom line:  If life gets in the way of simmering your brisket, don't panic. One, two, three, and even 4 days over a 7-day brine, should result in a perfectly tasty corned beef. 

Spice the Brine? Or Spice the Cooking Water?

New England Boiled DinnerWhile the Nourishing Tradition's and Wood's recipes include pickling spices in the brine and cooking liquid, we prefer plain brine, reserving the spices for the cooking portion of the process.

New England Boiled Dinner is a great example of using pickling spices in the simmering process. Since some spices are anti-microbial (such as whole clove), I'd prefer to keep them out of the brining process so that they don't reduce the beneficial, protective microbes that are needed for good curing. 

The South Boston butcher shops also prefer a spice-free brine during fermentation, giving customers packets of spices, used to season the brisket during slow 2 1/2-hour simmer. 

One last note on the red color.  I've tried recipes prescribing the addition of beet brine or beet powder to the brine. I've tried both, and neither made any difference. Brined beef, without saltpeter, was gray, no matter the addition of beets.


Red Dot Divider

Pickl-It Healthy Gray Corned Beef Brisket

Graphic No 1

Brining Instructions for Gray Corned Beef: 
Begin 7-10 Days BEFORE your dinner.  Use 5-liter Pickl-It


  • 6 to 8 LB flat-cut grass-fed beef brisket (or two 3-lb or two 4-lb if those are easier to handle)
  • 8 cups water – enough to completely cover brisket
  • 190 grams (10% brine) kosher or unrefined sea salt WITHOUT anti-caking additives
  • 2 T raw sugar
  1. Heat water to a boil, add sugar & salt, stirring just until dissolved.
  2. Turn off heat, cool brine to room temperature.
  3. Rinse off meat, cutting into slices (with the grain) packing into the 4 or 5-liter Pickl-It jar.
  4. Pour brine over meat; if meat floats, use a large cabbage leaf and several Dunk'R on top of meat, to keep it submerged. 
  5. Place 5-Liter Pickl-It on counter, in dark corner for 8-hours. Cover sides with a towel to block light (UV kills beneficial bacteria)
  6. Refrigerate 7-10 days, checking the brine level every day. If more brine is required, add 2 T kosher salt or unrefined sea salt, for every 1-cup of boiling water, stirring to dissolve; cool completely before adding to the meat.

I have adjustable shelves in my refrigerator so there's sufficient room to store the Pickl-It.   Other people use ice-loaded coolers, keeping the bottom of the Pickl-It cold, then tenting the cooler to create evaporative cooling.  


Graphic No 2

Cooking – Day of Dinner



  • 6-8 pounds of brined brisket
  • 4 T favorite organic pickling spice mix (cinnamon sticks, cloves, peppercorns, allspice, yellow mustard seed, dill seed, hot red peppers or pepper flakes
  • 4 whole bay-leaves
  • 1 tsp dried thyme,
  • 6 whole garlic cloves
  • 1/2-tsp salt (do not add more as meat is salty enough!)
  • Water to cover brisket
  1. Drain Pickl-It container. Discard brine (do not ever be tempted to reuse it!)  
  2. Rinse brisket in cold running water for 1-minute, removing excess salt, brine, washing off blood.
  3. Place brined brisket in a large Dutch oven, or enameled stockpot.
  4. Add all spices
  5. Cover brisket and spices with cold water, at least 2-inches above the brisket
  6. Cover and simmer gently for 2 1/2-hours.
  7. Remove brisket from brine, allowing to cool for 10-minutes; slice into thin strips for sandwiches or "pull" with a fork for a shredded style which we use for roll-ups sandwiches.  If hash is desired, cut into 1/4 (or smaller) cubes.
  8. Freezes well!

Word of caution:  Do not decrease the salt called for in the brine.  Use the amount recommended.  Salt is important for protecting the meat against pathogenic microbes, as well as encouraging good growth of beneficial lactic acid bacteria which also protect the meat against invading bacteria, such as botulism.   Likewise, don't increase the salt.   Too much salt can kill off beneficial microbes which are not salt-resistant.