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The Weekend Chef

The Corned Beef Experiment

Posted 4:16pm on Thursday, Apr. 12, 2012

As promised last week, I am making corned beef and cabbage with one of the homemade corned beefs I made last week. But with St. Patrick’s Day still a week away, I thought I would try a little experiment: cooking my corned beef sous vide. If it does not work out, I can always go back to a more traditional recipe.

What is sous vide? It is French for “under vacuum." The idea is that you cook the food at the same temperature as you want to serve it, so the item is perfectly cooked all the way through. To do this, you vacuum-seal (sous vide) the food in a plastic bag, then cook it in a heated water bath — usually at a low temperature for a long time.

Vacuum-sealing locks in the food's own flavors and intensifies the flavor of the spices. Food is tender and moist, and cooked evenly all the way through. Cooking a steak this way might take two hours, but it will be tender, moist and medium-rare from edge-to-edge.

The hard part of sous vide cooking is maintaining the low temperature water bath at the precise temperature you need. Consumer sous vide machines start around $300, but can easily run $1,000 depending on the model.

I don’t have one of those, but I do have a slow cooker. The problem with slow cookers is that the temperature at its lowest setting (warm-165º) is normally too hot for sous vide cooking. A steak cooked to 165º would be well, well done.

But corned beef cooked to 165º might work… I did some checking on the Internet and found a range of temperatures (135º to 180º) for cooking sous vide corned beef and brisket. Also, I found someone who actually recommends using a slow cooker on warm. The experiment is on! I ran a temperature test on my slow cooker and discovered that on the warm setting, it would cook at 165º; on simmer it was a little over 190º. I decided to go with warm (165º). My research showed that the lower temperature will result in a denser texture, but should be moister than the higher temp.

Now for how long? At 180º it looks like 10 hours, at 165º it can take about twice as long. The corned beef I am using is part of the thin flat section so I decide to cut the time a little and shoot for 15 hours. I figure I can pull it and test it at 15 hours and reseal it and cook it longer if needed. I mean, this is an experiment.

Next problem, how to cook the cabbage? I decided I would just fix the vegetables (cabbage, potatoes and carrots) separately with a little bacon and the juices leftover from the corned beef. I should be able to do it while the corned beef is resting.

Here is the recipe, I mean my instructions to follow my experiment, with conclusions afterwards.

Sous vide Corned Beef and Cabbage

  • 3 to 5 pound corned beef (I made mine, recipe here).
  • 2 tablespoon pickling spices (I like Penzeys Spices Corned Beef Spices mix)
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • Large resealable plastic bags or vacuum sealed bags

Vegetables

  • ½ head of cabbage
  • 1 to 2 pounds red potatoes
  • 5 small carrots
  • 5 pieces of bacon

Fill slow cooker with hot water, making sure to leave room for corned beef and set to warm.

Take corned beef out of package and rinse 3 times over running water.

Soak corned beef in water for 30 minutes to help remove any leftover salt.

Dry corned beef with paper towels, coat each side with garlic powder and pickling spices.

Seal corned beef in a vacuum-sealed bag or a large resealable plastic bag with all the air forced out.

Place bag into slow cooker, cook for 15 hours covered, occasionally flip bag and stir.

30 minutes before pulling corned beef, slice ½ cabbage head into 4 wedges. Cut potatoes in half, peel carrots and slice bacon into ¼ inch pieces.

Pull corned beef and let rest in bag for 10 minutes.

While corned beef is resting, heat pot on medium heat with bacon.

Brown bacon, while browning open corned beef and poor liquid in bag into measuring cup. Scrape off excess spices.

Move bacon off to the side of pan and place corned beef fat side down in pan. Sear fat for a minute, put corned beef on a plate and tent with foil.

Add potatoes to pan with bacon and stir. Add carrots and cabbage to pan, stir and cook for 3 minutes.

Turn heat up to medium high and add corned beef liquid from measuring cup. Cover and let steam for 30 minutes, adding water as needed for steam.

Cut corned beef against the grain, add vegetables and serve with ground mustard or horseradish sauce.

So how did the corned beef turn out?

For the most part, great! The flavor of the corned beef was the best I've ever tasted. But the texture was a little dense, more like pastrami. Of course I was warned that it might be like that cooking it at a lower temperature. This would be perfect for thin slicing for corned beef deli sandwiches, but for ¼ inch slices I think I'd prefer it a little less dense. The vegetables turned out great! I think I will fix then separate from now on.

As for this weekend's St. Patrick’s Day corned beef? I am going to try sous vide again, it tasted that great!

This time I am going to try it on my simmer setting (190º+) at around 6 to 8 hours and see if that fixes the texture. Hopefully it will still have that same intense “vacuum-seal” flavor.

Update: Fixed the Corned beef at the simmer setting (190º) for 7 hours. Turned out great with a better texture for corned beef and cabbage.

Be sure to check out the slideshow above for step-by-step pictures.

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