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How to Make Your Own Corned Beef Brine

Did you know that a prepackaged brisket with a packet of pickling spices isn't the end-all be-all to making homemade corned beef? It's true. Not only can you make the brine yourself, you can customize it to your own tastes. Below we have a sort of checklist of what you need as well as what you can get a little creative with. 

The Salt


Salt makes the brine. There's no way to skip it if you're making corned beef. It's key. Here's the lowdown:

Must Have:
  • kosher/pickling salt
    We see no reason to use anything else. You can get away with table salt, but be careful with the measurements. If measuring by weight as we recommend, it's the same. If by volume, use half the amount of iodized. The discernment for iodized in most brine recipes seems to be a concern about stray flavors from the chlorine or iodine. 


This or That:
  • pink cure
    Cure is essential to making corned (aka pickled) beef. You're going to need to either use this or Tender Quick®, listed below. Pink cure is ideal as it gives corned beef that pinkish hue that you're accustomed to.
  • Tender Quick®
    This is a home curing product made by Morton. It contains sugar in addition to the standard salt and nitrates in regular cures. We recommend reducing the amount of sugar you put into your brine by about a quarter if using TQ. The only reason we see to use TQ over pink cure is that it's usually readily available at your local grocer. 

How to use salts in your brine:
Mix in kosher salt at a ratio of 450 grams salt to gallon of water. Most salt is best measured by weight rather than volume. Pink cure ratios really have more to do with weight of meat rather than volume of water. 1 teaspoon (cure can be measured by volume - the granule size is pretty standard) of cure takes care of 5 lbs of meat, which, coincidentally, fits nicely into 1 gallon of brine. A 1 gallon brine using kosher salt and pink cure should cure 5 lbs of meat in about 5 days. You should follow package instructions for the Tender Quick. Also note that TQ is a fast acting cure, so your brine times may be shorter - again, follow package instructions.



The Sugar

A good corned beef typically has a subtle level of sweetness. Natural, earthy toned sugars are usually best because they add just the right flavor note. But that doesn't mean you can't sweeten the pot if that's your style. Below are your options as we see them:

  • brown sugar 
  • Our top pick
  • molasses
  • Also an excellent pick, but slightly harder to come by than brown sugar
  • raw sugar like turbinado, demerara or muscovado
  • More subtle than the above sugars, which might be just what you're looking for, plus they tend to have a more earthy tone than granulated white sugar. Muscovado is great because of its strong molasses flavor. Demerara has a full toffee flavor. And Turbinado is the mildest, but still has a raw brown sugar way about it. Raw sugar tends to be more expensive and harder to come by in some parts, which is the only reason it's not our top pick.
  • granulated sugar
  • Won't add any earthiness, but if it's all you have on hand, it'll do
  • honey
  • Honey will certainly work in the brine, but we recommend it more as a glaze, in which case you may want to keep the sugar content low in the brine.
  • maple syrup
  • You'll surely get a different flavor profile with maple syrup than with traditional sugar, but your corned beef will likely be better for it. If you're looking for a more subtle sweetness, maple syrup isn't your friend here, but if you're a fan of maple and are looking to jazz up your corned beef, it's the way to go.
  • apple cider vinegar 
  • Obviously this will add more than sweetness - the pungency of vinegar means you should probably skip adding mustard and other spicy notes. You should also consider pairing this with an additional sweet ingredient like brown sugar. Overall it's an excellent option and allows you to skip on other ingredients. 

How to use sweeteners in your brine:
Use dry sugar at a ratio of 100 grams per gallon of water. Measuring in grams is more ideal as 1/2 cup of granulated sugar is quite a bit different from say, turbinado because of the cut of the granules (same concept as above with the salt). For the liquid sweeteners, you can still use the same ratio, though we recommend 50-75 grams of honey or syrup per gallon of water. For the vinegar, you can still add it at the same ratio, but consider adding 50 grams of sugar in addition to the vinegar.


The Herbs & Spices


The expected flavors for corned beef are savory and a little green.

Savory
The list of spices you could choose for your savory element could go on and on, but we recommend a combination of the following:

  • garlic cloves (nearly essential)
  • whole nutmeg and/or whole allspice berries
  • whole coriander seed
  • juniper berries
  • fennel seed and/or anise seed 
  • whole cloves and/or cinnamon sticks and/or star anise
  • ginger root and/or mace

How to use spices in your brine:
There is really no "correct" ratio to adding these spices to your brine. If you need guidance, try 5 cloves of garlic, 1 teaspoon of whichever seeds or berries you choose, a half teaspoon of whole cloves, 2 cinnamon sticks or 3 star anise and a couple coins of ginger or half teaspoon of mace, for a gallon brine. Any ratio will work, to taste of course, but steer clear of going over a tablespoon of any of the above (for a 5 lb brisket/1 gallon brine). Note that cloves, cinnamon, star anise, ginger and mace are all really striking flavors, so you don't want to go overboard on any of those. The seeds and berries will make the base of your flavor, the others are accents.

Green
For the 'green' element, our favorite is dill seed. Dill seed will contribute a familiar corned beef flavor that will tell those eating your homemade corned beef that they are in fact eating corned beef. But it's not the end-all be-all. You could go about this two ways:

1. Substitute another green for dill seed

2. Use dill seed and enhance with another herb as well.

Here are our recommendations:

  • basil
  • thyme
  • rosemary
  • oregano

In addition to dill seed, bay leaves are a corned beef essential that help to add both the green and savory notes needed.

How to use herbs in your brine:
We like to use a tablespoon of dill seed for a gallon brine. You probably won't want to go much higher as it's fairly potent, but you may want to go lower, so give it a taste. If you're using one of the herbs listed above, a teaspoon of the basil or rosemary should do ya (be careful with those two, they can overpower the corned beef). You can go up to a tablespoon on the thyme and oregano. If you're using a blend of herbs, we recommend that the blend equal a tablespoon at most.

For bay leaves, we like to use one bay leaf for every quart of water, so for a gallon brine, you're at 4 bay leaves. It won't hurt to add more. It will hurt to add less.

Spice
Corned beef isn't typically 'spicy' per say, but it does usually incorporate black peppercorns & mustard seeds in its brine. There's nothing wrong with substituting other spices or enhancing the spice notes by adding to it. Mustard seeds are nearly essential to a corned beef flavor, but there are other ways.

Good, spicy notes can be accomplished with the following:

  • Black peppercorns (traditional)
  • Mustard seeds (traditional)
  • Horseradish
  • Smoked paprika (this will bring the corned beef closer to pastrami, but hey pastrami is delicious too, right?)
  • Cracked black pepper (brings more pungency than whole peppercorns)
  • Red pepper flakes

How to add pungency to your brine:
Since spice isn't typical of corned beef, directing you on how much to add is tricky. Your standard black peppercorn/mustard seed brine could use about a tablespoon of each. For the additional variations, a teaspoon of any of them should be plenty. Starting with a half teaspoon is probably safe.




Phew! That was a lot of information. Let's summarize:

Corned Beef Brine Must-Haves:

  • Salt
  • Cure
  • Sweetener
  • Spices that contribute a mix of savory (garlic is key) and green (bay leaves are key) notes

Optional

  • The types of herbs & spices you select to accomplish savory & green notes
  • Spices that contribute, well, spice


If you're not quite ready yet to make your own brine recipe from scratch, we do have a master recipe to get you started:

Weston Corned Beef Recipe




Sample Product Label
Norton
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