When you make corned beef, do you position the meat with the fat side facing up or down? Maybe you’ve never thought about it before. If you haven’t, perhaps it’s time you did.
We’re not talking about the “corning” process itself, but the actual cooking application. Does it matter how the cut is positioned during cooking, and if so, why? We’re here to clue you in on the answers.
Corned Beef Fat Side Up or Down?
When simmering corned beef on the stovetop or in a slow cooker, the fat side should be facing up. That will keep the fat from scorching while still allowing it to render and flavor the meat. If you’re cooking the beef on the grill or smoker, position it with the fat side facing the heat source—which, for most units, means facing down.
Best Cuts for Corned Beef
In case you didn’t already know, corned beef is not a specific cut of meat. Rather, it’s a preparation method that involves curing the beef in a brine solution before cooking.
When corned beef first became popular, the rock salt used in the curing process was made up of large crystals. Since the word corn comes from a German term meaning “small seed,” these salt “kernels” were also referred to as such.
You can also purchase the whole brisket, and cook the point and flat either together or separately. The point turns out delicious and juicy corned beef, but it’s better for shredding rather than slicing, due to its irregular grain.
What if you can’t find beef brisket at all? In this case, you can substitute another cut entirely. The chuck roast contains enough fat and connective tissue to hold up to the long cooking process.
Round roasts are another option, although since the meat is relatively lean, your results might be on the dry side. It’s a good idea to use a moist-heat cooking application if you select a round roast for your corned beef recipe.
Corned Beef Fat Side Up or Down?
As is usually the case in these situations, there’s no definitive answer. There are cases to be made for both methods, and the meat should turn out fine either way.
That said, there is a basic rule of thumb that you can follow when it comes to corned beef. If you’re cooking the beef in liquid, it should be positioned with the fat side facing up. When the meat is cooked over direct heat, the fat side should be facing down.
It’s best to position large cuts of meat with the fat side facing the heat source whenever possible. If the fat is on top, it will take longer for it to render, so the meat might still have large chunks of fat in it when it’s finished cooking.
Another concern is that the rendered fat will “rinse” off the seasoning as it runs down over the meat. Although corned beef should be flavorful enough owing to its long stint in the curing mixture, this is definitely something to be aware of.
On the other hand, when the beef is simmered in liquid, the entire cut is submerged already. Any seasonings will be contained within the pot or slow cooker, so you don’t have to worry about losing flavor the same way.
The reason you want the fat side facing up is because the fat might scorch if it’s on the bottom of the pot. If this happens, the corned beef could have an acrid or bitter taste.
You can offset the risk of scorching by keeping the heat at a bare simmer. Still, you can make the entire process more carefree by positioning the meat correctly to begin with.
Should You Trim the Fat When Making Corned Beef?
One of the reasons brisket is such an excellent choice for corned beef is that it contains a lot of fat. As any good barbecue aficionado knows, fat equals flavor. Since the meat needs to cook for a long time, a measure of fat will keep it from drying out.
That means there’s no need to trim all the fat off a brisket or other roast before prepping the corned beef. But if the fat cap is especially thick, some trimming might be in order. This is true especially if you’re using the grill or smoker, as excess fat can cause flare-ups.
We would suggest leaving 1/4 to 1/2 inch of the fat cap in place before cooking the meat. Leave any intramuscular fat where it is—this will keep the beef nice and moist, and it should render out during the cooking process.
If you find that the corned beef is too fatty once it’s done, you can always remove some of the fat at this point. Skim any excess off the cooking liquid if you simmered the beef, or simply peel it off if you used a dry-heat cooking application.
How To Cook Corned Beef Fat Side Up
1. Use a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven. Make sure the container you select is large enough to contain the corned beef along with enough liquid to cover it completely. The meat needs to fit entirely within the pot—it can’t be peeking over the top.
2. Coat the bottom of the pot with a thin layer of olive or vegetable oil. Since the fat side will be facing up, this will keep the meat from sticking to the bottom.
3. Turn the heat to medium-high and add the corned beef, along with any seasonings you prefer. You can add a layer of sliced or minced onions first for flavor if you’d like, but save the other vegetables for later in the process, or they’ll turn to mush.
4. Add enough liquid to the pot to cover the beef. We prefer a blend of beer and water or beef stock, but feel free to experiment.
Pro Tip: You want the meat itself to be completely submerged, but it’s okay if some of the fat cap is left uncovered. Just be sure that the liquid level doesn’t dip too low, or the corned beef will turn out too tough.
5. Bring the liquid to a boil, then cover the pot and lower the heat to a simmer. Let the meat cook for about 1 hour per pound.
6. If you’d like, add prepared vegetables to the pot during the estimated final hour of cooking. For example, if you’re preparing a 4-pound brisket, add the veggies after the meat has been simmering for 3 hours.
7. The corned beef is done when an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center registers 180 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point, the meat should be fully cooked and tender, yet still firm enough to slice.
8. Let the corned beef rest for 10 minutes before serving. You can slice the meat, chop it into small pieces, or shred it for sandwiches.
How To Cook Corned Beef Fat Side Down
1. Preheat the smoker to 275 degrees Fahrenheit. Corned beef can stand up to bold wood flavors such as oak or hickory, but you can use apple or pecan if you want to impart a milder, sweeter taste.
2. When the smoker is hot enough, add the corned beef, making sure the fat cap is facing the heat source. Close the lid.
3. Let the meat cook for about 1 hour per pound. While you’re waiting, prepare a disposable foil pan by coating it with nonstick cooking spray, preferably one that’s made from a neutral oil.
4. When the beef has cooked to around 160 degrees, remove it from the smoker and place it in the pan, again with the fat side facing down. Add enough beer, water, or beef stock to cover the meat by about one-third.
5. Tent the pan with foil and place it on the cooking grate. Allow the meat to continue cooking until it achieves an internal temperature of 180 degrees. This should take 1 to 2 hours longer, depending on the size of the cut.
6. Remove the corned beef from the smoker and let it rest for 10 minutes. Serve with steamed or roasted vegetables on the side, along with your favorite mustard.
Pro Tip: Carve the beef across the grain for neat slices. If you prefer stringy or “pulled” corned beef, make the cuts along the grain so that the meat separates into long strands.
Assuming it was cured properly, your corned beef should turn out delicious whether the fat cap was facing up or down. But following the guidelines we’ve suggested here should make the process easier for you.