When making corned beef, should you opt for the round or the brisket? We’ve seen solid arguments from both sides. As with many such debates, it all comes down to personal preference, but everyone has a reason for making their choice. Let’s take a look.
Corned Beef Round vs Brisket
The beef round comes from the rear of the animal, around the rump and hind leg. Its meat is tough and very lean, so it benefits from moist-heat cooking. The brisket is located in the front of the steer and is also tough, but fatty as well. The round is a better choice for corned beef, but it’s fine to substitute the brisket flat.
What Is Corned Beef?
The term “corned beef” can be confusing to newcomers, as the recipe doesn’t have anything to do with the ingredient that we know as corn.
In fact, corned beef is a cut of beef that’s been cured in salt. It’s popular in Jewish cuisine, but the Irish have staked a claim to it as well. In addition to salt, various other spices and seasonings may be used in the brine mixture.
After the brining treatment, the beef is then simmered in water until it’s fully cooked. You can cook the meat however you’d like, but boiling is the traditional method for corned beef.
Originally, the grains of salt used for the curing process were very large—almost the size of corn kernels. That’s where the term “corned beef” comes into play. These days, kosher salt is a suitable substitute.
What’s The Difference Between Pastrami and Corned Beef?
Corned beef and pastrami are both cured beef products that are popular delicatessen staples. The main difference lies in the preparation method.
Pastrami is always smoked after it’s cured. It may then be steamed to cook it further and to preserve its texture. It usually has a deep reddish hue, owing both to the smoking process and the curing salts used in the initial stages.
By contrast, corned beef isn’t usually smoked. When it comes out of the brine, it goes into the boiling pot, where it simmers in a blend of liquid and seasonings until the meat is tender and moist.
If you see corned beef that’s bright pink in color, it’s because the chef used pink curing salts in the brine. These salts contain sodium nitrite, which is dangerous when consumed in large quantities. They’re dyed pink to distinguish them from table salt.
You can use the same cuts of meat for both corned beef and pastrami in a pinch. The terms refer to the preparation techniques and not the cuts themselves, which is part of what we’re here to discuss.
However, corned beef is often made from either the brisket or the beef round. Pastrami can be made from the brisket flat, but it’s more often made from the navel, also known as the plate cut.
About Beef Round
The beef round is one of the eight primal cuts of beef. Primal cuts are the main portions that are initially separated from the steer when it’s time for butchering. From here, they may be further divided into subprimals, then into steaks.
The round primal is located in the rear of the animal—specifically, the rear leg and the rump. As you can imagine, these muscles get a good workout during the steer’s lifetime. That makes the meat tougher than cuts like the loin.
Moreover, most of the fat on a steer is located toward the front section of the carcass. As a result, the round is lean as well as tough. The ligaments and tendons in the joint areas contribute to its chewy texture.
Brisket is another primal cut of beef, but this one is found in the forward-facing part of the steer. It’s located in the lower pectoral region, beneath the neck. These muscles get a lot of exercise as well, so the meat is naturally tough.
Unlike the round, though, the brisket contains a lot of fat. The flat end, which is more popular, has a decent-sized fat cap attached. The point end isn’t typically sold on its own, but its high levels of marbling make it a hit with serious pitmasters.
Corned Beef Round vs Brisket: A Guide
If you understand the nature of slow cooking, you’ve probably already guessed that beef round and brisket are both prime candidates for the method.
When meat is on the tough side to begin with, the best way to tenderize it is to cook it for a long time over low heat. This allows the connective tissue to break down, relaxing the meat’s fibers and creating a melt-in-your-mouth texture.
For fatty cuts like brisket, slow cooking has another benefit: It gives the fat time to render. If you try to serve the meat before that, the fat will be chewy and rubbery. When you wait long enough, the rendered fat gives the meat a nice juicy texture.
Corned beef is an excellent dish to make out of the beef round because the meat is lean in addition to being tough. Lean meats benefit from moist-heat cooking, so simmering the roast in liquid will bring out its best qualities.
You can also use brisket to make corned beef. Since the flat cut is leaner, it’s better to stick with this subprimal when corned beef is on your radar. The flat is also easier to carve into slices once the meat is cooked.
Because we prefer to smoke brisket instead of boiling it, we would suggest using the beef round for corned beef whenever possible. It’s fine to use brisket in a pinch, but in our opinion, corned beef doesn’t do this cut any special favors.
Is Corned Beef Unhealthy?
There’s no question that corned beef is high in sodium. After all, it’s soaked in a salt solution before it’s cooked, so the dish is essentially pickled beef.
Earlier, we mentioned the use of sodium nitrite in brining solutions. Also called Prague powder, this substance will inhibit the growth of bacteria in meat products.
However, sodium nitrite (or sodium nitrate) may cause damage to the blood vessels when consumed in large enough quantities. This can lead to hardening of the arteries, which contributes to heart disease in the long run.
That said, sodium nitrite is found in plenty of vegetables as well. Most people don’t consume enough cured meats for the ingredient to make a significant dent in their health.
The key is to consume cured meats like corned beef in moderation. It shouldn’t be a regular part of your diet, but indulging in a corned beef sandwich or plate of hash every month or two won’t do any harm on its own.
Which Type Of Corned Beef is Better For Sandwiches?
That depends on the texture you prefer. Brisket is higher in fat overall, so the finished product will be moister than if you’d used beef round. A lot of the fat will render out into the cooking liquid, but you’re still bound to notice a difference.
Corned beef round will be leaner, so it’s a nice choice if you’re making cold sandwiches. The meat should still have plenty of flavor, and its lower moisture content will keep the bread from turning soggy.
Either way, be sure to slice the corned beef against the grain. This is true whether you’re making sandwiches or eating the meat as the centerpiece of a boiled dinner. Meat that’s carved with the grain will be tough and difficult to chew.
The Bottom Line
While the round is the traditional cut for corned beef, brisket is a popular alternative. Try to use only the flat if you want to carve the meat into slices, and trim the fat cap before cooking so that only 1/4 inch remains.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!