Sometimes corned beef is a distinctive reddish color, but sometimes it’s just plain gray. Why is there a difference, and does it go beyond color? We’re here to unravel the mystery of red vs gray corned beef.
Red vs Gray Corned Beef
The main difference between red vs gray corned beef is the color. Red corned beef uses a curing salt containing sodium nitrate, which is responsible for dying the meat a bright shade of pink. Recipes for gray corned beef don’t include this ingredient, relying instead on regular salt and various other spices to season and tenderize the meat.
Corned Beef: The Basics
Before artificial refrigeration was a widespread phenomenon, people used salt to preserve food. Corned beef is just one of the dishes that resulted from this practice.
Irish immigrants were responsible for popularizing corned beef in the US. The method is a good way to tenderize a naturally tough cut of beef and imbue it with flavor. Since the meat is often simmered with cabbage and other vegetables, it can stretch out into several meals.
To make corned beef, the meat is cured in a saltwater solution, then cooked at a low temperature. It’s commonly made on the stovetop or in a slow cooker, but you can use the smoker as a cooking method as well.
Despite the name, corned beef doesn’t actually include any corn. When the dish was first introduced, the rock salt used for curing had extremely large grains that resembled corn kernels. That’s where the term corned beef comes from.
About Red Corned Beef
As the name suggests, red corned beef has a reddish tint to it. In fact, the store-bought variety is usually a distinctive shade of pink. That’s the result of the sodium nitrate used in the curing process.
The curing mixture used for red corned beef includes curing salt, which is also known as Prague powder. This compound is a mixture of sodium chloride (regular table salt) and sodium nitrate, which is where the red color comes from.
Because sodium nitrate is extremely potent and can be harmful when consumed in large quantities, Prague powder is dyed pink to distinguish it from table salt. It’s important not to confuse it with pink Himalayan sea salt, as that’s a different type altogether.
Prague powder is a common ingredient in meat curing, which explains why meats like proscuitto and salami come in shades of pink or red. In addition to changing the color of the meat, it alters the chemical structure to preserve its shelf life.
Red corned beef is available in most parts of the world and can usually be procured on a year-round basis. Despite this widespread availability, it’s sometimes referred to as “New York style” corned beef.
About Gray Corned Beef
Like the red version, gray corned beef is also treated with a saltwater brine before cooking. However, the brine solution doesn’t include any Prague powder, so the meat doesn’t remain pink once it’s cooked.
Gray corned beef isn’t widely known outside of New England. In fact, it’s sometimes called “Boston” or “Boston Irish” corned beef. If you were to serve it to someone who had never been to the Northeastern US, they would probably be a bit surprised by the color.
Red vs Gray Corned Beef
Does gray corned beef taste better than red, or vice versa? The answer is a matter of personal preference, but there is a slight difference.
Because of the curing salt, red corned beef has a saltier edge to it than its gray counterpart. The gray variety might also have a more distinctive flavor overall, depending on what spices were used in the brine mixture.
The cut of beef you select can affect the flavor of the finished product as well. The flat cut of the brisket is the most popular choice, but you can also make corned beef out of the round or chuck roast.
Because the salt flavor is less pronounced in gray corned beef, the beefy taste is more prevalent. Keep that in mind when you’re deciding which one to make (or buy).
Red corned beef is very tender, as the curing salt acts as a tenderizer in addition to altering the color and flavor of the meat. It’s usually more tender than the gray version, although if you cook the beef long enough, it should soften up either way.
The way the meat is sliced has a direct bearing on the texture. If you carve it against the grain, the beef will be more tender to the bite. But if it’s sliced or “pulled” in the same direction as the muscle fibers, it will have a stringy texture.
If you’re making the corned beef from scratch, the difference in price will be negligible to nonexistent. It all depends on whether you already have curing salt on hand, or if you need to make a special purchase.
Obviously, if you’re buying Prague powder just to make red corned beef, it will cost more than if you’d relied on just kosher salt and other seasonings. Otherwise, the cost will be roughly the same.
What if you’re relying on store-bought corned beef? In this case, the red version may be your only option. As we mentioned, it’s the only type that’s widely available outside New England.
Assuming that both options are available, you can probably expect to pay more for gray corned beef. That’s because there’s a good chance that it will be sold fresh from a deli or butcher counter instead of being prepackaged for sale.
If you want to enjoy your corned beef sooner rather than later, opt for the gray version.
Red corned beef needs to cure for 7 to 10 days before it’s ready to be cooked. You can brine gray corned beef for less time—just 4 to 5 days. Try not to brine it any less than that, though, or you’ll be sacrificing a great deal of flavor.
There’s no appreciable difference in cooking times between the two types of corned beef. Both will need to cook for several hours in order to achieve the right texture. If you don’t cook the meat long enough, it will be unpleasantly chewy and tough.
A 3-pound brisket or roast should take 3 to 4 hours to finish cooking when prepared on the stovetop or in the smoker. If you use a slow cooker set to low, it can take even longer—up to 8 hours.
Red corned beef has the gray stuff beat hands-down in this category. The curing salt ensures that the meat will remain fresh for quite a while. In fact, the canned variety is shelf stable for several years.
Homemade corned beef is another story. While the red version will still keep longer than gray corned beef, it’s best to consume any cooked leftovers within 3 to 4 days. If the color, texture, or smell of the meat seems off, discard it at once.
This category is a toss-up. You can enjoy both types of corned beef as part of a traditional boiled dinner or the star ingredient in a sandwich. Leftovers also make wonderful casseroles, not to mention corned beef hash for breakfast.
We’re inclined to give the edge to red corned beef when it comes to Reuben sandwiches, if only because the pink color seems more traditional. But honestly, if it’s flavor you’re after, you can use either one.
Although gray corned beef isn’t easy to find outside New England, its fans are quite vocal in their preference for the method. Some delis refuse to make or carry the red version.
Fortunately for those who enjoy red corned beef, it’s easy to find in supermarkets, regardless of the region. But if you’ve never tried any other kind but the store-bought red type, consider skipping the curing salt and making your own to see which you prefer.