When it’s done right, corned beef should be tender enough to melt in your mouth. But unfortunately, it’s easy to wind up with stringy corned beef if you’re not careful. We’re here to help you avoid this issue—unless you prefer that texture.
Stringy Corned Beef
Most of the time, corned beef turns out stringy because it was carved along the grain. To circumvent the issue, be sure to carve the meat against the muscle fibers. By contrast, if you enjoy stringy corned beef, you can intentionally create the “pulled” texture by cutting it with the grain instead.
What Cut of Meat is Corned Beef?
The term corned beef refers to a large cut of beef that’s been cured in a brine solution before cooking. It isn’t a specific cut, but some parts of the cow are better suited for this treatment than others.
Since corned beef is best when it’s cooked for a long time at low temperatures, beef brisket is a popular choice. If you have to choose between the flat and the point, the flat is easier to carve into slices. It’s also easier to buy it separately.
If you can’t find a brisket flat (or a whole brisket), look for a chuck roast or a beef round roast. Both will make fine substitutes, though the texture of the finished dish might be slightly different from what you’re used to.
In case you were wondering, corned beef doesn’t actually involve corn. It takes its name from the fact that the salt crystals originally used for curing were very large, resembling corn kernels. Today, you can use kosher salt, along with curing salt to give the meat a reddish hue.
How To Cook Corned Beef
If you opt to make corned beef using brisket or chuck roast, the meat will contain a lot of fat. Brisket also has a great deal of collagen and connective tissue. That means you’ll need to cook the meat very slowly.
High-heat cooking applications aren’t ideal for naturally tough cuts like brisket. The muscle fibers need time to break down if you want the meat to become tender.
There’s also the fact that the collagen doesn’t break down until the meat has cooked to about 150-160 degrees Fahrenheit. What’s more, the fat needs to cook slowly in order to render and suffuse the meat with moisture.
If you attempt to cook corned beef at too high a temperature, it will be tough and chewy. Remember: low and slow is the way to go.
Stringy Corned Beef
If your corned beef is stringy, there’s a good chance that you carved it along the grain instead of against it.
What does that mean? When you look at the meat, you should be able to detect a series of thin lines running through it. These are the muscle fibers, but grain is the more common term.
Carving meat against the grain shortens these muscle fibers, so there’s not as much to chew through in each bite. But if you slice the beef along the grain, the fibers will remain long and stringy, resulting in a chewy texture.
Some corned beef aficionados actually prefer this texture. Sometimes called “pulled corned beef,” it’s served this way in many delis. Assuming the meat was cured and cooked correctly, the flavor should still be excellent.
It’s easier to make pulled corned beef from the point end of the brisket. In this section of the primal, the grain runs in different directions, making it difficult to carve into neat slices.
So if you prefer shredded corned beef or don’t mind the stringiness, the brisket point is preferable to the flat. Keep that in mind when you’re selecting your cut.
Can You Fix Stringy Corned Beef?
If you’ve already carved the entire cut along the grain, there isn’t much you can do. It’s possible to cut the meat crosswise so that the pieces are smaller, but they’ll still have a chewier texture than slices that were carved against the grain to begin with.
However, if you notice that the first few slices appear stringy while you’re carving, you can always rotate the meat and continue in the other direction. Look closely at the meat to determine in which direction the grain is running, then slice perpendicular to that.
Other Common Mistakes To Avoid
Although corned beef isn’t difficult to make, there’s always a chance that things could go wrong. Here are a few of the most common errors that budding home chefs tend to make when trying their hand at this dish.
Using Too Much Salt
Because the meat soaks in a brine solution for several days before cooking, some saltiness is to be expected. But if it’s too salty, it could be because you used the wrong type of salt, or at least added the wrong amount.
Large-grained salts like kosher or sea salt are standard when making a brine or curing solution. If you substitute table salt, you’ll need to use about half the amount, because the smaller grains result in a more intense salt flavor.
Also, use caution if the recipe calls for curing salt. This substance is also known as Prague powder, and it needs to be used sparingly. The mixture includes sodium nitrate, which poses a health hazard when consumed in large amounts.
Failure to Rinse
You can offset the saltiness ahead of time by rinsing the corned beef before you cook it. This won’t affect the flavor because the meat has already been infused with the curing liquid. Just be sure to wash the sink area thoroughly after you’re finished.
Cooking Too Fast
As we pointed out, cooking corned beef at too high a temperature can result in meat that resembles shoe leather.
Whether you’re using the smoker or simmering the meat on the stovetop, keep the heat low. Don’t be tempted to turn it up to move the process along. That will only lead to disappointment.
Not Cooking Long Enough
High cooking temps aren’t the only culprit behind tough corned beef. The meat will also be too chewy if you don’t cook it long enough.
Plan on at least an hour per pound when cooking corned beef on the stovetop. If you’re using the smoker, set the temperature to 250 degrees and assume the meat will cook for 1 to 1-1/2 hours per pound. In a slow cooker, the process may take 8 to 10 hours.
Not Enough Moisture
The meat will turn out too dry if you don’t introduce enough liquid during the cooking process.
When you use the stovetop method, it’s important to use enough water to fully submerge the corned beef. You may have to add more as the meat simmers, since some of the liquid will boil off.
You won’t run into this issue if you use a slow cooker, since the lid seals the heat and moisture inside. However, you still want to make sure to add enough water at the outset.
When smoking meat, we don’t typically advocate the use of a water pan. For corned beef, though, you can use a water pan in the initial stages of the smoke. After the meat has cooked to 160 degrees, we take things a step further by putting it in a foil pan along with some water or beer.
Whether you prefer your corned beef stringy or carved into tender slices, there’s a way to achieve the results you want. Here’s hoping your next experiment turns out just the way you like it.