Salt Beef

Submitted by John on Sun, 03/16/2014 - 15:10

Salt beef, salt pork, and salt cod were the cornerstones of tavern, military, and mercantile cooking for centuries in the days of wooden ships before refrigeration. A tavern or a large farm family might have a brine barrel in the cellar in which salt beef was kept for weeks without refrigeration.  Salt beef is the star of the traditional New England Boiled Dinner.

Salt beef is simply beef preserved with a mixture of salt and some flavorings. The flavorings changed from maker to maker and over time. Some recipes use paprika or other spices that would have been exotic in colonial times; feel free to get creative! You can use this recipe for many colonial dishes, including the pedestrian Tavern Baked Beef and Beans

Salt Beef is the same thing as Corned Beef; the Irish used the latter term because "corn" to them meant grain, and the coarse salt was larger than table salt, the size of grains of barley. 

We usually get corned beef brisket today, but in colonial times any beef could be salted for preservation. The slow moist cooking that always followed meant that some otherwise undesireable cuts of beef might be found in the brine barrel. The beef was also used more sparingly, as much as a flavoring agent as a source of protein, so nobody expected succulent slices of tender beef from the pot unless a special effort was made for a holiday meal. 

Huge quantities of salt beef was made and shipped from Cork and the rest of Ireland to support the instruments of the British Empire, while the hungry Irish had to content themselves with potatoes, cabbage, and a bit of streaky bacon on a good day. 

For this site, I used Corned Beef to refer to the popular recipe for this beef boiled and served with cabbage on St. Patrick's Day all over New England. Ironically, corned beef never caught on in Ireland, because it was all sold to the British government and to merchant vessels. When Irish emigrants in 19th-century Boston and New York celebrated Saint Patrick's Day with corned beef, it's because it was real food from Ireland, not because it was food that their grandmothers made. The cabbage and potatoes that sustained their starving forebears would have made a sorry dish for a celebration, so in the Land of Opportunity they enriched it with real beef from Old Erin. 

10 Servings
Preparation time
10 minutes
  1. Combine the salt with the herbs and spices.
  2. Stab the beef all over with a small knife.
  3. Rub the beef generously with the salt mixture on all sides. Put it in a large plastic bag, squeeze out the air and seal it tightly.
  4. Put the bag in a baking pan just large enough to hold it, then cover it with a weight and let it sit in the refrigerator for at least a week. Turn it once or twice daily.
In Plymouth and probably elsewhere, some folk talk about "gray corned beef" and "red corned beef". The former is usually considered superior. The supermarket variety is red corned beef, which means only that nitrates have been added as a preservative. This recipe is for gray corned beef. To keep the red color, add saltpeter or sodium nitrate.