Recently I saw a corned beef in the grocery; one of those already-brined and flavored things sealed in plastic, refrigerated, ready to cook.
So I had a yen for some sandwiches and bought it. The instructions of course say to boil it. So I did. Novice, I decided not to use as much water as it said, so it was a bit salty, but not too much so. I crockpotted it for 6 or 7 hrs. That turned out well; the sandwiches were very good. A few weeks went by, so after several days of not enough veggies, I spotted a deal on cabbage and immediately knew I was gonna have some corned beef and cabbage. (I chopped and rinsed half the cabbage, added a tbs. or two chopped onion, got it mostly cooked by simmering in butter and a little water, and then, nearing doneness, I added a can of corned beef. Brought it to a simmer again for a while, and it was ready. Yum.)
A week went by. Deciding to go ahead and cook the other half of the cabbage, I looked for a can of corned beef at my local low-end grocery store. It was pretty much on my "must have" list for the visit. No canned corned beef! Corned beef hash, yes. But no corned beef. So I found a small brisket and knew I could use the internet to learn how to "corn" that beef. I already knew I would brine it, so I used the net to devise a recipe to spice it. It said use some "pickling spice." Doh! No dill in the house! But, oddly, there is no dill in many pickling spice recipes. I had most of the necessary spices.
It's soaking now. In fact, it's day three and I'm going to add some garlic and maybe a few cumin seeds to finish up another 24-48 hrs. I'll let you know how it turns out. Okay, here's where I get speculative. I told you that so I could tell you this: All the recipes call for sugar as well as salt. I used white sugar and added a couple squirts molasses. In other words, followed the recipe. And you're smart, I think it just dawned on you, too. What did they use for sugar before sugar cane?
Now all the anecdotal wisdom on the net, including a kosher website, claim that it's known as "corned beef" (which obviously has no corn in it) because "coarse salt grains are about the size of corn, so they referred to the salt as 'corn.'" Well my B.S. meter started ringing pretty loudly. Despite the fact that we say "a grain of salt." In fact, almost every reference to salt grains being known as "corns" is located in a reference to corned beef. So here's the obvious proposal or hypothesis I made: nobody ever called salt "corn." Then I thought: "originally corned beef used malted barley corn, or more likely oats."
But this idea does not seem to be true.
Malting barley is a simple process wherein the barley is soaked; the starches turn to sugars in preparation for sprouting; and then the barley is dry roasted. Added to the brine, a brief boiling of the the salt / malt combination would provide the needed sugar. As well, it could be middle eastern in concept. It could in fact be very old.
The online recipes stress that saltpeter, otherwise known as potasssium nitrate, be used in the brine. Indeed, some recipes hint that one needs less salt if saltpeter is used. It keeps the meat from losing the red color while it's brining. I also discovered that barley can contain a fair amount of this nitrate in it. I do not know how much. I doubt as much as the recipes call for. I was starting to think that the higher protein barleys may in fact be higher in nitrates. Some barley has too much protein for beermaking. It clouds the brew. Some plants used as silage, especially oats, develop a fair amount of nitrates. Barley grown in drought apparently does. Thistles can accumulate so much nitrate they tend to burn explosively, according to the internet.
But to throw a curve into all this, I found an old terminology: gunpowder is indeed "corned." Different grain sizes make for different ignition properties. And gunpowder is 75% potassium nitrate. Did, out of desperation, someone store some beef in gunpowder and find it preserved the beef wonderfully? People used to do weird things, and hungry people might turn an oddity into a regular practice. Did a sneaky sailor hide a purloined cut of beef in a load of saltpetre? Did a ship's cook try to save some spoiling beef by rolling it in salt and saltpetre? This sounds ominous. A huge source of saltpetre was found in South America, in the form of guano and its concentrated leachates deposited in nearby soil. The precious stuff even caused the Saltpeter War. (Abraham Lincoln's grandfather also mined saltpeter in Tennessee.) Upon recovering the beef, the sailor might have, upon rinsing it off and boiling it, discovered it tender, red, and delicious. Or was this technology borrowed from elsewhere?
Now saltpeter has been used to preserve meat for quite some time, but tracing it back before gunpowder was known in the West is difficult. Everyone knows gunpowder originated in China. Saltpeter's use in China in food is only hinted at, and I read a report that vaguely suggested eggs were preserved in saltpeter there.
Here's an 1860 recipe for corned beef:
"To one gallon of water, take 1½ pounds of salt, half pound of brown sugar, half ounce of saltpetre; in this ration, the pickle to be increased to any quantity desired. Let these be boiled until all the dirt from the salt and sugar rises to the top and is skimmed off. Then throw the pickle into a large, clean tub to cool, and when *perfectly cold*; pour it over the meat, which must be in a tight barrel or box, which will not leak. After three or four weeks it is cured. The meat must be kept well covered with the brine by putting something heavy on it. The meat must not be put in the brine until it has been killed at least two days, during which time it must be spread out and lightly sprinkled with saltpetre. Twenty gallons of water, 30 pounds of salt, 10 pounds of sugar and 10 ounces of saltpetre will fill a barrel. The same brine can be used a second time by boiling and skimming it well. " - from the Albany Patriot
I will leave for another day the topic of all more modern hot dogs, preserved meats, and nitrate / nitrite health related issues.
I had no saltpeter in the house, (in the name of all that's holy, who does??) but I did have a half oz. of malted barley corns. After a simmer, in they went into the brine. We will see, Mr. Barleycorn, we will see.
Here's something claiming salt is known as "corns:"
"While the process of preserving meat with salt is ancient, food historians tell us corned beef (preserving beef with "corns" or large grains of salt) originated in Medieval Europe. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the first use of the word corn, meaning "small hard particle, a grain, as of sand or salt," in print to 888. The term "corned beef" dates to 1621-"Source. Also, see
The words grain, grind, grown, ground, grist, coin, corn, kernel, granule, groats, grange, garner, granary and garnish all come from a very ancient Indo-European word. Perhaps all this speculation is wrong, and corned beef means "grained" in the sense of "wood grain."
Morton has some products for modern home meat preserving.
This post links to articles on corned beef, saltpeter, Saltpeter War, gunpowder, barley, oats, silage, cabbages, pickling spices, and salt. And a few other things.