The term "corned beef" refers to beef that has been preserved through salt-curing; it is especially popular in Irish and Jewish cuisine. The Jewish form of corned beef usually involves a preparation in which a cut of beef, traditionally the brisket, is cured in a brine solution along with various seasonings and then slowly simmered until the meat is tender and flavorful.
Corned beef can also be made from the beef round primal cut. Both the round and the brisket are relatively tough cuts of meat that are best cooked by slow, moist-heat cooking. Good corned beef is quite tender with a delicious salty flavor. The brine for making corned beef is similar to the brine used for making pickles. Thus, it's fair to say that corned beef is essentially pickled beef.
One of the key ingredients in making corned beef is a curing salt called Prague powder, which is what gives the corned beef its distinctive pink color. Prague powder is made of sodium nitrite, a substance that has been the source of some controversy. Sodium nitrite (as well as sodium nitrate) is a food additive that helps prevent the growth of bacteria that cause spoilage and food poisoning. The Mayo Clinic notes that:
"It's thought that sodium nitrate may damage your blood vessels, making your arteries more likely to harden and narrow, leading to heart disease. Nitrates may also affect the way your body uses sugar, making you more likely to develop diabetes."
Other sources, though, maintain that sodium nitrite is a harmless material that poses no adverse health risks. This argument points out that more nitrite is ingested by eating vegetables such as spinach, celery, and lettuce than by eating cured meats. These vegetables contain concentrations of sodium nitrite up to ten times higher than in cured meats. Cured meats appear to account for only about 6 percent of all nitrites ingested.
Which argument should you believe? In 2012, the World Health Organization listed nitrites as a probable carcinogen, but since then, the American Medical Association has somewhat softened its warnings on nitrites.
Debate continues, but it is currently believed that moderate consumption of cured meats, when combined with a diet rich in foods rich in antioxidants, such as fruits and vegetables, is likely to be safe.
Health-conscious consumers sometimes seek out corned beef advertised as being "nitrite-free." In reality, these products are usually pickled using celery juice. In fact, the celery juice used as a substitute for Prague powder may contain as much as ten times more sodium nitrate as a naturally occurring component. The bottom line is that you will be consuming some amount of sodium nitrite with just about any type of cured meat you eat.
Whether you're simply making corned beef sandwiches or the classic corned beef and cabbage, it's important to slice the corned beef against the grain. Brisket is a good cut of beef to use for making corned beef because it has nice fat content. Beef round, on the other hand, is much leaner; it just depends on your preference. The higher fat content of brisket will produce a moister corned beef, although much of the actual fat will melt away while it cooks.