Chemical-free Corned Beef

Published in FSD C&U Spotlight

University chef introduces students to corned beef made naturally and with no waste.

By Paul King, Editorial Director

Students at Lawrence University, in Appleton, Wis., recently got to enjoy a very rare treat—a chemical-free corned beef made on site. What’s more, the naturally brined meat was made with almost zero waste.

The corned beef, which was served at a carving station in the residence hall dining room at the 1,500-student university, was created by Executive Chef Alan Shook and Sous Chef William Bauman. The men work for Bon Appétit, the university’s foodservice provider. According to Bauman, the idea came about after some brainstorming about healthier foods.

“We are always trying to find new ways to serve our students healthy and natural food,” Bauman says. “We were reviewing our menu and saw that corned beef was coming up. We’ve had some students in the past tell us that they can’t have things like corned beef because of the nitrites and other chemicals using in the brining. Chef [Shook] and I were talking about it, and we decided there had to be a way to make our own without using chemicals.”

One of the main ingredients in traditional corned beef is tinted curing mixture, which is composed of 94% salt and 6% sodium nitrite. Its purpose is to preserve meat and prevent botulism.

Some searching on the Internet turned up a blog called Nourished Kitchen, which gave the men the recipe they needed. Replacing the tinted curing mixture would be a mix of whey, celery juice and unrefined sea salt. As they began the revamp process, the chefs also set about aiming for a trifecta: naturally made, using local products and leaving no waste.

“We began with a local yogurt, which we wrapped in cheesecloth and hung in the kitchen to extract the whey,” Bauman explains. “After we got as much out of it with this method as we could, we then pressed the yogurt to get out even more liquid. The result was actually a cheese called labneh, which is popular in the Middle East. So we were able to get two products and produce no waste.”

The team did the same with the celery, which they puréed in a blender to extract the juice. Celery juice contains the natural nitrites needed for the preservation of the meat. The celery pulp was made into a sachet, which can be used to help flavor vegetable stocks.

Equal parts whey and celery juice, combined with salt, made up the brine. The beef was rubbed with spices, submerged in the brine and placed in a cooler for seven days.

“Meanwhile, we took our local yogurt and used colanders, large coffee filters, plates and some weights to press out as much of the remaining liquid as we could,” Bauman says. “It made a denser labneh for a better mouthfeel and spreadability. The final product turned out so well it actually takes on the flavor profile of chevre goat cheese, and we’ve started offering it as a healthy alternative spread in our café.”

When the beef was ready, it was simmered in a mixture of brine and additional water for about three hours and then served at the carving station.

“It was definitely worth the effort. We had a juicy, tender corned beef with great flavor and a beautiful light pink hue,” Bauman says. “In the end, the only waste was the brine we discarded. We made a healthier product for our customers and a cool new method to share with the rest of the team.”