What Is Corned Beef?
Corned beef — what would a Rueben be without it? Or St. Patrick’s Day? Pick one up at the market after you learn exactly what it is and how to cook it.
By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen
Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.
You probably have heard of corned beef and cabbage being eaten around St. Patrick's Day; maybe you've also seen corned beef sandwiches at a Jewish deli. But what exactly is corned beef? How is corned beef made? What is the history of corned beef? There is so much to learn, but mainly, don't be intimidated: We'll walk you through everything you need to know.
What Is Corned Beef?
Corned beef is meat that has been cured in a salt solution. Before refrigeration, meat was salted and cured to be preserved. Historically, any type of meat could be put through the curing process that makes what we know as corned beef today. In the U.S., corned beef is made from beef brisket. You might have seen it at Jewish delis, and that's because the brisket is a traditionally kosher cut of meat that's cured to tenderize it.
Why We Eat Corned Beef on St. Patrick’s Day
St. Patrick’s Day as we know it comes from the early Irish Americans. They decided to transform the holiday from a religious feast to a day of celebration for their heritage and homeland. In honor of the occasion, they would splurge on corned beef and accompany it with their traditional potatoes and affordable cabbage. Irish immigrants often lived near Jewish ones, and bought their meat from kosher butchers. Vacuum-sealed pieces of corned beef are now available in the meat aisle at many supermarkets.
The holiday meal quickly became popular throughout the country, with Abraham Lincoln choosing corned beef, cabbage and potatoes as the meal for his first Inaugural Luncheon (which took place on March 4, 1861 — less than two weeks before St. Patrick’s Day).
Though the dish has remained popular since then, the popularity of corned beef and cabbage never made it back across the Atlantic. If you find yourself in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day, you’ll have better luck ordering lamb or bacon instead.
How Is Corned Beef Made?
Corned beef is made in a curing process that takes five to eight days. When DIY-ed at home, a single beef brisket is placed in a large pot of saltwater and spices and kept in the fridge for a week. If you're curious about this process, check out our complete guide on how to make corned beef from scratch.
Large delis will typically have huge barrels of briskets curing in a walk-in cooler.
In addition to beef, water and salt, there are spices, garlic and herbs. The flavor profile often includes bay leaf, black peppercorn, mustard seed, dried red pepper and coriander. If that blend sounds familiar, it’s because it’s same list of spices that are packaged as pickling spice. Not surprising, since corned beef and pickles are commonly made in the same place: a deli. And also maybe why a pickle is always served alongside a good corned beef sandwich.
Why Is Corned Beef Pink?
In addition to the salt and spices that compose corned beef brine, most companies that make corned beef add a salt-nitrite blend called pink curing salt to prevent the beef from spoiling while it's curing. Pink salt looks exactly like regular table salt, only it's pink so people don't get confused and use it to season food. It’s used in many cured meats: bacon, hams, salami and hotdogs.
Why Is It Called Corned Beef?
It's actually pretty simple — corned beef got its name from the dry curing process used to preserve the meat. A slice of beef was covered in “corns” (large, coarse pellets of salt), which would draw out the moisture and prevent the growth of bacteria.
How to Cook Corned Beef
Corned beef is made with beef brisket, a cut of meat that is naturally tough, so it needs to be braised: cooked with moisture at a very low temperature. Cooking low and slow is the key to flavorful, tender corned beef. There is more than one way to braise (in the oven, on the stove, in a slow cooker or in an Instant Pot) and all of them work for corned beef. For more details on braising corned beef using each of these methods, head over to our article: What's the Best Way to Cook Corned Beef?. The ingredients are the same no matter what method you choose. The liquid is usually water with another handful of the brining spices added. Skip the salt; the brining took care of that.
How Long to Cook Corned Beef
You may be wondering how long to boil corned beef. The answer to this question depends on the size of your piece of corned beef. A 3-pound piece of corned beef brisket, for example, takes about 3 hours to braise on the stovetop at a gentle simmer. You'll know corned beef is done cooking when it's very tender but not falling apart. A fork should easily pierce through the meat.
What Is the Difference Between Corned Beef and Pastrami?
Corned beef and pastrami start out the same: briskets are brined and then the corned beef is ready to be cooked. For pastrami, the process is not over. The cured brisket is dried off and then covered with a thick coat of crushed black pepper, coriander, mustard seed, garlic and whatever secret ingredient the deli making it uses. The next step is a day of cold smoking, which imparts flavor but does not cook the pastrami. Finally, the pastrami is steamed to preserve its crust - if it were braised, the crust would float off in the liquid. For even more info on all the differences, check out our story Corned Beef vs Pastrami.
How to Make Corned Beef Hash
Cooked leftover corned beef is perfect for making corned beef hash, a dish full of crispy bites of potato and crackling but succulent corned beef. Heat some oil in a large skillet over medium high, add chopped cooked corned beef and cook until it starts to brown. Then add diced cooked potatoes and diced onion and cook undisturbed until they start to brown and crisp on the bottom. Continue to sauté until the hash is evenly browned. Optional: serve an egg on top.
Corned Beef Recipes
Now that you know more about corned beef, here are some recipes to get you into the kitchen cooking away.
Is there anything easier than corned beef and cabbage cooked in a slow cooker? Beef in first, then the vegetables. Add some spices and water. The hardest part is waiting for it to be ready to eat.
This is the classic corned beef and cabbage recipe. Your go-to for corned beef that is perfect for a meal, sandwiches and hash. Cooking the cabbage and potatoes while the beef rests saves you from overcooked veggies.
Corned Beef Hash with Poached Eggs is a recipe you’ll want to keep front and center in your recipe box because it’s the only corned beef hash recipe you’ll ever need. The poached eggs take it over-the-top.
Hard cider with a wee bit of Irish whiskey is the braising liquid in this version of corned beef. Rutabagas and leeks step in for potatoes and cabbage, a switch that takes it up another notch.
In less time than it takes to make Reuben sandwiches for four, you can have a party-ready Reuben dip that will get rave reviews. It’s basically chopping and stirring - what could be easier?
Corned beef and cabbage cooked in an Instant Pot may be a two-step process, but it sure beats waiting hours for this colorful platter of deliciousness.
The corned beef dish is a tongue-in-cheek nod to the classic corned beef with cabbage and potatoes. Corned beef? Check. Cabbage? Check. Potatoes? Check. They all come together for a comfort meal in a bowl.