Wait, What Is Corned Beef?

Here's the real story on corned beef and how it got its name.



Photo by: bhofack2/Getty Images

bhofack2/Getty Images

We already know you love corned beef — one bite of that tender, salty meat instantly brings to mind glittering shamrocks, green beer and Irish flags. However, corned beef is not just a St. Patrick’s Day tradition. The hearty meat has actually been around for centuries — and, believe it or not, it’s hardly consumed in Ireland. In fact, the corned beef we know and love today has a complex, varied history that’s so much more than simply boiling with cabbage. That’s why we’re taking a deep dive into the real history of this iconic dish.

Why It’s 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. But how did that process turn into the cultural phenomenon we enjoy today?

Well, the real reason Ireland is so closely associated with corned beef all boils down (see what we did there?) to one concept — taxes. Back in the 17th century, Ireland’s salt tax was significantly lower than that of England and France, which meant the country could import the highest quality salt at an affordable price. Around that same time, a new law was passed that prohibited the Irish (who considered cows to be sacred and rarely ate beef) from exporting live cattle to England (a beef-eating culture).

So, with lots of salt and tons of cows, it’s no surprise that Ireland quickly became known for its corned beef production, exporting the meat across Europe and the Americas.

Corned Beef in America

Back in Ireland, the majority of the Irish population continued to avoid beef, often eating pork and nutrient-rich potatoes instead. It wasn’t until the Great Famine, when the Irish population immigrated to America (with the largest numbers in New York City), that they began to purchase beef from kosher butchers. As Smithsonian Magazine writes, “the beef they could afford just happened to be corned beef, the thing their great grandparents were famous for.”

To make their corned beef, Jewish butchers turned to brisket, a tough cut of meat. By salting and slow-cooking the brisket, the beef would become tender, flavorful and easy to slice. This method is similar to how we cook corned beef today, as demonstrated by Alton Brown’s traditional corned beef recipe, in which he prepares a brine (or “wet cure”) of salt, water and spices to rest brisket in for 10 days. After spending more than a week in the brine, the beef is boiled for three hours until tender and tasty.

Though the root of the process is similar to the Irish’s dry cure for corned beef (it all starts with salt, after all), a brine draws even more moisture back into the beef, creating a juicer (and tastier!) dish.

Why We Eat Corned Beef on St. Patrick’s Day

According to Smithsonian Magazine, 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 from the butcher and accompany it with their traditional potatoes and affordable cabbage.

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.

Craving Corned Beef?

If all this history made you hungry, we’ve got it covered.

For a classic recipe, Tyler Florence’s five-star Corned Beef and Cabbage is hard to beat. Like Alton, Tyler prepares a brine that he rests a brisket in for up to 10 days. Once pickled, he boils the corned beef with cabbage, onion and carrots. While that’s cooking, he prepares a side of buttery boiled veggies, including (obviously) traditional potatoes.

Got extras? Put them to good use with Food Network Kitchen’s Corned Beef Hash. It’s the perfect savory breakfast (or dinner — no judgment here). Make sure you reserve some cooking liquid when you boil the corned beef — it’ll be used to help bind the hash together.

If you prefer your corned beef on the convenient side, this Corned Beef Hash Brown Casserole is the obvious choice. Frozen tots and deli meat make a hearty breakfast that only requires 10 minutes of prep work.

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