What Is Corned Beef?

Every year when St. Patrick’s Day rolls around, my friend with a half-Irish great grandmother starts to wistfully reminisce about his Irish homeland. Then he makes all of us go to a crowded bar to eat overpriced corned beef and cabbage while he scream-sings along to Irish standards he doesn’t know the words to. We know that corned beef comes out in restaurants and grocery stores every March, but what is it? What’s corned beef? How is corned beef made? Why is it called corned beef? And why is it so associated with St. Paddy’s Day? Let’s find out!

What is corned beef?

Corned beef is basically salt-cured beef (with some pickling spices thrown into the mix). It is typically boiled after it’s cured, and often enjoyed with cooked cabbage. There’s also canned corn beef, or tinned corn beef. It’s basically corned beef in a can, like Spam. Canned corn beef rose in popularity in the early 1900s as a ration for soldiers. Canned corned beef is made with tough cuts of beef that are cured, boiled, and cut into small pieces. Those small cuts are put into a can with their juices, which become a gelatin. These days, canned corn beef is a staple food in many countries—and it’s a great base for corned beef hash (which you can also get canned if you’re feeling lazy). 

What part of the cow is corned beef?

Corned beef comes from the toughest cuts of beef, usually brisket. That’s right, those beautiful cuts of smoked brisket you see in Texas-style barbecue are the same cuts of meat that are used to produce corned beef. 

How is corned beef made?

Corned beef is made by taking that cut of brisket and curing it in pickling spices (we’re talking things like mustard seeds, allspice berries, and coriander seeds) and salt for about five days. Nitrates cure the beef, preventing it from spoiling and giving it that signature pink color. The salt-curing process with the pickling spices also gives corned beef its unique taste. 

What does corned beef taste like?

Corned beef tastes briney, meaty, spiced, and a little sour all at once. 

Why is it called corned beef?

We can all see the beef, but where exactly does this corn come into play? Are we soaking big cuts of brisket in corn? In the case of corned beef, the corn refers to the salt used in the curing process. In 17th century England, “corn” was used to describe the size of a grain. So, there were corns of cereal and corns of salt. The little corns of salt were used in the corned beef curing process. That’s how corned beef got the name corned beef.

Is corned beef Irish?

Corned beef is eaten across the U.S. to celebrate St. Patrick’s day, but is it actually Irish? Well, sort of. Corned beef came from Ireland but it wasn’t really eaten in Ireland. Going way back in history, Ireland has raised great cattle, but, according to Smithsonian Magazine, it was primarily used for dairy production. Beef was rarely eaten, and if it was it was only eaten by the rich or for a festival. And the beef was often salted so it would last longer—though, originally, it was cured in sea ash rather than actual salt. 

But then came the beef-eating British. The demand for beef in England was high, so the Irish began producing beef to sell and export to the British. Then, everything changed with the Cattle Acts of 1663 and 1667, which forbid imported live cattle. This drove the price of Irish beef way down. Ireland had a much cheaper salt tax than England, so it could get that good salt from Spain and Portugal. So, Ireland began to salt cure its beef. And people loved it. 

This salt-cured, or “corned,” beef became the new hot export for Ireland. They sent it to the French and British navies, and it was also popular with the colonies. But still, many Irish farmers that made it still couldn’t afford it and actually ate more salt-cured pork and bacon

In response to the potato famine in 1840, Irish immigrants traveled to America, clustering in cities like New York, where they made a bit more money than they could in Ireland. It still wasn’t enough to buy a prime steak, but they could afford the corned beef in the kosher butcher shops. Yes, there’s Jewish corned beef, too. And that’s where the Irish-American corned beef association began. 

However corned beef got here, I’m glad it did so that I have something to eat with all this cabbage. But if you really want to eat like the Irish this Saint Patrick’s Day, you’ll stick with bacon. 

About the Author

Will Morgan

Will Morgan, a freelance contributor to Sporked, is an L.A. based writer, actor, and sketch comedy guy. Originally from Houston, TX, he strongly believes in the superiority of breakfast tacos to breakfast burritos. Will traveled the world as one of those people that did yoyo shows at elementary school assemblies, always making a point to find local and regional foods to explore in whatever place he was, even in rinky-dink towns like Tilsonberg, ON. Will spends his birthdays at Benihana’s. Let him know if can make it.

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