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What Makes “Corned Beef” Corned?

We’ve all heard of corned beef and cabbage as a St. Patrick’s Day meal. And you may have had a Reuben sandwich stacked high with corned beef. 

But have you ever wondered what it really is? 

Today, we’ll examine how it’s made and the history of corned beef. I hope you’re hungry!

Let’s dig in!

What Is Actually in Corned Beef?

Butchers most often make corned beef from beef brisket. They cure the relatively inexpensive and tough cut of meat in a salt brine with a mix of spices. These spices include bay leaf, peppercorns, mustard seed, juniper berries, coriander seed, and whole cloves. 

This process is very similar to pickling. And if you’re wondering where the corn comes in, well, there’s no corn in corned beef. Corn refers to the grains of salt used in the curing process. The salt draws out the moisture and prevents the growth of bacteria.

The curing process for corned takes five to eight days. When done at home, a single beef brisket is placed in a large pot of salt water and spices and kept in the fridge for a week.

What Does It Taste Like?

Because of this curing process, corned beef doesn’t taste like a typical roast or a steak. Fully cooked corned beef has a soft, tender texture and is pinkish-red. The briny flavors stand out yet retain a balanced taste that’s salty, spiced, sour, and meaty all at once. 

Once cured and spiced, corned beef is naturally very salty. However, this doesn’t always come through in the finished food. The meat’s saltiness depends on how you prepare it. The main ways to enjoy corned beef are boiled, slow-cooked, and baked. They all have a different effect on the taste.

Traditionally, corned beef was always boiled. This is also the best way to leech a lot of salt from the meat. A close second is slow-cooking. The liquid used to cook it will affect the saltiness differently. Finally, baked meat stays somewhat salty because the outside of the meat cooks more quickly than the inside and holds the juices in.

Peppercorns give the meat a subtle peppery flavor, while mustard seeds, bay leaves, and coriander infuse the meat. The soft fat in corned beef also lends some wonderful savory and subtly sweet flavors to the meat.

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Do the Irish Really Eat Corned Beef and Cabbage?

Early Irish Americans transformed St. Patrick’s Day from a religious feast to a celebration of their heritage and homeland. On the occasion, they would splurge on corned beef and accompany it with their traditional potatoes and affordable cabbage. 

The complicated history of beef in Ireland shows us that corned beef has its roots in Ireland. But as we will soon find out, laws on cattle exports, salt taxes, and popularity all impacted how the Irish used beef.

Beef in Ancient Ireland

The cow symbolized wealth in the Gaelic religion and was reserved for royalty. So beef, corned or otherwise, wasn’t often eaten in ancient Ireland. However, the Irish did enjoy dairy products that didn’t require animal slaughtering.

In the 16th century, the cow became a food commodity when the English imported them from Ireland. However, in the 1660s, the English Parliament enacted prohibitions on cattle exports to England. These decisions kept Irish beef at home and drove down prices which made beef more abundant and affordable.

Ireland became the hub for corned beef production due to the abundance of cows and a lower salt tax. Irish companies could import higher-quality salt, usually from Portugal or Spain. 

Irish Corned Beef in the 17th and 18th Centuries

Because quality salt is almost as important as the cut of beef, the Irish developed a reputation for excellent products. Irish corned beef dominated transatlantic trade in the 17th and the beginning of the 18th centuries. 

This trade supplied provisions for both sides of the Anglo-French War. Additionally, Ireland sent corned beef to the West Indies and New World cities such as New York and Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, as demand grew for Irish corned beef, the price spiked. Eventually, the people who made it couldn’t afford to eat it. The Irish settled for pork and a new crop, the potato.

Corned Beef in 19th Century America

In the 1840s, the Great Irish Potato Famine led many Irish to America, looking for a better life.

The Irish immigrants could better afford the corned beef in their adopted homeland by finding work in cities and making more money than at home. 

At the turn of the century, the largest immigrant populations in New York were the Irish and Jews from Eastern Europe. This led to an influx of kosher butchers into New York’s Irish/Jewish neighborhoods. 

Brisket was an overwhelming favorite at New York City kosher butcher shops. So it’s likely that kosher butchers used this cut of meat to make corned beef for their Irish neighbors. 

What Do People in Ireland Actually Eat on St. Patrick’s Day?

Well, the Irish in Ireland don’t eat corned beef for the holiday. On St. Patrick’s Day, you’ll have better luck ordering roasts, such as a leg of lamb with rosemary. Pies are popular, with shepherd’s, haddock, and beef among the favorites.

Slow-cooked beef stews or lamb stews are probably the most popular for this Irish holiday. They’re typically served with colcannon, butter-mashed potatoes with cabbage folded in. 

And how can we skip dessert? Chocolate butter pastry pies are frequently found on Ireland’s St. Patrick’s Day dinner tables.

And when it comes to beer, green beer isn’t a thing in Ireland. However, many Irish will have a Guinness or two during the day and round out the celebration with a good Irish whiskey.

Is Eating Corned Beef Healthy?

Corned beef contains about 285 calories for a four-ounce portion. It also has a staggering 1,286 milligrams of sodium per serving. That’s over half of the daily sodium you’re supposed to have. 

Paired with cabbage, mashed potatoes, and an Irish beer, you’ve got a caloric bomb on your hands.

But there are ways to make the meal healthier. Ask the butcher for an extra-lean cut of corned beef. You can melt away any additional fat by steam-cooking it.

Try a pork tenderloin or a slow-cooked flank steak if you’re willing to give up the corned beef. These dishes are just as mouth-watering and are lower in calories and sodium.

For healthier side dishes, try green vegetables or prepare the cabbage with white wine and sliced apples. In addition, potatoes can be sprinkled with lemon and parsley instead of loaded with butter and salt.

A healthier St. Patrick’s Day meal is beneficial, as a low-sodium diet lowers blood pressure and may decrease the risk of stroke. But if you want to indulge, don’t feel too bad. It’s okay to have foods you love occasionally. As the saying goes, everything in moderation, including moderation.

To Corn or Not to Corn

While corned beef may have Irish roots and is a favorite on St. Patrick’s Day in America, good old-fashioned Irish stew is more common in Ireland. These days, in the US, cured corned beef is readily available at most grocers, so there’s little prep work required before cooking.

You might want to keep it to just once a year, if you’re trying to eat healthily.

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