Ever wondered “What is corned beef?” Learn the origins of a favorite St. Patrick’s Day ingredient, plus a handful of ways to enjoy it.
By Aimee Tucker
Mar 16 2021
A Reuben sandwich consists of corned beef,
It’s that time of year again, when the beer turns green and the aroma of corned beef and cabbage fills the air. Calling it an “aroma” might just be the beer talking, but the resulting flavor of meat, vegetables, and corned beef spices is so comforting we overlook the smell and raise our bowls for seconds. But just what is corned beef? Why is some corned beef red and some gray? Why do we eat corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day? Or maybe you’re wondering how to cook corned beef the “right” way? Read on…
The easy answer to “What is corned beef?” is that it’s beef that has been cured in salt. The term has nothing to do with corn, the yellow kerneled vegetable, but the English term for a small particle or granule, such as a grain of salt. In the days before modern refrigeration, salting meat was a way to preserve it and keep it from spoiling.
And why do we eat corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day every March 17th? According to The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, corned beef is an Americanized addition to the traditional Irish diet. While colcannon (boiled potatoes, cabbage, and leeks in buttermilk flavored with wild garlic) was a common Irish dish, as was brown soda bread, corned beef was produced “primarily for export to England.” Upon arriving in America, however, it’s thought the Irish chose to celebrate their holiday with food typically not available to them in their home country, so corned beef was added to the menu, as was white soda bread studded with currants and caraway.
Corned beef is usually made from beef brisket, which is a cut of meat from the breast or lower chest, but the rump, bottom round, and even tongue, can be used. In America, the term “corned beef” is used to describe both the cured meat and the canned stuff found on supermarket shelves. In Britain, they call the former “salt beef.”
To make corned beef (or salt beef), the meat is simmered in a blend of corned beef spices that may include peppercorns, garlic, mustard, tarragon, thyme, parsley, cloves, and nutmeg.
In New England, you most often see corned beef served as a St. Patrick’s Day main dish, or in a sandwich. As the starring ingredient in New England Boiled Dinner, corned beef often pairs with potatoes, carrots, turnips, and cabbage in a hearty, savory, broth-y bowl of goodness. When used in a sandwich, the most popular corned beef sandwich is the Reuben. Considered the quintessential Jewish deli sandwich, a Reuben is toasted rye bread stuffed with hot slices of corned beef (piled high) and topped with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and either Russian or Thousand Island dressing.
SEE MORE: 6 Classic New England Sandwiches
In New England, a frequent point of interest is also whether you prefer red vs. gray corned beef. What’s the difference? “Red” brisket is cured with nitrite, which gives the meat its signature color. “Gray” corned beef (consider the authentic New England variety) is not cured with nitrate, so the color forms naturally as it brines.
Have corned beef leftovers? Here in New England, another corned beef favorite, corned beef hash, is often served at breakfast. Below we’ve supplied an easy corned beef hash recipe, plus a recipe for red-flannel hash (a local variation) if you’re partial to beets.
So just what is corned beef? The short answer is… “It’s delicious!”
Have you ever wondered “What is corned beef?” or searched for the perfect recipe for how to make corned beef at home? Well, you’re not alone — and we’re here to help!
This post was first published in 2016 and has been updated.