Whether you eat it once a year on March 17 or have been known to enjoy a Reuben sandwich on occasion, you’re still left wondering: What is corned beef, exactly? (And what does it have to do with St. Patrick’s Day?) Friend, we have the answers.
What is corned beef?
So glad you asked. Corned beef, also known as “salt beef” in the U.K., is a cut of beef—most often brisket—that’s been cured, or preserved, with salt. It’s typically seasoned with sugar and other spices (like coriander, mustard seeds, bay leaves, cloves and peppercorns). You can think of it like pickling or brining. Oh, and it has nothing to do with corn on the cob. Per food science expert Harold McGee, the name might come from the use of course rock salt to cure the beef. The result is a meat that’s extremely tender and easy to slice, and that before the rise of refrigeration, would keep for a long time.
Why is corned beef eaten on St. Patrick’s Day?
If you eat corned beef and cabbage every March, it might surprise you to know that it’s not a traditional Irish dish. In 19th-century Ireland, corned beef was considered a luxury, with pork products like ham and back bacon being more affordable. But when Irish people immigrated to America, they found that beef was readily available, so it came to replace the traditional bacon and cabbage dish.
How else do you serve corned beef?
Corned beef is prepared differently depending on where you are in the world, but in North America, it’s associated with Jewish and Irish-American cuisines. In Jewish delis, corned beef is served on rye bread with Swiss cheese, Thousand Island dressing and sauerkraut—aka a Reuben. It’s also very similar to pastrami, which is essentially smoked corned beef.