In Ireland, they do not celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with corned beef and cabbage, but rather lamb or bacon, on what has long been a religious holiday there. Why therefore does the rest of the world, in particular the U.S., count this dish synonymous with this day that has become so filled with frolic? It was through numerous developments that the Irish immigrants in America adopted this tradition, with its roots which are actually Gaelic.
These immigrants first arrived here when fleeing the Great Famine, which was brought about by the European potato blight that desperately hit their homeland, starting in 1845. They disembarked knowing only “about” the corn beef of their forefathers, and that differing greatly from what they began to eat in the U.S.
This dish has a complicated history. Beef was originally not regarded as an option in the old country, but rather pork and bacon provided the rare meat at a meal (pig is still their favored animal to be bred only for food). From ancient times on, the common Irishman regarded the cow as a work animal, consuming only its milk products, not its flesh; this latter was primarily reserved only for the wealthy few, and even for them, merely at celebrations and festivals. Salting was their typical means of preserving meat.
When the English conquered this country in the 16th century, the cow turned into a food commodity. Since the time of Roman invasion, the English have had a voracious appetite for beef, hence their need to outsource for this. After their conquest of the Gaelic land, tens of thousands of live cattle were exported yearly across the Irish Sea, until the mid-17th century, when a series of Cattle Acts enacted by the English Parliament put a stop to this export; thus, providing the fuel that ignited the Irish corned beef industry. These Cattle Acts left Ireland with an inundation of cows, bringing meat prices down, and making it affordable and abundant for their salted beef production, their means of preservation; thus, now even the peasant could consume this food.
It was around this time that the term corned beef became popular, because of the large size of salt crystals used to cure it, for they looked like a kernel of corn. The word kernel is derived from the Old English crynel, meaning seed or kernel, a diminutive of corn.
Subsequently Ireland became known for its abundant, high quality salted beef, now called corned beef, which tasted more like salt than beef. In addition to the overflow of cows due to the Cattle Acts, they also had access to the highest quality of imported salt, as their salt tax was one tenth that of England. (In good corned beef, the quality of salt is almost as important as the cut of beef.) The demand for this best-on-the-market, Irish corned beef soared in Europe and the Americas, spiking the price so high that the common Irishman could no longer afford to eat it; thus, the potato, which the English had introduced in the 1580’s, became their major food source in the Gaelic land.
This high, European and American demand for Irish salted beef continued until the end of the 18th century, when the North American colonies began producing their own; the glory days of Irish corned beef came to a close over the next 50 years; hence, the economy in Ireland was affected greatly. This coupled with the Great Famine-brought by the European potato blight starting in 1845-resulted in great destruction in this land, as this plant disease completely destroyed the Irish food source. As a result, about a million people sought refuge in America. Being the land of plenty, they could now afford meat, a first in their lifetimes; that which they chose happened to be the affordable “corn beef”. Here, however, it greatly differed from that of the corned or salted beef of their ancestors 200 years prior.
These immigrants settled in the urban centers of New York and Philadelphia, next to their Jewish neighbors, who had kosher butcher shops, where the Irish bought this product; the Jewish butchers used brisket, a kosher cut, for what they called corned beef. Being a tougher cut, it called for the salting and cooking processes that rendered the extremely tender corn beef, with its exceptional flavors, such as we know today. The Irish paired this with their beloved potato and the inexpensive vegetable cabbage. This “Jewish” corned beef then became the celebratory meal for the American Irish on their religious holiday St. Patrick’s Day. Time transformed this hallowed feast day into its present, grand celebration of Irish heritage.
Today this beef brisket-cut is generally cured or pickled by injecting seasoned brine (the brisket-cut comes from the area just above the front legs; it rests on top of the shank cut, which is immediately above these legs in the forefront). Hence today most of our savory corned briskets never actually touch any salt grains, the size of corn kernels or otherwise, like that of the famous salted beef of old.
Though not the typical corned brisket of the former era, in The Hamilton Cookbook, 2017, Laura Kumin cites Richard Briggs’ 1792 recipe “To Stew a Brisket of Beef”, from The English Art of Cookery: “a pint of red wine, or strong beer, a half of pound of butter, a bunch of sweet herbs, three or four shallots, some pepper and half a nutmeg grated.” Browned, boiled turnips were added at the end, after the liquor-or gravy-had been thickened with “burnt butter”.
The following is my sister’s modern recipe, which calls for braising, resulting in super tender morsels of meat. Enjoy this effortless receipt, while wearing the green this year.
Reay Tannahill, Food in History (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1988, 1973), pp. 289-291.
Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 2004, 1984), p. 175.
Laura Kumin, The Hamilton Cookbook (New York, Nashville: Post Hill Press, 2017), pp. 90, 91.
Corned Beef Brisket Yields: 6-8 servings. Total prep time: 7 1/4 hr for 3 1/2-lb brisket/ active prep time: 30 min/ cooking time: 7 hr (or 2 hr for each lb of meat).
3 1/2 lb corned beef brisket
1 lg yellow onion (Organic vegetables are best.)
8 extra lg cloves garlic, or the equivalent
6-8 red or Yukon gold potatoes, cut in halves
1 1/2 lb green cabbage, cut in sixths or eighths, leaving root on
1-1 1/4 lb carrots, cut in large pieces
2 tsp salt (Himalayan, pink, or Real Salt is critical for optimum health; an inexpensive, fine grind Himalayan salt is available in bulk at Costco.)
Brown sugar (Organic is best; available at Trader Joe’s or Costco.)
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees; take veggies out of refrigerator to warm.
Rub seasonings from spice packet on brisket. Place in oven-proof stock pot with onions and garlic. Barely submerge in water (see photo); cover with lid and braise for 1 hour in oven at 375 degrees; then, lower temperature to 325 degrees, if brisket is normal size of 3 1/2 to 4 lbs-if brisket is larger, only lower heat to 350. Cook meat for 6 hours for 3 1/2 lbs. The TOTAL cooking time should be determined by figuring 2 hrs per lb (this time includes that needed for the replacement of vegetables for the meat the last hour of cooking); thus, a total of 7 hours for a 3 1/2 lb brisket).
- 1 1/3 hour before serving, spray vegetables with an inexpensive, safe, effective vegetable spray (a mixture of 97% distilled white vinegar and 3% hydrogen peroxide); let sit 3 minutes; rinse really well. Scrape carrots with a sharp knife (this preserves vitamins, as opposed to peeling); cut in halves or large pieces; peel the potatoes; if large, cut in halves. Cut cabbage in sixths or eighths, leaving the root on, and set this aside separately.
- 1 hour before serving, remove brisket from braising water, place in a baking dish, covered with tin foil, and set aside. This should be extremely tender; if not, put a little liquid in bottom of dish, cover well with foil, and place back in oven while veggies are cooking (see photo below).
Turn the heat up to 375 degrees. Add potatoes, carrots, and salt to hot broth, cover with additional water, and return to oven to cook until tender, checking periodically. As vegetables are done, remove to a baking dish, with small amount of broth in bottom, cover with foil, and place in oven to keep warm.
- Add cabbage to pot 30 minutes before serving if you like it soft; for a crisper version, add 20 minutes before dinner. (Be sure to check vegetables to see if cooked, remove to baking dish as needed, and return to oven to keep hot.)
- About 30 minutes before serving, prep the glaze, by generously spreading yellow mustard over brisket, sprinkle with brown sugar, and place in oven at 375 degrees. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, or until it bubbles and glaze is formed (see photo at top of recipe).
- Cut meat, cover with foil, and place back in oven, if not ready to serve yet. When all cooking is done, turn oven down to 200 degrees for keeping meal hot.
- To serve, place on platter or plates and surround with vegetables (see initial photo). This dish is best accompanied with Irish Soda Bread, last week’s post.