The Very Interesting History of Irish Corned Beef

Plus three recipes to try this weekend

March 15, 2024 6:36 am
Corned beef cooked and sliced on a cutting board next to a knife
Is your mouth watering yet?
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At first impression, Irish and Jewish cultures may not have much overlap. A large exception, however, comes in the form of one of the greatest foods on the planet — the St. Patrick’s Day staple, corned beef. How exactly did this food, also a mainstay in every Jewish deli, become the culinary symbol of the Irish holiday? The answer lies in its detailed history, going back a few hundred years.

The process of making corned beef involves curing and brining to impart its distinctive flavor and pink color. Typically starting with a brisket cut, the meat is submerged in a seasoned brine solution that includes ingredients like kosher salt, sugar and sodium nitrate, or “pink salt.” This curing agent not only enhances the meat’s color but also acts as a preservative.

During the course of about a week, the beef undergoes a slow curing process, allowing the flavors to penetrate the meat. The pink salt reacts with the natural proteins in the beef, resulting in the characteristic pink hue. After sufficient curing, the corned beef is ready for cooking. Boiling or slow cooking is common, as it helps tenderize the meat and further infuses it with the rich flavors developed during the curing process. In many ways, corned beef is a centuries-old cold cut, given the processing required to make it. 

It tracks, given the necessity for preserved meat centuries ago. In the 1800s, Ireland gained prominence as a significant producer of beef, utilizing salt for meat preservation. This led to the export of large quantities of beef, which required curing (this was called “corning” because of the large corn-sized chunks of salt used). The corned beef of this era was incredibly salty, more akin to a modern jerky. Corned beef, however, remained financially out of reach for the majority of the Irish population because of the economic hardships imposed by British rule, despite Ireland being such a big producer. In fact, corned beef didn’t become prevalent in everyday Irish culture until the great Irish migration to the United States, specifically New York City. 

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe settled in the United States, often in close proximity to Irish communities, Corned beef, particularly the brisket cut, became a popular and affordable option for Jewish immigrants. The curing and brining process, incorporating sodium nitrate, aligned with Jewish dietary laws, preserving the meat and resulting in a flavorful, tender product. This culinary adaptation gave rise to iconic dishes like the classic corned beef sandwich on rye bread, solidifying it as a staple in Jewish delis and as a celebrated component of Jewish American cuisine. Irish immigrants, recognizing both the cut and process made popular by their neighbor, re-integrated corned beef into their culture. 

Today, corned beef is celebrated both during St. Patrick’s Day and behind Jewish deli counters. Given its incredible flavor and texture, corned beef is a dark-horse star in the kitchen. When you source your meat, look for high quality brands, and bonus points if you can buy an uncut chunk, which will have better texture than pre-cut). The following recipes show off corned beef’s delicious versatility in the kitchen.

Corned Beef Lengua Tacos with Horseradish, Mustard and Lettuce
Corned Beef Tacos
The Washington Post via Getty Images

Look beyond the confines of the classic Reuben with these corned beef tacos. In this recipe, the corned beef takes center stage, adorned with a melted layer of Swiss cheese and crowned with a caraway-forward slaw and pickled red onions. A cross between a Reuben and a taco, this will become your favorite lunch all year long.

Corned Beef Tacos With Pickled Red Onions and Caraway Slaw

Servings: 3-4

  • 1 lb. corned beef, chopped
  • 8 small flour tortillas
  • 1 cup shredded Swiss cheese
  • 2 cups shredded green cabbage
  • 1 cup shredded carrots
  • .5 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 Tbsp. honey
  • 1 tsp. caraway seeds
  • 1 large red onion, thinly sliced
  • .5 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • For the pickled onions:
    1. In a small saucepan, combine the apple cider vinegar, sugar and salt. Heat the mixture over medium heat, stirring until the sugar and salt completely dissolve. Once the vinegar mixture is dissolved, remove it from the heat and let it cool slightly.

    2. Pour the warm vinegar mixture over the sliced red onions in a heat safe jar or other vessel, ensuring the onions are completely covered. Allow the pickling liquid to cool to room temperature. Once cooled, seal tightly and refrigerate for at least 1 to 2 hours before consuming.

  • For the slaw:
    1. In a large bowl, combine the shredded cabbage and carrots. In a separate bowl, whisk together mayonnaise, apple cider vinegar, Dijon mustard, honey, caraway seeds and a pinch of salt. Pour the dressing over the cabbage mixture and toss until well coated. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes to allow the flavors to meld.

  • For the tacos:
    1. In a skillet over medium heat, warm the chopped corned beef until heated through, 6 to 8 minutes. Once the corned beef is warmed through, transfer into a bowl and toast the tortillas, 30 seconds per side.

    2. Spoon a generous portion of the warmed corned beef onto each tortilla. Sprinkle shredded Swiss cheese on top, allowing it to melt slightly. Top the tacos with a generous helping of the caraway slaw and pickled onions.

An Honest Appraisal of NYC’s First Plant-Based Corned Beef
Two New Yorkers walk into a deli serving fake cured meat …

Drizzled generously with Welsh Rarebit, an Irish beer cheese sauce, these loaded fries redefine comfort food. Topped with green onions and jalapeños, they’re the perfect blend of crunchy, savory and cheesy.

Corned Beef Loaded French Fries

Servings: 4

  • 1 lb. corned beef, chopped
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. minced garlic
  • 1 lb. frozen French fries
  • 1 cup Welsh Rarebit cheese sauce or nacho cheese sauce
  • .25 cup chopped green onions
  • 1/3 cup pickled jalapeños
    1. Prepare French fries according to package directions. As the fries cook, heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add minced garlic and chopped corned beef. Sauté until heated through and just brown, 7 to 8 minutes. Remove from heat.

    2. Arrange the crispy fries on a large serving platter. Spoon the sautéed corned beef over the fries, then generously drizzle the cheese sauce on top. Sprinkle with chopped green onions and pickled jalapeños. 

We’re big fans of onions on pizza, and this recipe takes it up another notch with the addition of corned beef. Whether you serve it as an app or make it a meal, it’s a fun culinary mashup of which we can’t get enough.

Corned Beef and Onion Flatbread Pizza

Servings: 2

  • 1 flatbread or pre-made pizza crust
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella or Swiss cheese
  • 1 cup corned beef, chopped
  • 1 large onion, thinly sliced
  • Olive oil for drizzling
  • 2 Tbsp. butter
  • 1 large onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 Tbsp. brown sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • .25 tsp. salt
  • .25 cup fresh parsley, chopped
    1. Preheat the oven to 425°F. As the oven heats, melt butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add thinly sliced onions, brown sugar and salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and just golden, 12 to 14 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the Dijon mustard. Set aside.

    2. Place the flatbread or pizza crust on a baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil, and top with cheese, onions and corned beef. Place the baking sheet in the preheated oven and bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until the cheese is melted and bubbly and the edges of the flatbread are golden brown. Once cooked, remove from the oven, garnish with parsley and cut to serve.


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