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What Is Corned Beef? (and Other Facts About "Bully Beef")

Rose West has been an online writer for more than 10 years. She often writes about England, Hawaii, and books.

Corned beef and cabbage is the traditional dish to eat on St. Patrick’s Day—in America, that is. Although corned beef isn't actually very popular in Ireland, Irish Americans love to celebrate their heritage by eating the dish. Even wannabe Irish join in on the fun on March 17th.

St. Patrick's Day is considered a national holiday in Ireland, but those with Irish heritage have been celebrating the holiday in America since the 1700s. Corned beef and cabbage has become recognized as traditional food for St. Paddy's Day, but in fact, the dish is more American than Irish. Read on to learn more about corned beef.

Corned beef in a can.

Corned beef in a can.

Corned beef and cabbage dinners are eaten almost exclusively on St. Patrick’s Day. The rest of the year, corned beef consumption in the U.S. consists mostly of Reuben sandwiches and canned corned beef hash.

The brisket is from the front part of the cow.

The brisket is from the front part of the cow.

What Is the "Corn" in Corned Beef?

The fresh cuts of corned beef you find at the grocery store are usually the brisket cuts. The brisket is from the front part of the cow. The beef is called “corned,” which refers to the curing method of the meat. Corned beef used to be dry-cured using “corns” of salt. Today, this meat is brined with salt water. The method of preserving meat using salt has been around for millenniums, but the combination of corned beef and cabbage originated with Irish Americans in the 1800s.

The Modern Dish Is Based on Bacon and Cabbage

Corned beef and cabbage is a result of the Irish dish bacon and cabbage. The people in Ireland didn’t often eat beef during times of need, eating bacon joint instead. But when the Irish came to America, they learned from their Jewish neighbors about corned beef, which was cheaper and easier to find.

The famous Reuben sandwich.

The famous Reuben sandwich.

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Reuben Sandwiches

Reuben sandwiches are made with rye bread, corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and Thousand Island dressing. The origin of the Reuben is the source of much dispute:

  • One story holds that Arthur Reuben invented the sandwich in 1914 at his New York City restaurant.
  • Another account says that a grocer named Reuben Kulakofsky created the sandwich in Omaha, Nebraska, in the 1920s to feed a group of poker players at a late-night game.

Whatever the beginning of the Reuben sandwich, the end result was a delicious and popular sandwich found at many delis nationwide.

Corned Beef Hash

Corned beef hash is a mixture of corned beef, potatoes, and onions all chopped up together and cooked on the stove. It is often served for breakfast with eggs. A canned version is available at grocery stores.

This can't be edible.

This can't be edible.

Canned Corned Beef

I have my doubts as to whether canned corned beef is really corned beef at all. Personally, it reminds me of cat food. During the World Wars, canned corned beef was given to soldiers on the front, who nicknamed the meat “bully beef.” Much of canned corned beef is actually imported from South America.

Is It Good for You?

Not really. Corned beef isn’t exactly a healthy choice for dinner. Let’s just say you should save it for St. Patrick’s Day only. And even then, you might want to balance it with a healthy dose of Guinness. Although it contains good amounts of vitamin B12 and zinc, corned beef is high in cholesterol, saturated fat, and sodium.

Corned Beef Facts

  • Corned beef and cabbage is an Irish-American dish.
  • "Corned" refers to the size of the salt used to cure the beef.
  • It is considered a spring dish because it used to be cured over the winter.
  • Pastrami is really corned beef that is smoked.
  • President Abraham Lincoln ate this dish at his inauguration dinner in March 1861.
  • One of President Grover Cleveland’s favorite dishes was corned beef and cabbage.

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