Exploring Corned Beef
"The corned beef is exquisitely done, and as tender as a young lady's heart, all owing to my skilful cookery; for I consulted Mrs. Hale (Sarah Hale's cookbook) at every step, and precisely followed her directions. To say the truth, I look upon it as such a masterpiece in its way, that it seems irreverential to eat it. Things on which so much thought and labor are bestowed should surely be immortal....."— Nathaniel Hawthorne (1844), fending for himself while his wife was away
Corned Beef—As Irish As...
...tacos? It’s true. With St. Patrick’s Day fast approaching, I thought an article exploring the history of this traditional Irish dish would be appropriate. The problem is that it isn’t traditional Irish fare. So, how and when did corned beef become associated with the Isle of Erin?
In The Beginning
Gaelic Ireland was a hierarchical society. The top-most layer of the social order was composed of kings and druid priests who carried out the roles of judge, scholar, poet, and physician. The next level of the hierarchy was skilled craftsmen and musicians. Below these were freemen, those who owned land and cattle. The lowest of the low were serfs and slaves, typically criminals or prisoners of war.
The Gaels were polytheistic or pagan and, it is important to note that theirs was an agrarian society. Cows were sacred, revered for the dairy products they provided and for their strength in working the fields. The consumption of beef was reserved for only the wealthiest, the kings and heads of clans. The general populace scorned these beef-eaters for their gluttony, which is parodied in this 12th-century poem:
Wheatlet, son of Milklet,
Son of juicy Bacon,
Is mine own name.
Is the man’s
That bears my bag.
Haunch of Mutton
Is my dog’s name,
Of lovely leaps.
Lard my wife,
Across the kale-top
Cheese-curds, my daughter,
Goes around the spit,
Fair is her fame.
Corned Beef, my son,
Whose mantle shines
Over a big tail.
Did you notice the mention of bacon? Pigs were the most prevalent animal bred for consumption and pork was the most common form of meat in Ireland. This way of life remained unaltered for centuries until 1542 when Henry VIII of England declared himself King of Ireland; the island was brought under English control and the Gaelic political and social order came to an end.
One generation later, the potato was introduced to Europe from South America. Potatoes grew well in the climate of Ireland and, unlike grains, could easily be stored during the winter months. Keep this fact in mind as we will be returning to it shortly.
Unlike the Irish, the English were a beef-eating society and under the rule of the House of Tudor, tens of thousands of cattle were exported from Ireland to England to feed (pun intended) the growing hunger for the meat. English cattle-breeders objected to this competition and in 1663 a Cattle Act was passed which prohibited the export of cattle from Ireland to England. This resulted in a glut of beef cattle in Ireland where, coincidently, the cost of salt was 1/10th that of England’s. With large quantities of beef and low-cost salt, is it any wonder that Ireland soon became the center of corned beef production? Irish corned beef became such a popular commodity that it even fed both sides of those battling in the Anglo-French War.
Ironically with high demand prices also increased, and the cost of corned beef was still out of reach for the common citizen. But, they still had the potato. With access to this new staple food, the Irish population began to grow, and grow rapidly. In 1570 there were fewer than 1 million people living in Ireland; by 1840 the population had exploded to more than 8 million, most of them poor. This growing population subsisted on a diet comprised mainly of potatoes and milk, a bland and boring diet, but nevertheless one which provided all the nutrition one needed to maintain life.
The disaster began in 1845 when the potato crop was destroyed by an infestation of the fungal disease Phytophthora Infestans, better known as Potato Blight. This devastating disease rotted the potatoes in the ground, rendering entire crops inedible and obliterating the primary food source for millions of people.
There was now nothing for the poor to eat. Although many had enough land to grow crops other than potatoes, they were caught in an impossible bind–they had to sell these crops to pay rent or face eviction. While some landlords allowed their tenants to retain grain crops for food and reduced their tenants’ rents or even waived them, others were merciless.
More than a quarter of a million laborers and tenant farmers were evicted between 1845 and 1854; even more than that number simply walked away from their homes, never to return, rather than face certain starvation. One million died of starvation and/or disease and more than 2 million emigrated; whole families, even whole villages, left en masse.
According to U.S. census records, from 1841 to 1850 780,000 people immigrated from Ireland to America, and in the next 10 years, the number was more than 914,000.
Where's The Beef?
We’ve discussed the importance of the potato in the Irish diet and how the loss of that foodstuff caused the migration of hundreds of thousands of people, prompting them to seek refuge on our shores. And we established that beef was the food of kings; pork, in the form of cured, unsmoked ham, was the protein available to the common Irish family. It is what they were accustomed to and what they sought (and could not find at a reasonable price) here in America. But there was a substitute readily available at Kosher delicatessens—corned beef.
And so we have come full circle, Corned beef was famous in Ireland but out of reach for the common man, so was not a part of the local table. Only when they immigrated to the United States did corned beef become a customary part of the Irish-American diet.
Oven-Braised Corned Beef
Are you looking for a traditional corned beef and cabbage dinner meal? This recipe from the Campbell Soup Company features corned beef simmered in beef broth with cabbage, potatoes, and sweet carrots.
Slow Cooker Corned Beef
The crockpot and corned beef were simply made for each other. That slow cooking coaxes even the toughest piece of meat into submission. This recipe from FoodieCrush tells you how.
Carb Diva's Slow-Roasted Corned Beef
If you have been reading my articles for a while, you will know that I truly believe in the low-and-slow method for cooking meat. Thanksgiving turkey, whole chickens (just like from the deli), and melt-in-your-mouth, fork-tender pork roasts all get the gentle treatment.
I had a friend who wanted to impress me with her cooking skills and invited me to have corned beef and cabbage with her. When I walked into her home I could hear the kettle feverishly boiling away. That poor piece of corned beef had been submerged into a bubbling, unmerciful cauldron. At the appointed time it was snatched from its watery grave and ceremoniously sliced...with much tugging and sawing. It's enough to make one go vegetarian.
OK, so back to the low-slow method, which allows the collagen in the protein fibers to relax, melt (spa treatment) and blissfully submit. Here's my method:
• 3½ to 4 Pound Flat Cut Corned Beef Brisket (yep, that's it)
- One day before you plan to cook, remove the corned beef from its packaging and rinse it off. Soak in clear water, refrigerated overnight, in a covered container to remove additional salt. Change the water and re-rinse at least once during the soaking process.
- Preheat oven to 275°F.
- One hour before beginning to roast, remove the corned beef from the refrigerator and pat dry.
- Place the corned beef in a dutch oven or oven-safe casserole dish with a snug-fitting lid.
- Roast for 6 hours. At this point, it should be soft and buttery. Remove from the oven and allow to rest 30 minutes before slicing.
Home-Cured Corned Beef
Did you know that you can make your own corned beef? Yes, it's really quite simple, economical, and hugely fresh and flavorful. These instructions from SimplyRecipes are easy-to-follow, and they provide links for finding all of the seasoning ingredients you will need.
Vegan Corned Beef
Yes, you read that correctly. I had to put this in for my daughter who has been vegetarian for 20 years but still craves corned beef and cabbage (because I do it so well). Obviously, this isn't really beef, but it provides all the flavor you associate with a Reuben sandwich.
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Linda Lum