Corned beef, also called corned beef brisket, is a popular meat item that hearkens back to the days before refrigeration. Faced with the challenge of preserving fresh meat for the winter season, butchers would routinely pack beef or pork products in salt to prevent the formation of bacteria and mold. Meats like beef brisket could also be pickled in a spicy, salty brine. At one time, the word corn referred to a number of kernels or seeds, including the coarse salt granules packed around the brisket. Thus the meat was called "corned" in reference to the corns of salt.
Even after modern refrigeration and preservation methods rendered brining and pickling obsolete, corned beef continued to grow in popularity among the Jewish and Irish immigrants moving into New York City during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Specialized stores and restaurants called delicatessens served hot sandwiches to a wide variety of customers. From these lower East Side delicatessens a new sandwich would be introduced — the Reuben. The Reuben sandwich combined the saltiness of corned beef with the sourness of sauerkraut and the creaminess of melted Swiss cheese. All these ingredients are served on grilled rye bread with either Russian or 1000 Island dressing as the only condiment.
Another popular dish featuring the meat came from Irish tradition. Corned beef was a staple item during the lean times of the Irish famine, along with fresh or pickled cabbage. To pay homage to those challenging times faced by their ancestors, many Irish families still serve corned beef and cabbage during certain holiday times. The meat is often boiled, not roasted. This allows some of the excess salt and pickling spices to boil out of the meat, and it makes the brisket more tender.
Although corned beef itself is rarely roasted, it can be smoked for added flavor. Smoked brisket is marketed as a luncheon meat called pastrami. Pastrami is often used in the same types of sandwiches, but it has a softer texture and a more peppery flavor.
Whole pastrami loafs are usually covered in a spice rub and whole peppercorns, while corned beef may be marinated in traditional pickling spices. Pastrami has a notoriously short shelf life, so it should be consumed within a few days of purchase. Corned beef can also be combined with potatoes to form a hash, a popular breakfast item in many countries.