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What is Corned Beef?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to DelightedCooking, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon124177 — On Nov 04, 2010

one of your questions I can't answer, about fatty meat. however, why is it so expensive? I guess it's gone the same way as the lowly lobster. back in the early 20th century, they were classed as a poor man's food. how come they're so expensive?

By anon86083 — On May 23, 2010

Popularity dear marathonrunner, popularity! As Oscar Wilde would say. Or "Market forces" as M Thatcher quoted ad nauseum!

By anon86079 — On May 23, 2010

How times have changed! In the 16th century London apprentices revolted! One of the conditions to return to work was that they would be "Not fed salmon more than three times in a week."

By anon77281 — On Apr 13, 2010

"Corned beef was a staple item during the lean times of the Irish famine..."

Where in the world did you hear this? Ha, ha, some impish Paddy must have been pulling your leg! Beef of any sort, corned or not, was a rich man's food in 19th century Ireland. Most of the Irish people never saw a piece of beef their entire lives. That's why the potato blight was so devastating--potatoes were virtually the only food they ate. (Sometimes they would be able to afford a bit of bacon, but this mostly had to be foregone when the blight made potatoes so expensive.)

Corned beef and cabbage is an Irish-American dish, not an Irish one.

By anon16898 — On Aug 17, 2008

speaking of "Food for the Poor" that is now expensive. Back in colonial times, Servants and domestic help where regularly fed Lobster.

By marathonrunner — On Apr 04, 2008

i have a few questions...why is is this cut so fatty? also, if it was a cut that was favored by the poor, why is it so expensive now??!

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to DelightedCooking, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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