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St. Patrick’s Day It's About Corned Beef

No food says St. Patrick’s Day liked corned beef. A perennial holiday favorite that appears on tens of thousands of Irish and non-Irish tables every March 17, corned beef is one of those foods that seems to remain hidden much of the rest of the year, with the exception of its appearance at delicatessens, where it winds up on rye bread garnished with mustard and sometimes Russian dressing and coleslaw.

Most Irish will tell you that the American corned beef and cabbage dinner is just that – American – but corned beef itself is indeed a food that boasts a long Irish history.

What is Corned Beef?

Food experts say that the word “corned” as it applies to a food preserving technique has been in the Oxford English Dictionary since the 9th century.

For preserving purposes, meat would be placed in some sort of large vessel, like a ceramic crock, and would then be covered with pieces of rock salt. Because the rock salt was similar in size to a kernel of corn or oats, these pieces became known as “corns” of salt.It is believed that these crocks of meat often sat all winter and were brought out in the spring for a celebratory meal in many locales where corning was common practice.

However, the Irish – especially in poor times – were rarely treated to any kind of beef. Instead, their cows were used for milk and beef was a rare delicacy that often was served to royalty. But this salted beef did indeed hold some profit potential for the Irish. By the 17th century, the cities of Cork and Dublin were huge producers of Irish cured beef and the meat was regularly exported to France, England, and other European countries and, later, to America.

It is believed that when Irish immigrants came to America, they began the tradition of eating corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day to honor their ancestors. This practice began in the late 1800s and has continued through the decades. Many Irish will say, however, that the combination of corned beef and cabbage isn’t very Irish at all, but it is a tradition that has indeed become synonymous with the holiday, especially in the United States.

Buying Corned Beef

For a good corned beef and cabbage meal, you’ll need to purchase a whole or partial corned beef brisket. They can be found in abundance in grocery stores around St. Patrick’s Day but aren’t so common the rest of the year.

Choosing the right cut of corned beef will probably mean the difference between getting a tender piece of meat and one that’s chewy and gristly. Corned beef is available in three cuts: the flat, which is lean with a consistent thickness; the point, which is the thicker end that often appears with lots of marbling; and the whole brisket, which contains both the flat and point. The latter is a good choice as it will give you a little of both.

Marbling is what gives the meat flavor, so don’t fear that part. If it’s cooked correctly, the fat melts away and makes the meat juicy and flavorful. But if you prefer to save on calories, you’ll want to eat from the flat end.

Cooking Corned Beef

Cooking is what will determine the success of your meal. Corned beef, because of the nature of the cut, should ALWAYS be slow cooked or braised. Braising allows the connective tissue to break down and become tender. Corned beef should never be dry-cooked as the result will resemble shoe leather!

Braising involves placing a small amount of liquid in with the beef, covering it, and letting it bake for several hours. Depending on the recipe you’re using, this can be done in the oven or in a slow cooker, which is especially convenient for those who want to prepare the St. Patrick’s Day meal while they’re working outside the house. Oven cooking bags can be used as well.

You’ll know the meat is cooked when it reaches about 165 degrees on a meat thermometer or when a fork stuck in the thickest end encounters just a little resistance when pulled out. Corned beef that falls apart when stuck with the fork may be overcooked.