Corned beef may not be Irish but it’s our St. Patrick’s Day tradition

Corned beef, cabbage, potatoes and beer.
Corned beef, cabbage, potatoes and beer.

The only food I enjoy more than corned beef is corned beef hash.

With St. Patrick's Day visible on the horizon like a cheerful green mist, we are in a period of pleasant anticipation. Plenty of corned beef is coming our way, with or without cabbage. And if, for some reason, there is any left, then it will be followed by plenty of corned beef hash.

But if you ask an Irishman about the prevalence of corned beef and cabbage in his native land, he will look at you quizzically and say, "What's that? I've never heard of the stuff."

But he will say it in so charming an accent that you won't really care.

Corned beef and cabbage is the great Irish dish that isn't. Associated for decades in America with the Emerald Isle, it is almost never eaten at all in Ireland, although it apparently did originate there.

In her book Irish Traditional Cooking, Darina Allen, who is Irish, wrote, "originally it was a traditional Easter Sunday dinner. The beef, killed before the winter, would have been salted and could now be eaten after the long Lenten fast, with fresh green cabbage and floury potatoes."

To be frank, that sounds a little gross. The beef is killed before winter and not served until the spring? No wonder it is so salty — that is the only way they could preserve it that long.

Corned beef has long been available at stores in the form of uncooked brisket that has already been brined. But that's the easy way out. Real cooks — including real Irish cooks, if you can find any who make it — corn their own beef.

In the United Kingdom, "corn" is used (or was formerly used) to mean the most common local grain, especially if that grain can be milled into flour. From that usage, the word came also to mean anything that is small and granular, such as salt. So when "corn" is used as a verb, as in to corn your own beef, or as a past participle, as in corned beef, it refers to beef that has been salted.

At first, that is probably all corned beef was: salted beef. But over the years, cooks began adding other spices to give the meat that distinctive flavor. Peppercorns are used (another example of "corn" meaning something small and granular), and mustard seed. Coriander and cloves, too, can come into play.

Corning beef is not for the impatient, because it takes several days for the flavors to develop. Most people who do it take a piece of brisket and remove most of the external fat — though it eventually goes through a slow-cooking process, the fat is not rendered as it would be in a barbecue. The beef is then submerged in a spiced brine for five days or a week or more.

The problem with this method is it has to be refrigerated for that whole time, meaning you have to find enough space in your fridge for basically a bucket full of brine and brisket. If you can be absolutely certain the temperature is not going to rise much above 40 degrees for the whole time you will be brining, you can do this step outside.

Or you could follow the method outlined in Canal House Cooks Every Day, by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton. These two women, who served as co-founder and food editor at Saveur magazine for several years, essentially use a rub to corn their beef. They crush their spices, add a lot of salt and some brown sugar, and rub the mixture liberally all over the brisket.

They then put the meat in a resealable plastic bag, squeeze out the air, and put the much-smaller-than-a-bucket bag in the fridge, turning it over once a day.

The only problem with their method, and with the more traditional wet brine method, too, is that they both call for curing salt, which is salt mixed with a little sodium nitrite. Curing salt can be fiendishly hard to find in the Toledo area — unless you go to Williams-Sonoma, which sells a small amount of it for a large amount of money. As it turns out, I did not happen to go there before I made my corned beef, and the result was beef that did not quite have the right flavor (though it is very close) and definitely did not have the familiar pink color.

The result is perfectly safe to eat, but it just doesn't look like corned beef.

The final step in corning your own beef is simmering the spiced beef for three or four hours until it is meltingly tender. I simmered mine in water, which is the way almost everyone does it. But my friends Joe and Tim use any old leftover alcohol they have around the house, and mix it all together: wine, beer, even whiskey.

That seems like a waste of good whiskey. But simmering it in old beer?

What could be more Irish than that?

Contact Daniel Neman at: or 419-724-6155.

Home-Corned Beef

1 beef brisket, about 5 pounds

¾ cup kosher salt

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 tablespoon pink curing salt (see cook's note)

2 tablespoons black peppercorns

2 tablespoons mustard seeds

2 tablespoons coriander seeds

6 bay leaves, roughly torn

6 whole cloves

Cook's note: Pink curing salt is available online, at Williams-Sonoma, and possibly other locations. You can make delicious corned beef without it, but it will not have the distinctive pink color or quite the same taste. It also helps to preserve the meat.

Trim the beef of excessive external fat. Stir together the kosher salt, brown sugar, and pink curing salt (if using) in a small bowl, then rub it all over the brisket. Lightly crush the peppercorns, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, bay leaves, and cloves with a mortar and pestle. Sprinkle the spice mixture all over the brisket, pressing it onto the meat as best you can. Put the brisket into a large resealable plastic bag along with any of the loose spices, and seal, squeezing out the air. Refrigerate for 5-7 days, flipping the bag over every day.

The day of the meal, remove the brisket from the bag and rinse off all the spices under cold running water. Put the brisket in a heavy large pot with a lid and cover with water by several inches. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, skim off the foam from the surface. Reduce the heat to low and cook until tender, 3-4 hours.

Note: This method of making corned beef results in meat that is quite salty. If you prefer less saltiness, use a bigger pot with more water when you simmer the beef.

Yield: 6 servings

Source: Canal House Cooks Every Day, by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton