Column: Savory history of corned beef in America


Commentary by Mark LaFay

We are sneaking up on St Patrick’s day, a day to commemorate the patron saint of Ireland. While many Americans use this as an excuse to slam Guinness and light lagers dyed green, I use it as an excuse to eat corned beef. This year I got to wondering why corned beef and Ireland seem to go hand-in-glove in America. What I found was that the connection between corned beef and St. Patrick’s Day is more a tale of immigration and adaptation than of ancient Irish tradition.

Historically, the Irish were used to consuming salt pork, a pre-cursor to bacon, but when Irish immigrants arrived in America in the 19th century, they found beef to be more abundant and affordable, thanks to the booming cattle industry. The term “corned” beef comes from the large grains or “corns” of salt used to cure the meat, a preservation method necessary before refrigeration.

In the neighborhoods where Irish and Jewish communities intersected, particularly in cities like New York, Irish immigrants encountered Jewish butchers who sold a similar salt-cured meat: brisket. The Irish adopted this method, and thus corned beef became a staple for Irish Americans. So, this year, want to make your own corned beef instead of buying one? Try this recipe. You’ll want to get a brisket and remove the point so that only the flat remains.

Homemade corned beef recipe

  • Ingredients:
    • 1 5-pound brisket
    • 1 gallon water
    • 1 1/2 cups kosher salt
    • 1/2 cup sugar
    • 4 tablespoons pickling spice
    • 3 garlic cloves, minced
    • 2 teaspoons pink curing salt (sodium nitrite)
  • Instructions:
    • In a large pot, combine water, kosher salt, sugar, pickling spice, garlic and pink curing salt. Bring to a simmer, stirring until salt and sugar are dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until chilled.
    • Place the brisket in a large, sealable bag. Pour the chilled brine over the meat, ensuring it is completely submerged. Seal the bag, removing as much air as possible.
    • Refrigerate the brisket in the brine for five to seven days, turning the bag daily to ensure even curing.
    • After curing, remove the brisket from the brine and rinse under cold water. Cook as desired, typically by simmering in water with additional pickling spice until tender. I like to slow cook in the oven at 225 degrees until nice and tender. I’ll finish the corned beef by make a mixture of equal parts yellow mustard and brown sugar, cover the top of the brisket and allow the brown sugar to caramelize under the broiler, but be sure to not scorch it!