March 17th isn’t just St. Patrick’s Day. Did you know it’s also National Corned Beef Day? Corned Beef isn’t just for the lucky Irish though; it’s arguably the most popular Jewish deli meat of them all. But why is called corned beef and how is it made? And where did it originate? Surely these are questions that have crossed your mind. Well, maybe not, but they’ve crossed mine, so I decided to find out for myself and share my findings with you.
Made to travel
Let’s start with the history of corned beef, which was originally made in Ireland. Way back in the 1600s, the city of Cork on the south coast of Ireland was the largest producer of this delectable meat. In fact, it was their top export, and it was shipped in cans all over the world. During the Napoleonic wars, the British army survived on huge supplies of corned beef from Cork.
Before it became known as corned beef, it was simply considered salted beef; even in ancient times, salt delayed spoilage, allowing soldiers to carry and eat it as they traveled, on foot or horseback.
Why is it called “corned”?
So where does the term “corned” come from, and what does it mean? The word was in the 888CE version of the Oxford English Dictionary. The first historical mention dates from 1621 when the English author Richard Burton (no, not that Richard Burton) used the term in his book Anatomy of Melancholy. The word “corned” comes from the German word kurnam, which means a small seed. A kernel of rock salt was said to look like a wheat or oat kernel, and somehow it became common to say it was a corn of salt.
Give it time
So how does a brisket of beef become corned beef? It’s quite simple — time and salt. The meat is cured in a solution of brine (very salty water with various seasonings), and then slowly simmered over low heat until it becomes flavorful and tender. Corned beef can also be made from a beef round cut, but the preferred cut is usually brisket.
One final historical note. Corned beef and cabbage isn’t a traditional Irish meal. It is far more American to serve it on St. Patrick’s Day or at Thanksgiving. If there’s an Irish national dish, it is Colcannon, which contains boiled new potatoes, white cabbage, leeks, and onions, simmered in butter, milk, and garlic.
Okay, enough history. Time to head to your nearest Jewish deli and try some for yourself.