What Is an Irish Breakfast?
I was born in London to an English mother and an Irish father, so I’ve definitely had my fair share of full English and Irish breakfasts over the years. Although some ingredients are identical in both breakfasts, some components can be open to (sometimes fierce!) debate, depending on where you are from. So, what is an Irish breakfast and how does it differ from an English one?
In the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, there isn’t just a “full Irish breakfast” that covers the whole of the island. Depending on where you are, you could be eating a traditional full Irish breakfast south of the border or the “Ulster Fry” if you are north. These breakfasts have similarities, but some elements are very specific to the area. More on that later!
What Is an Irish Breakfast?
While it may depend on who you ask and where they are from, a traditional Irish breakfast almost always includes fried eggs with a runny yolk, back bacon (known commonly in the Republic and Northern Ireland as “rashers”), pork sausage, whole or sliced button mushrooms (sautéed in the pork and bacon fat), and tomatoes (either fresh or canned) that are lightly pan-fried. Lastly, it is also very common for the breakfast to be enjoyed with cup of strong black tea with milk.
More common, but sometimes debated, ingredients in an Irish breakfast often include black and white pudding (types of pork sausage), toasted soda bread, and boxty (Irish potato pancakes). Read more on the difference between an Irish breakfast and an English breakfast below!
What Are the Origins of an Irish Breakfast?
An Irish breakfast is thought to have started in neighboring England, where a “proper” breakfast is now known as a “full English” or a “fry-up.” The dish is an iconic part of British cuisine and just as traditional as fish and chips or bangers and mash. It’s said to date back to as early as the 13th century, when it was served as a hearty feast (that included fowl, fish, and offal). It evolved centuries later into a fried breakfast during the Victorian era.
Although the meal started with the upper and middle classes, it went on to be embraced by laborers during the Industrial Revolution and has become a working-class staple since the 1950s — and is still the most common menu item in greasy spoon cafes. To this day, it is not just served in the morning. In other words, it was the original all-day breakfast!
Although it’s not known when the first “full Irish” breakfast was created, it would most likely be at around the same time as the English one, due to Ireland’s proximity and the Protestant landowners (Anglo-Irish gentry) from the English invasion. The Irish breakfast also became a well-known staple amongst farmers, who’d prepare it in the early hours to set them up for the day out in the cold and very wet terrain.
What’s the Difference Between an Irish Breakfast and a Full English Breakfast?
One of the main differences between Irish and English breakfasts is that an Irish breakfast does not include the addition of baked beans or bubble and squeak, which are very particular to England. Additionally, an Irish breakfast will usually include both black and white pudding, while an English breakfast often only has black pudding. Lastly, both Irish and English breakfasts usually include some sort of toast, but in an Irish breakfast, soda bread, brown bread, or farls (Irish triangular flatbread) are often used.
Oh, and What’s an Ulster Fry?
An Ulster fry typically refers to a traditional Irish breakfast, but one particularly associated with Northern Ireland. An Ulster fry usually has the same elements as an Irish breakfast, with a couple of differences. Unlike an Irish breakfast, an Ulster fry sometimes has baked beans as well as potato added, often in the form of boxty.
Here is a more detailed breakdown on the differences between an Irish Breakfast, an English Breakfast, and an Ulster Fry.
- Eggs: Usually fried with the whites set and a runny yolk. The fried eggs are the last thing to be fried in the skillet (scrambled, poached, and boiled eggs are also now offered as an option).
- Back bacon: Typically known as “rashers” in both the Republic and Northern Ireland, this type of bacon is also on English breakfasts. Back bacon is leaner than the streaky kind found here, and the slice is taken from both the loin (the same part Canadian bacon is taken from) and the belly (where American bacon is taken from), so you get the best of both worlds! Back bacon feels meatier and is not served crispy. It can be smoked or unsmoked.
- Sausages: Pork sausages, sometimes referred to as “bangers” in England, are typically fried at the same time as the bacon. In my humble opinion, Ireland makes the best sausages!
- Mushrooms: Whole or sliced button mushrooms are sautéed in the skillet in the rendered sausage and bacon fat (and sometimes the addition of butter).
- Tomatoes: Tomatoes are halved and lightly pan-fried to get some caramelization and cooked with the mushrooms once the bacon and sausages are kept warm in the oven. However, canned whole plum tomatoes are sometimes served in English greasy spoon cafes — these were on my breakfasts at home when I was growing up.
Here is more information on the more particular ingredients that you will usually only find in an Irish breakfast, English breakfast, or an Ulster Fry.
- Black and white pudding: The key ingredients you will always find in an Irish breakfast are the delicious duo of black and white pudding. Black pudding (sometimes referred to as Drisheen in Ireland) is a blood sausage, typically made with pork blood, pork fat or beef suet, cereal or oats, and herbs. Most people either love or hate it (I’m in the former camp!). On its own, black pudding is a crucial ingredient in both the full English and Ulster Fry. White pudding usually always accompanies black pudding on Irish breakfasts and sometimes the Ulster Fry. White pudding is similar to black but without the blood! Both puddings are sliced into thick coins and fried on both sides until crisp.
- Baked beans: Although it has evolved to appear on many Irish breakfasts, it can be slightly controversial to include this, as some people believe this is purely an “Englishism” and should never be seen on the full Irish. It is more prevalent on an Ulster Fry, due to the English influence north of the border. One thing is for sure, and most people will agree: Baked beans should always be Heinz Baked Beans! A good family friend, Conor McCaffrey from County Monaghan in Ireland, would order this as “Irish breakfast with baked beans,” which says it all!
- Fried bread: A delicious, unctuous addition to the full English: Slices of white packaged bread are fried in the rendered fat of the bacon and sausages. Fried bread is not a traditional Irish breakfast item, but frying soda bread and potato farls (or pancakes) in butter are sometimes seen on the Ulster Fry.
- Toast: Toasted white bread with butter is usually served alongside most breakfasts, although soda, “wheaten” (brown) bread, or farls are often the bread of choice for Irish and Ulster Breakfasts. In most of Ireland, the toast would be slathered with Kerrygold butter.
- Boxty: Mainly seen on an Ulster Fry, the Irish potato pancake, boxty, is very specific to some regions of Ireland, including parts of Northern Ireland; border counties such as Fermanagh, Leitrim, and Donegal; and the northern midlands, so you would likely see this on breakfasts in those areas, or some similar potato pancake.
- Bubble and squeak: Although this is officially an English breakfast item, it is only occasionally offered on a full English breakfast. Bubble and squeak is traditionally served the day after a holiday or a Monday (after a Sunday roast dinner). It is made with leftover mashed potatoes and cabbage — similar to Colcannon) and then fried. However, it is often served as a breakfast item in full English in the (previously mentioned) greasy spoon cafes in the U.K.
- Hash browns: This may well be seen on breakfasts in Ireland and England, but this relatively modern American addition has gradually crept its way across the pond and is not traditional in the slightest!
- Tea: Wherever you may be partaking in one of these delicious breakfasts, you will always have a good cup of strong black tea with milk alongside to wash it down. Barry’s Tea is usually the tea of choice in most of Ireland. In the U.K., the most popular and tastiest cuppas are made with P.G. Tips or Yorkshire Gold — the latter I buy in bulk, as I believe it is the king of British tea, and (as some of my friends have sadly discovered) I will happily bore anyone to tears until I convince you of this!