Ingredient Intelligence

What Exactly Is Corned Beef?

updated Mar 7, 2024
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Every year, as we near the middle of March, mentions of corned beef start to turn up everywhere. Corned beef and cabbage is the Irish-American meal we’re quick to associate with St. Patrick’s Day, and a thick pile of sliced corned beef is the heart of a reuben sandwich.

But have you ever wondered: What exactly is corned beef? And what does it taste like? Here’s everything you need to know about corned beef, including some of our favorite recipes and pro tips for cooking it to perfection every time.

What Exactly Is Corned Beef?

Corned beef is most often made from beef brisket (a relatively inexpensive, tough cut of beef) that’s been cured in a salt brine with a mix of spices, like bay leaf, peppercorns, mustard seed, juniper berries, coriander seed, and whole cloves. And if you’re thinking that mix sounds a lot like pickling spice, you’re exactly right. Wondering where the corn comes in? There’s not actually any corn in corned beef. “Corn” refers to the grains of salt used in the curing process.

Why Is Corned Beef Pink?

Corned beef gets its pink color from the addition of nitrites to the brine. Nitrites are used in small amounts for meat preservation and have the bonus affect of preserving meat’s pink color, even after it’s been cooked. Historically, saltpetre — or potassium nitrite — was used (also an ingredient in gunpowder).

These days, sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate are typically used, often in the form of “curing salt” or “pink salt,” which has been dyed pink to distinguish it from regular salt. Sodium nitrite also prevents the growth of botulism and other bacteria. Excessive consumption of nitrites has been linked to various health problems, including cancer, so it’s best to really limit your intake of meats preserved in this way.

The Difference Between Corned Beef and Pastrami

‘Beef’ refers to all the cuts of meat that come from a cow. This includes, brisket, the cut of beef that is cured to make corned beef. Corned beef and pastrami are both made with beef, although there are several things that set them apart, including the cut of beef and the way it’s cooked.

  • Corned beef is cured beef brisket (the leaner flat cut is typically used) that is most commonly boiled, slow cooked, or pressure cooked. It’s most often served on St. Patrick’s Day alongside cabbage and potatoes.
  • Pastrami is sometimes, but not always, made with cured beef brisket (the fattier end is typically used). Other fattier cuts, such as navel and deckle, are also commonly used. Pastrami is typically smoked, then steamed.

How Do You Make Corned Beef?

Cured corned beef is readily available at most grocers, so there’s little prep work required before cooking (just be sure to rinse the corned beef first). But if you’re game for a project, you can cure a piece of brisket at home to make homemade corned beef.

  1. Make the brine. Make a seasoned brine with brown sugar, mustard seeds, peppercorns, cloves, and other spices.
  2. Cure. Once the brine has cooled, add the beef to it and let it cure in the refrigerator for anywhere from 7 to 10 days
  3. Rinse. Before cooking the beef, be sure to rinse off the brine, otherwise your finished dish will be too salty.
  4. Cook. Corned beef can be prepared in a number of ways, but cooked low and slow with potatoes and cabbage is a great one for St. Patrick’s Day. Don’t forget to turn your leftovers into a classic hash!

Because of the curing process, corned beef doesn’t taste like the beef you’re used to eating when you have a roast or a steak. Once cooked, corned beef has a soft, tender texture and a pinkish-red hue throughout, with a balanced taste that’s salty, spiced, sour, and meaty all at once.

The History of Corned Beef on St. Patrick’s Day

Our association with corned beef as traditional Irish fare can be traced back to the 19th century and the Irish immigration to the U.S. While the newly immigrated Irish were used to eating salt pork back at home, its nearest counterpart, bacon, was prohibitively expensive in the U.S.

Their best option for a lower-cost meat was, you guessed it: corned beef. What was once a luxury item became a food that was now inexpensive and readily available. So it was the Irish-American consumption of corned beef that initiated its association with Ireland and the holiday of St. Patrick’s Day.