Saturday, March 17, 2012

What is corned beef?

The term has nothing to do with the "corn" vegetable, but rather gets its name from the English word "corn," used to describe any hard, coarse grains.  Because beef, usually brisket or round, is cured with coarse-grained salt, it is called "corned" beef. It can be dry or wet cured, with wet curing accomplished in brine with spices added to the solution.

 Most commercial cures use saltpeter, or potassium or sodium nitrate, to preserve the rosy color of the meat. Cured meats were a traditional way of preserving meats before refrigeration, but corned beef was particularly used in Irish, although mostly Irish-American, Jewish, and Caribbean cultures, as well as German.

The Irish corned their beef and sold it to the English, and later the Americans, to support their navies because the meat was non-perishable. While the Irish had pastured their beef for centuries, when England colonized Ireland they took over the pasture land used for grazing, and ultimately the cattle also, to support their taste for beef. 

Coastal cities like Dublin, Belfast, and Cork developed meat curing and packing industries. With growing English demand forcing prices beyond the Irish pocketbook, the Irish fell back on their potato crop, with disastrous results. During the potato famine, most of the productive land was used for cattle, with little land left to raise crops to provide for the local population. 

Once the Irish migrated to America, they got their first experience with corned beef, an unaffordable luxury item in the old country.

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