The History of Corned Beef


With St. Patrick’s Day right around the corner, you’re dreaming of four-leaf clovers, green beer, leprechauns, and corned beef and cabbage. When you run a restaurant or foodservice business, this is the time of year you bring out all your favorite recipes for corned beef and cabbage. This year, it might be fun to learn a little more about the history of this infamous dish.

Did the Irish always love corned beef? When did the Irish start exporting it? Well, it’s all a matter of history.

Gaelic Ireland

Before the British conquered the Irish, the cows in Ireland weren’t really seen as a source of meat. These cows were used to plow the fields, give milk, and create other dairy products. In fact, cow ownership was seen as a symbol of wealth. Even today, the Irish don’t eat a lot of beef.

In the days before refrigeration, the meat had to be salted to extend its edibility. When the British invaded and conquered most of Ireland, the cow’s place in the food chain began to change. The British love their beef. Ireland began sending the British cattle.

The Cattle Act of 1663 and 1667

The Cattle Act of 1663 and 1667 made it illegal for the Irish to send living cattle to Britain; however, this didn’t diminish the British’s desire for beef. It also allowed the Irish to enjoy lower-priced beef due to the number of cows no longer exported to Britain.

The British came up with the phrase “corned beef” due to the size of the salt crystals used by the Irish. It was the size of a kernel of corn. Irish corned beef became a sought-after delicacy around the world. It was also less expensive due to a lower tax on salt.

Ireland supplied the British, French, and the colonies in the New World. It’s interesting to note that during a war with France, the British allowed the French access to Ireland for corned beef. You might think this is the same corned beef that you enjoy today, but it wasn’t. It was a very salty beef similar to country ham.

Although Irish corned beef was regaled around Europe and the Colonies, the Irish couldn’t afford it. Many survived on potatoes that had been brought to Ireland by the British.

19th and 20th Century

By the end of the 18th century, the popularity of Irish corned beef waned. In the middle of the 19th century, Ireland experienced a potato blight, and the Great Famine began. This left many Irishmen looking to England and further afield for a new home. More than a million people died and the same number immigrated to the United States.

Modern Day Corned Beef

After arriving in the United States, many of the Irish people faced prejudice and tended to ban together in major cities. These new immigrants found themselves making more money than they had before. Due to the increase in wealth, these Irish immigrants began eating beef — corned beef. This was a very different corned beef than their ancestors made.

Most of the corned beef was bought from Jewish shops, and the meat was kosher. It also came from a different cut of the cow. It was typically a brisket that needed tenderizing. The immigrants threw it into a pot with cabbage and potatoes. Modern-day corned beef and cabbage were born.

It’s always fun to learn a little more about the dishes you’re creating in your restaurant or foodservice business. When you’re ready to start whipping up your corned beef and cabbage, Alto-Hartley offers a tilting skillet that makes a nice alternative to cooking this dish. Contact us with any questions or to place an order.

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