What Is Corned Beef, Exactly?

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Here's everything you need to know about this cross-cultural dish with the funny name

Whether you’ve seen it on the menu in a Jewish deli or eaten it alongside cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day, corned beef is a food that crosses cultures, with a name that can be a bit confusing. What is corned beef? Is there actually corn involved? Is there actually beef? Wait, corn can be a verb?

Indeed, corned beef is as much of an enigma for some people as what SPAM is or what hot dogs are made of. That’s why we spoke to one of the country’s top experts on corned beef to get the skinny on this delicious dish—and provide you with some food facts trivia in the process. Here, is everything you need to know about corned beef.

Why is it called corned beef?

First, the question on everyone’s mind: What’s the deal with “corned”? “Corning, more generally, is just pickling,” explains Jake Dell, one of the owners of the famous Katz’s Delicatessen in New York City. “It’s not about putting corn in anything. It’s the salt bath.” Indeed, corned beef is beef that has been pickled, or cured in salt for an extended period of time. “That preserves it and gives it some flavor,” says Dell, adding that the process comes from a time before refrigeration, when people needed other ways to preserve meat. “When you don’t have a fridge, it’s salt or smoke or a combo that preserves it and makes it taste delicious.”

What is corned beef?

Corned beef starts with a brisket cut of beef, says Dell. “You could do it with other cuts, but part of what makes a really good corned beef using a brisket is the fat distribution within the meat. That’s important.” Next comes the corning, or pickling, which, in the case of Katz’s corned beef, takes about a month—though you can really cure the beef for as short or as long as you’d like.

Once the beef is done corning, it is boiled for four to five hours and then steamed. “The point of that process is to soften up a very hard piece of meat,” explains Dell. “The fat should cook off and render in a way that is delicious.” Once it has been boiled and steamed, the corned beef is ready to slice and enjoy.

Why do we eat corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day?

While many people will enjoy corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day, Katz says the dish is not inherently Irish. “It’s a Lower East Side dish in many ways,” he says, referring to the neighborhood in New York City. “There was a period of time [in the 19th century] when this was the most densely populated neighborhood in the world. You had immigrant groups from all over the world living on top of each other. You had a blending of cultures, one of which was Irish, along with Eastern European Jews who needed to feed their families. Corned beef and cabbage was the combination of inexpensive cuts of meat and inexpensive vegetables. And it’s filling.”

Indeed, corned beef and cabbage is a strictly Irish American dish. In fact, it became so ubiquitous among those communities that when choosing the menu for his first Inaugural Luncheon on March 4, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln chose corned beef, cabbage and potatoes!

What’s the difference between beef and corned beef?

You now know that one of the possible answers to “What is corned beef?” is that it is beef (unlike with a hamburger, which isn’t ham)—and that beef is brisket, preferably. “Corned” refers to the pickling process it undergoes as the first step of preparation for eating.

What’s the difference between pastrami and corned beef?

There are two primary differences between pastrami and corned beef. While corned beef uses brisket, which has a layer of fat on top, pastrami is typically made from a navel cut of beef, which has the fat on the inside. This makes it ideal for smoking, which takes the place of curing in the preparation of pastrami.

“During the smoking process the fat oozes out in both directions, which is the reason you want the fat on the inside,” explains Dell of pastrami. “There are also more spices in the rub for pastrami, which has salt but also garlic and coriander.” Like corned beef, pastrami is boiled and steamed to soften the meat before it is sliced to eat. “Corned beef used to be more popular by a ratio of two to one, now it’s the other way around,” notes Dell, likely thanks in part to the spread of the Reuben sandwich onto menus across the country.

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Alyssa Sybertz
Alyssa Sybertz is a lifestyle writer and food expert covering cookbooks, cooking, and all things kitchen, plus healthy tips and happiness boosters for Reader's Digest. When she's not writing about things that bring her joy, she's hiking, cooking or reading (and writing) romance. Alyssa is also the author of The OMAD Diet.