Nothing says St. Patrick’s Day like a delicious feast of corned beef and cabbage. But believe it or not, this classic holiday meal is not nearly as popular in Ireland as it is in the United States. It’s become more of a tradition here on St. Patrick’s Day thanks to waves of Irish immigrants, many of whom left the Emerald Isle during the Great Famine between 1845 – 1852 and headed to New York. With them they brought dishes from their native country that were adapted and changed over the years.
One popular Irish dish called “Bacon and Cabbage” included cabbage, potatoes, and Irish bacon, a cured loin cut of pork. Pork was the preferred meat because it was cheap in Ireland. But in the United States, pork was very expensive, so it was swapped out for the much cheaper corned beef, which was similarly cured, but more aggressively spiced. The rest is history.
The process of “corning” is a long (at least ten-day) process involving a brine solution containing various spices. But these days, buying corned beef already vacuum sealed in its brine is much more convenient for the home cook.
Break Out The Slow Cooker
By far the best way to cook the packaged corned beef is in your slow cooker. A decent sized brisket of about five pounds will generally fit in a 6 quart unit. If you prefer the rounds, you can usually get two of them to fit in a large slow cooker. Each 2-5lb. package of corned beef, when cooked and trimmed, will serve 4-6 people. But you’ll want to make extra, for hash and sandwiches.
If your corned beef doesn’t come with a spice packet, you should buy or make up a batch of what is known as “pickling spice.” It includes broken cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds, black peppercorns, allspice berries, dill seeds, cloves, mustard seeds, fennel seeds, dried ginger, crushed bay leaves, as well as red pepper flakes, which you can add during the slow cooking process.
Foolproof Corned Beef and Cabbage
2-5 lbs of corned beef in brine, flat cut or round, or any combination. *Do not discard brine.
Water to cover
Pickling Spice (1 tablespoon per package of meat)
4-5 large carrots, peeled and cut into large (4”) pieces
1 large rutabaga, peeled and cut into large cubes
2 pounds potatoes of your choice. Red skinned, new, or fingerling. Cut into large cubes or left whole with skins on if they are small and clean.
1 large head green cabbage, cut in wedges, leaving the core to hold the leaves together.
To make the corned beef, open the sealed package right over the slow cooker, because you want to include the brine in the cooking liquid. Don’t discard the brine. Place the meat into the cooker and add enough cold water to cover. Add the pickling spices, cover, and cook on high for 6–8 hours. Cooking time depends on the size of the cut, as well as how you like it cooked. The perfect corned beef is tender enough to slice, but without totally “chipping” and falling apart (falling apart is terrific for corned beef hash, but if you’re having guests, slices that hold together are a bit more appetizing). Test the meat with a fork, or cut a small piece and taste for tenderness. When the fork goes in without much resistance, you’re about there.
When the meat is almost done, and you are about an hour from dinner, ladle out most of the cooking liquid and place in a large, heavy bottomed cooking pot. Add the cut potatoes, carrots and rutabaga. Start the root vegetables first, and then add the cabbage, which only needs to cook for 15-20 minutes to desired tenderness.
Slice the corned beef against the grain and serve with the vegetables, cabbage and a generous slice of warm, buttered Irish Soda Bread.
Remember, any imperfect slices, chunks or chips of corned beef won’t go to waste, as they’ll be perfect for hash!