Wait, What Is Corned Beef? (and What Does It Have to Do with St. Patrick’s Day?)

We could go for a Reuben right now

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what is corned beef: a reuben sandwich
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Whether you eat it once a year on March 17 or have been known to enjoy a Reuben sandwich on occasion, you’re still left wondering: What is corned beef, exactly? (And what does it have to do with St. Patrick’s Day?) Friend, we have the answers.

What Is Corned Beef?

Corned beef is a cut of beef—most often brisket—that’s been cured, or preserved, with salt. (It’s also known as “salt beef” in the U.K.) It’s typically seasoned with sugar and other spices (like coriander, mustard seeds, bay leaves, cloves and peppercorns). You can think of it like pickling or brining. Oh, and it has nothing to do with corn on the cob. Per food science expert Harold McGee, the name might come from the use of course rock salt to cure the beef. The result is a meat that’s extremely tender and easy to slice, and that before the rise of refrigeration, would keep for a long time.

How Is Corned Beef Made?

Making corned beef involves brining a piece of beef brisket in pink curing salt and a mixture of spices for anywhere from five days to an entire week, then cooking the meat until fall-apart tender. Making it at home from scratch is easier than you’d think: The curing salt can be purchased online, and the brined meat can be cooked in the oven, on the stove, or even in a slow cooker or Instant Pot.

Is Corned Beef a Healthy Meat?

Per the USDA, a three-ounce serving of corned beef contains:

  • 213 calories
  • 0.4 grams carbohydrates
  • 15 grams protein
  • 16 grams fat
  • 827 milligrams sodium

Although it’s high in protein, corned beef isn’t the healthiest choice and is best enjoyed infrequently. That’s partly because, per the Cleveland Clinic, the consumption of red meat is associated with a higher risk of cancer, high cholesterol and heart disease; additionally, per Harvard Medical School, processed meats are linked to chronic diseases and mortality. Corned beef is also high in sodium, containing 34 percent of the recommended daily allowance in one serving.

what is corned beef: a piece of corned beef sliced over cabbage and potatoes
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What Makes Corned Beef Different from Regular Beef?

Corned beef is a type of beef—the “corned” part refers to the salt-curing process, and any type of beef can be cured. Doing so adds a distinct pink color and salty flavor to the dish.

Why Is Corned Beef Eaten on St. Patrick’s Day?

If you eat corned beef and cabbage every March, it might surprise you to know that it’s not a traditional Irish dish. In 19th-century Ireland, corned beef was considered a luxury, with pork products like ham and back bacon being more affordable. But when Irish people immigrated to America, they found that beef was readily available, so it came to replace the traditional bacon and cabbage dish.

How Do You Serve Corned Beef?

Corned beef is prepared differently depending on where you are in the world, but in North America, it’s associated with Jewish and Irish-American cuisines. On St. Patrick’s Day, Irish Catholics serve corned beef alongside cabbage and other cooked vegetables. In Jewish delis, corned beef is served on rye bread with Swiss cheese, Thousand Island dressing and sauerkraut—aka a Reuben. It’s also very similar to pastrami, which is essentially a smoked corned beef that’s served hot on sandwiches. Beef brisket is similar to corned beef, but it’s not cured. It can be served as a braise, or sliced and made into a sandwich, too.


Corned beef is a way to prepare beef brisket, and the curing process is what distinguishes it from other types of beef. It’s popular in the U.S. on St. Patrick’s Day, but can also be eaten on sandwiches (like Reubens) in delis throughout the year. And while it’s not the healthiest meat, it’s totally OK to enjoy every once in a while.

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Senior Food Editor

Katherine Gillen is PureWow’s senior food editor. She’s a writer, recipe developer and food stylist with a degree in culinary arts and professional experience in New York City...