A Few of Our Favorite Irish Foods
with Suzanne Klein
Chief Yummy Officer
bread corned beef Irish St. Patrick's Day
Corned beef, soda bread, and pretty much anything infused with Guinness. This is what comes to mind when thinking about traditional Irish food around St. Patrick’s Day, right? But what are the origins of these holiday food traditions that emerge every March?
While cured and salted meats have been around for thousands of years, the origin of corned beef is typically credited, although not with pride, to the Irish. The term “corned” comes from the “corns” of salt used in the curing process. Brining and boiling a tougher, less desirable cut of meat was a resourceful way to make beef go further and last longer. During 18th century Atlantic trade, Ireland exported a significant amount of the corned beef traded throughout Europe and the Americas. One reason the Irish don’t like claiming corned beef as their own is because it was associated with the slave trade; corned beef served as the major sustenance for shippers and slave laborers across ocean journeys. Ireland also commoditized its corned beef production, almost to the country’s detriment. The cattle grazing land required for to keep up with corned beef demand destroyed land for other farming and agriculture. Potatoes were one of the few crops that grew well and were a food the Irish were almost completely dependent upon, until the crop was destroyed by severe blight in the mid-1800s. The ensuing Great Potato Famine led to a mass exodus of Irish from their home isle, many to America, in search of a more sustainable life. Lucky for us, they brought some of their homeland food traditions with them.
Typically a dish claimed by the Irish, some of the first known references to soda bread come from Native Americans who used pearl or pot ash (or potash) as a leavening ingredient. Potash is a natural soda in found in plant or wood ashes. Combined with an acid, like sour milk or citrus, potash produces a chemical reaction resulting in a carbon dioxide by-product that helps bread rise. Throughout history, there are many worldwide references to various forms of soda bread. The baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) we know today wasn’t invented until the mid-19th century. This new ingredient quickly became popular throughout Europe as a rising agent for baking. In Ireland, soda bread bloomed in popularity because it was an affordable way to put a meal on the table. The ingredients were minimal and available…soda ash (later baking soda), flour, salt, and sour milk. If you were a little more fortunate, butter, raisins or other seasonings could be added. Soda bread also didn’t require an oven to bake; it could be baked over fire in a cast iron pot, which is why the shape is traditionally round. Today, soda bread serves as a side dish or breakfast nibble, but at one time, a loaf of soda bread may have been an entire meal for an Irish family.
This famous stout beer is truly an Irish treasure. The first Guinness was brewed and sipped in Dublin in 1725, it was exported (to England) in 1769, and found its way to New York by 1840. Today, it’s still one of the most distinguishable beers in the world. Annual global sales, in over 100 countries, totals more than 1.5 million pints. The most familiar brew is Guinness Draught, but the brewery produces a variety of beers, including a new, lighter roasted Red Stout. Guinness Draught is made with roasted barley, giving it a distinct caramel flavor character and dark color. It’s canned and kegged with nitrogen, which lowers the carbon dioxide levels and leaves a smooth, creamy texture. Rich in flavor, this beer is surprisingly low in calories. While some claim a pint of Guinness could serve as a meal, the flavor profile and body of Guinness make it a great ingredient for savory stews, decadent desserts, and even classic cocktails.
Whatever you may be doing to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, raise a glass and toast the Irish food traditions that have been so ingrained in our American food culture.