Bacon and Cabbage

Shouldn’t that be Corned Beef and Cabbage?

Well, no, it shouldn’t. Bacon and cabbage is a commonly eaten dish in Ireland and while corned beef is eaten with cabbage it is a (relatively) recent arrival from, wait for it, America! How can this be?

To find out, we need to look for a moment into the history of food in Ireland.

In the past beef was a food eaten only by the wealthy. The ordinary Irish people, when they had access to meat at all, would have eaten pork. Because there was no way of storing fresh meat, they made the pork into bacon. This was done at  home by simply brining it, or preserving it with salt.

When the era of mass emigration arrived, during and after the famine in the 19th century, Irish emigrants to America found that beef was quite affordable.  Still, they treated it in just as they had always treated the meat – pork – they were familiar with at home.

Thus brined beef or corned beef  became popular, even traditional, among Irish American families.

Until about the middle of the 20th century, people living in Ireland would never have eaten or been able to obtain corned beef. But returning emigrants and greater ease of trans-Atlantic travel meant that the dish found its way to Ireland.

Bacon and CabbageNowadays corned beef is widely available in Ireland, but bacon and cabbage is still far more popular. It is a regular meal in Irish homes and often seen on menus, especially at lunchtime in pubs. Many restaurants and pubs serve corned beef also – but mostly those which expect to see a good number of American tourists, since it is a dish visitors expect to find.

From the point of view of this recipe it really doesn’t matter whether you use corned beef or bacon – one is an Irish American dish, the other an Irish one, but in either case there will be plenty of tradition on the plate!

Choosing the Meat

If you are using Corned beef, you need a brisket. The bacon choice is trickier. American bacon is not commonly available in the cut used to make bacon and cabbage here, the loin, which is very lean. You can order this online in the USA from Irish Grub. If you cannot get this go with the corned beef. American bacon just will not work.

About the Cabbage

You need a good green cabbage for this, not any of the hard white varieties. Savoy cabbage is perfect, Kale works just as well.

Traditionally the Irish did awful things to cabbage, I have no idea why. They boiled it until it was slop and made matters worse by adding bicarbonate of soda to the water. This produces a truly awful glutinous mess, with a horrible smell that lingers for days. Don’t even think of trying it! Another, not much better, method is to add it to the pot with the bacon and boil it for about an hour. Disgusting.

There are options. A tasty way to serve the cabbage is as Colcannon and I sometimes use fried cabbage, which may sound awful but is very nice indeed. A good and fairly traditional method is described below however.

Ingredients

  • A 3-4 lb Loin of Bacon or Corned Beef Brisket
  • 2 Onions
  • 2 Carrots
  • 1 Stick of celery
  • I Cabbage
  • A small pat of butter
  • Tablespoon each of honey and wholegrain mustard
  • Good pinch of ground cloves

Place the meat in a large saucepan of water and bring to the boil. From here things vary according to the meat you use.

  • Corned Beef: Add the onions, carrots and celery, all roughly chopped, and allow the meat to simmer for about 25-30 minutes per pound.
  • Bacon: Bring to the boil. If a white scum (it’s salt) rises to the top, drain off the water, replace with cold water and bring to the boil again. Repeat until there is no scum. Then add the vegetables as above and simmer for 15 minutes per pound plus 15 minutes over.

In either case once the meat is cooked, remove it from the water, dry it lightly with some kitchen towels. If there is a thick fat cover on the bacon I generally cut it off at this point – though that is sacrilage to some people! Retain a cupful of the cooking water – discard the vegetables, they were there for flavour and have done their job.

Mix together the honey, mustard and ground cloves and smear it all over the bacon. Leave it, covered, to ‘rest’ and let the honey mixture soak in for about 20-30 minutes – or several hours or even overnight if that suits you better.

Before serving, put the bacon into a moderately hot oven, about 400ºF (200ºC/Gas Mark 6) for about 20-30 minutes. This gives you plenty of time to prepare the cabbage.

Remove the outer leaves of the cabbage, cut it into four and remove the stalk. Then finely shred it.

Put half a cupful of the bacon water in a saucepan, add the butter and bring to the boil. Then add the cabbage and stir it constantly until it wilts and becomes slightly soft. It will take about 5 minutes to cook. The water and butter will disappear – partly coating the cabbage, partly steaming away – so you will not need to drain it at all.

Serve with mashed potato or Champ. Parsley sauce or mustard sauce goes well with this.

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36 Comments

  1. Corned Beef is associated with the Irish from the days of the Railroad expansion in the late 1800’s early 1900’s. The railroad owners found a cheap way to provide food to their workers, corned beef. As it was salted so much it preserved longer and as most of the workers were Irish all of a sudden corned Beef is Irish. We never heard of this growing up in Ireland and quite frankly we wouldn’t have eaten it if we did, terrible stuff. Go with the bacon  every time.

    • When I was growing up in the 1960s Corned Beef and cabbage was a regular on our dinner table it was cheap and as my mother used to say you could “knock 2 days dinners out of it” We all loved it,and to this day i would still get it now and again.

  2. People just want recipes we don’t want to know all that history. Keep it short and to the point.  But good recipe loved it.

    • Glad you liked the recipe anyway.

    • I have to disagree :) The history along with the recipe is exactly what I was hoping for. Thanks for such great info!

    • Disagree too. Great story and recipe.

    • I love the history as well. Keep them coming!

    • Tonya McMullen | October 2, 2011 at 11:16 pm

      I loved the history! Keep doing what your doing.

    • Actually, I rather LIKE the stories that go along with the recipes.  Recipes that are passed on carry and tell our stories.  It’s important and interesting to know the hows and whys and what-fors!  The recipes I most treasure, carry a story attached to a person or event that the food originated from.  Keep the stories coming.  The rest of us LOVE them.

  3. Beg to differ, I loved the history. I’ve always wondered why beef was in an Irish dish. Thanks, I’ll be trying this!

  4. The recipe looks great, but I loved, loved, loved the history! That’s really the best part, and my guests always want to know how things evolved – I’ll share this info with them! Thanks!

  5. Oh Chef B,

    I 2 beg to differ, love the recipes, the history and background makes the food that much more enjoyable.

    Thanks!

  6. My husband & I just returned from a trip to Ireland.  We had the bacon & cabbage with parsley sauce at a pub & it was delicious.  I’m so happy to find a recipe for it.  We loved the bacon–so different than ours.  Wish it was more readily available here in U.S.  We loved Ireland and are planning another trip in a couple of years.

  7. Just getting to know Irish way of cooking (live in Eire for 5 years now..) and I like your recipe – will try over the weekend. I’m used to raw pork in cooking but really want to get to know how to cook Irish way. Thankx a lot! P.s. keep the stories in, it’s great to read.

  8. Hi bacon and cabbage is my boyfriends’ favorite dish but I havn’t got a clue how to make it, will definitely try this. Thanks loved the history too! thanks!

  9. The history is great.  Thank you. As an Irish child transplanted to Australia, I grew up with bacon and cabbage. You’re right, the Irish used to murder cabbage in the same way that the early settlers killed spuds…boiling the heck out of ‘em. I still stick to the old method of dropping the cabbeg in with the bacon, I just don’t leave it in there nearly as long as my father used to…just enough to get a touch of the bacon water in it, then into a hot pan with some butter and pepper. I also don’t usually go for the white sauce, preferring instead the hot mustard.

  10. Will i tell you the best thing about Irish bacon and cabbage, one that marks it out from almost every other world cuisine? Back in the day, and thankfully to some extent still today, pigs roamed freely in farmyards and eat fresh, organic, limestone and therefore sweet grass. This meant the best quality bacon possible as a result. This is why traditional Irish bacon and cabbage, and my favourite food by far despite having an adventurous palate and eating this meal every week for the last 20 odd years, is made with none of the above flourishes. A proper home cooked Irish bacon and cabbage meal is made with bacon, boiled with the cabbage added in towards the end, and potatoes. And that’s it. Grill the bacon for some crackling, and you have the worlds best meal. Sauce isnt very apparent in Irish cooking because unlike in other countries, sauces or spices or general seasoning wasn’t necessary to cover up poor quality meat. I am as we speak cooking this dish the old fashioned, simple way, the main effort involved being to make sure you get a good cut of bacon.

  11. My mother used to boil the cabbage for a very long time, simply because my father’s mother was a terrible cook and he was used to it that way – he refused to eat it unless it was boiled to mush. As such, I’ve been brought up with the bicarb and boiled to mush version – but I love it like that, covered in a generous helping of Chef Brown Sauce. The brown sauce goes very well over mashed turnip too. Also, never have I ever heard of anyone serving corned beef with it! Corned beef was only ever used for sandwiches in my house. It was bacon and cabbage all the way.

  12. Let me add my voice to the chorus and say thanks for sharing a bit of history along with the recipe. I could have gotten the recipe from any number of other sites, but I’m glad that I found it here.

  13. Noreen Lennon | October 8, 2010 at 8:51 pm

    My Irish grandmother raised her 14 children on B&C made with the cabbage boiled in the same pot as the bacon. Yes, it was a very big pot! All her children in Ireland and the U.S. do it the same fine way. The trick is to time it so the cabbage is added with about 15 minutes of boil time to go. The mingled flavors are divine. Add some flowery spuds to the plate and you’re good to go. No need for sauces. Had it last nite at my Aunt’s & tonite at my Mama’s — love it! My Mama is ticked today because the cabbage cost 69 cents/pound this morning as opposed to 49 cents/pound last week.

  14. I find the charm of this recipe is not only in its flavour, but it in its almost ridiculous simplicity in preparation.  It goes like this:

    Stick a bacon joint in a pot of water and boil.

    Slice up a green cabbage roughly and chuck it in the pot with the bacon.

    Boil both together for about 2 hours.

    The result; perfect, soft, bacon flavour infused cabbage, and cabbage flavour infused bacon.

    Perfect. You can’t whack it.

  15. lovely dish. my irish housemate cooked it for me last year. dont be confused by the word bacon, it means pork loin or pork shoulder. he prepared it with mash potato and gravy

  16. I might not ever get around to trying a recipe but I LOVE the bit of history when included

  17. Jimmy O’Conners | February 23, 2011 at 7:36 pm

    I was born in America as my ancestors immagrated from Ireland, the Northern parts… My Granny told me stories of my heritage and always told me,” Jim even though you’re born here in America never forget who you are and where the blood in your veins come from. I always been used to the traditional my Granny made which was pea and ham soup, bacon and cabbage, soda bread and tea and other dishes she made but the one listed above always is and will be my favorite.

  18. Just returned from the south of Ireland and had Bacon and Cabbage at lots of pubs, but they all served it with a “jus”. Would love to know how they made it.
    p.s. hated soda bread,

  19. I write this with a “bit of bacon sitting” in my fridge for tomorrow night. My parents are both from Ireland. Whenever a trip was made there or someone was visiting “the bit of bacon” was brought back. In it’s replacement my mother would use a picnic pork shoulder. The meat was boiled and reboiled until the scum was gone. Then everything, except the spuds went into one very large pot. My mothers bacon and cabbage recipe was obviously bacon and cabbage (savoy cabbage), carrots and turnips. No measurements buy enough meat for those eating and the same for the vegetables. I personally do not like the white sauce, parsley sauce or chef sauce menationed here. My parents liked the white sauce and my mother made that. I married a man from Cork he prefers the Chef sauce. We lived on the second floor of a two family house and you could smell this when you walked in the front door. Fond memories of my childhood.
    Living just outside Boston I am fortunate enough to buy all my families favorite Irish treats.

    • Hey does anyone know the English term for cabbage and bacon? It’s something like “pigs in blankets” which is mini sausages rapped in bacon, I know it’s really random but I can’t remember and it’s bugging me loads

    • I don’t really know. Bubble and Squeak is like colcannon a bit, with more veg in it and fried. Toad in the hole is sausages in a pudding batter, like Yorkshire pudding. Maybe it was one of those you are thinking of?

  20. im irish and currently still live in ireland and the way i was thought to cook bacon and cabbage is as follows, put your loin of bacon in a saucepan fill with water till the bacon is slighty covered, boil, remove scum then add more cold water bring to boil again then cook on a rolling boil for 20 mins per lb of bacon, shred your cabbage(not to thin) add to the same saucepan as the bacon 20 mins before its finished cooking, drain and serve with mashed potatoes (i save some of the drained water called cabbage water and drink it with my dinner, dont knock it till youve tried it)

    • @Damien, I am glad you enjoy it, but I really have to say I’d have the greatest difficulty sitting down to a plate of cabbage that had been boiled for 20 minutes :) Still, each of us to our own.

  21. Pat Neville | March 8, 2012 at 3:45 am

    Thanks so much for the recipe and particularly all the history.  I grew up west of Boston with my Irish grandmother and great aunt in the house.  We never had corned beef and cabbage.  And I hated the smell of it in the Irish American Pubs on St. Patrick’s Day.   I always wondered about that.  My cousin in England who had Irish parents and visited Ireland at least once a year growing up told me it was Bacon and Cabbage and sent me your link.  Thank you so much for ending the mystery for me!

  22. Ireland used to be the world’s largest supplier of Corned BEEF.  It is Irish, but it is the poor folk of Ireland that used to eat corned beef in Ireland when there were still Kingdoms.  The more wealthy people ate corned bacon.  Last time I went to Ireland I couldn’t find corned bacon anywhere.  Now that it is more affordable to a wide variety of people they perfer corned bacon.  I do too.  Ireland stopped being the world’s largest supplier of corned beef when other countries started producing it more.  They found it wasn’t very profitable so now they keep it more inside the counrty and most eat the more high class thought of corned bacon.  That is also why we think its not Irish because the immigrants in the 1800s and the 1900s that came to America couldnt afford to make corned bacon, only beef.  Either way I love corned beef and bacon.

    • Ní Ghionnáin | March 18, 2014 at 3:14 am

      —Jeremy Rifkin, Beyond Beef[6]
      Despite being a major producer of beef, most of the people of Ireland during this period consumed little of the meat produced, in either fresh or salted form, due to its prohibitive cost. This was because most of the farms and its produce were owned by wealthy Anglo-Irish landlords and that most of the population were from families of poor tenant farmers, and that most of the corned beef was exported.
      The lack of beef or corned beef in the Irish diet is especially true in Northern Ireland and areas away from the major centres for corned beef production. However, individuals living in these production centres such as Cork did consume the product to a certain extent. The majority of Irish that resided in Ireland at the time mainly consumed dairy and meats such as pork or salt pork.

  23. Kathrne, this is a lovely resipie you have a great knowlage of irish cooking and im sure much more, i also loved the irish stew resipe and look forward to much more

  24. I am curious if a pork tenderloin would be a similar enough cut to use as a substitute for the style of bacon used in Ireland?

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  1. […] is a delicacy in Ireland and not always readily available. A more traditional entrée is boiled cabbage and bacon. Photo by The Contables’ […]

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