Local restaurants and at least one meat market are preparing for St. Patrick’s Day by stocking their shelves with the fixings to make a beloved Irish-­American specialty: corned beef.

The distinctive meat dish will be ordered at restaurants across the country on Saturday to celebrate and acknowledge Irish culture.

“We do a bang-up job of corned beef here,” said Ben Kruse, restaurant and pub manager at McMenamins Old St. Francis School, who anticipated ordering about 1,000 pounds of meat for the three-day holiday celebration.

St. Patrick’s Day is one of the biggest holidays for the local Irish restaurant and pub, where the celebration will be held Friday through Sunday.

Despite corned beef’s popularity, few know how the signature dish originated or what sets it apart from other beef preparations.

Irish-American tradition

Contrary to popular belief, corned beef is not a traditional Irish dish. It was a popular dish among Irish Americans, who made it as a means of preserving various cuts of beef.

“The term ‘corned’ comes from the salt that they used, which was the size of corn kernels,” said Thor Erickson, chef instructor at Central Oregon Community College’s Cascade Culinary Institute. The beef would be packaged in barrels filled with salt granules. “The whole addition of spices came later; it was a way to preserve the beef during shipping, so it’s basically pickling the beef,” said Erickson.

Traditionally, the Irish would have eaten sausage, bacon or rabbit, accompanied by potatoes, cabbage and soda bread.

The right cut

The method for making corned beef has evolved into recipes that bring out the most flavor. Cooks take the most flavorful cut of beef, brine it, braise it and slow cook it before it’s ready to eat.

Corned beef should be prepared using brisket, said Beau Beach, co-owner of Pioneer Ranch and owner of Bom Dia Coffee. “Brisket can be very tough, but also extremely flavorful.”

Pioneer Ranch is a cattle and hog farm in Tumalo. The cattle at the ranch feed on a mixture of byproducts from Central Oregon breweries and distilleries. Beach refers to the feed as the cows’ finishing product — a mixture of barley, oats, ground alfalfa and distillery byproducts — is what gives the beef its flavor and sets it apart from large feedlots.

The sugars, fiber and proteins from the finishing product are absorbed in the steers’ fats.

The brisket is the chest of the steer; it’s one of the most fatty muscles and, thus, most flavorful cuts of meat.

“Because they have all that fat in there and there’s streaks of fat in between those muscles, what you have to do is slowly cook it to where the fat almost melts off, and then you get a really great flavor,” Beach said.

Brining is key

Before the corned beef can be slow cooked, it needs to be brined. The brine is highly concentrated salty water that’s spiced with carrots, onions and a pickling spice, which includes coriander seeds, juniper berries, hot peppers and bay leaves or other similar variations. Brining is the modern equivalent to the meat sitting in barrels filled with salt. Most corned beef recipes require that the beef cut brine for five to 10 days.

“(Curing salt) is a very traditional cooking tool used, especially around meat shops, where people are dry-aging things, brining things, smoking things,” said Jake ­Williams, owner of Primal Cuts Market, “It’s a preservative, if you will.”

This year, Primal Cuts will take special orders for customers to purchase a brined brisket to slow cook at home. Williams will also cook corned beef and cabbage for customers to eat at the restaurant.

Williams makes an in-house brine to prepare corned beef for customers at the meat market. He rests the beef brisket in a brine for five days before braising it with an Irish stout and slow cooking it overnight.

“Otherwise, if we just used the stout, then we would have some good-tasting beef that tastes a lot like beer, but it would not be corned beef,” Williams said.

“The pickling spice in that brine is equally as important as the beer that we braise it in,” Williams said.

“Those two things combined are what really makes that flavor of corned beef.”

The juniper berries and coriander seeds in the brine also give the corned beef it’s bright pink coloring.

When the brining is finished, the meat is rinsed off and put in a pan. Williams pours a strong Irish beer like Guinness over the brisket, covers the meat and cooks it in the over at about 235 degrees for eight hours.

“This low-and-slow braising process allows us to make something very tough into something very tender that falls apart when you slice it,” Williams said.

The final product is a peppery, aromatic meat that pairs well with braised cabbage, sauteed carrots and onions and boiled potatoes.

On the menu

If locals would like to enjoy corned beef and cabbage without the hassle of cooking it at home, they can try the specialty at one of many Central Oregon restaurants.

The chef at Kelly D’s Sports Bar and Grill will prepare corned beef and cabbage, Irish stew, shepherd’s pie and Irish tacos for the holiday in addition to offering a selection of green and Irish beers.

Deschutes Brewery & Public House will expand its specials to include corned beef and cabbage, Irish soda bread, Irish stew and the brewpub’s popular carrot honey soup.

Brother Jon’s Public House on Galveston Avenue will also serve a house-brined corned beef and cabbage.

McMenamins Old St. Francis School will have corned beef and cabbage, a shepherd’s pie, an Irish Reuben sandwich and MacSleyne Irish stew on the menu.

“We do it the same way at home as we do it here,” said Kruse. “I’ve had years of inspiration.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0351, mcrowe@bendbulletin.com