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Ireland: Boiled Bacon and Cabbage (March 11, 2007)

This is the original, much-loved, much-missed dish that Irish immigrants of the nineteenth century were trying to make when they came to North America...and when they couldn't get the pork they really wanted, they made do with salted (corned) beef instead. (See the article here for the details. They may surprise you.)

If Ireland really has a national dish -- which is another whole question -- this might just be it. You can get pretty close to the Real Thing at home, but you'll need to start a day or three early, and do a little extra work.

First let's deal with a terminology problem. In Ireland, the term "bacon" is used to mean any joint of pork except the leg, which is ham. The cuts of pork which in North America are called "bacon", in Ireland are called "rashers".

That said: the Irish long ago learned that pork can become dry and tasteless with cooking -- and this problem is exaggerated when the pork, as it is now, is bred lean to minimize the fat content. Over the centuries, the Irish discovered (as did the cooks of many other European countries where pork is a favorite or preferred meat) that a good way to prevent cooked pork from going tough or dry during cooking is to brine the pork before cooking it.

The modern Irish eat relatively little fresh or "green" pork: almost all the pork you'll see on the supermarket shelf here has been brine-cured. Good butchers in city and country alike are willing to take anything from a high-priced pork tenderloin to the cheapest imaginable pig's trotters and "put them down in brine" for a customer for a couple of days, to improve the flavor and texture of the meat. In recent years, gourmet chefs and professional kitchens in North America have quietly started doing the same thing, and the techniques are starting to leak out into the public domain. This makes matters simpler for those who're trying to simulate the texture, taste and succulence of Irish pork. (You're not going to be able to duplicate it: the flavor of Irish pork is unique. But we can help you get fairly close.)

First of all, buy your pork. Irish cooks would get into endless arguments about which cut of pork / bacon is best, but many seem to prefer the "collar of bacon", which is the equivalent of a cut from the North American "shoulder butt" or "picnic shoulder". You could use a pork tenderloin for this recipe, but an Irish cook would likely think you were throwing too much money at what should be a simple dish.

Whatever cut you choose, it should be rolled up and tied to make sure that the brining process does not proceed too quickly. This kind of brining (unlike the brines of past centuries) is not meant to preserve the meat: it's meant only to tenderize it and improve the flavor.

For this recipe you need:

  • 2 1/2 pounds pork: "collar of bacon", shoulder butt or equivalent

Once you have the pork, make your brine. This recipe makes a gallon, which should be more than enough to cover two and a half pounds of pork. You only need enough of this to cover the meat you're brining: throw out what you don't use.

  • 3/4 cup coarse kosher salt
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 1 gallon cold water
  • 1 tablespoon pepper
  • 1 bay leaf

A stainless-steel bowl or resealable plastic bag can work as a brining container, as long as the pork is fully submerged. Weight with a plate, if necessary, to keep the meat fully covered by the brine.

Dissolve salt and sugar in the boiling water. Add it to the cold water; add pepper and stir to combine. Chill brine completely in the refrigerator before adding pork. Place your pork in the brine and place in the refrigerator for at least 48 hours.

When you're ready to start cooking, remove the pork from the brine, rinse well and pat dry. Discard the brine. (Also, you might like to check out the excellent brining page at for more information on brining, as the brine recipe here is extremely simple, and there are far more complex and interesting possibilities out there.)

When the bacon is ready, buy fresh:

  • 1 medium-sized cabbage

Place the bacon joint in a pot with a couple of bay leaves and a few peppercorns, cover with cold water and bring to the boil: then immediately reduce the heat to a simmer.

Remove any scum that floats to the surface. Cover and simmer for 1 1/2 hours (or 30 minutes per pound, whichever is greater).

Fifteen or twenty minutes before the bacon is scheduled to be done, cut the cabbage into quarters and add to the pot. Cook gently for no more than twenty minutes or until the cabbage is just tender (whichever comes first).

Lift the cabbage out and drain: remove the pork and set aside to rest for five minutes or so before slicing.

Serve with potatoes boiled in their jackets, and a sharp sauce -- mustard or (if you can get it) Irish / British HP sauce. (The US variant is a steak sauce and won't work: if you can't get the real thing, don't bother.) A grind of nutmeg on the cabbage works wonders, too.