Corned beef and cabbage is a classic Irish-American dish with a flavor profile that can range from mildly seasoned and bland to richly flavored and complex. If you want the latter style, here are some of the best spices for corned beef.
The bay leaf comes from the bay laurel tree and is used for the deeply savory background note that it adds to foods. To use bay leaves effectively, you will need them to cook for a long time. Add them at the start of the cooking time then remove them at some point before the food is completely cooked.
You don’t want to leave bay leaves in your corned beef and cabbage for two reasons: it will over-flavor the dish and it can also present a choking hazard. Bay leaves are very hard and won’t get any softer even after many hours of cooking. Bay leaves will give a slightly bitter eucalyptus note to food.
Corned beef and cabbage will include a variety of whole spices including black peppercorns. As the sole source of heat in corned beef and cabbage, black peppercorns are an essential part of the dish’s flavor profile.
Along with their mild heat, peppercorns will add a complex set of flavors that includes citrus notes as well as hints of pine. You will want to add the peppercorns early in the cooking time to ensure that the corned beef and cabbage takes on as much of their flavor as possible.
You won’t see garlic in all corned beef and cabbage recipes, but it does show up in some of the more richly flavored ones. Garlic is a pungent Allium that will contribute a deeply savory earthiness to the dish along with a subtle nuttiness. Garlic cloves should be used in moderation and not added too late in the cooking process since it has the potential to overpower the flavor profile.
Another ingredient that doesn’t show up in every corned beef and cabbage recipe but that you will see in some is thyme. Aside from bay leaves, the corned beef and cabbage dish does not use many herbal flavors but thyme is one of the few exceptions. Its camphoraceous woodsy flavor and mild minty notes complement the cabbage and help to enhance the savory qualities of the corned beef.
You can use either fresh or dried thyme in the dish but fresh will be the better choice if you have it available.
A popular herb that might be used to season other beef dishes like stews and roast beef, celery shows up in some corned beef and cabbage recipes. Celery brings a bright and grassy note with an umami character. Celery will be among the aromatic ingredients used to simmer the corned beef.
A key ingredient in the spice blend that flavors corned beef and cabbage, juniper berries are conifers just like pine trees. The berries themselves look like berries from a distance but are similar to pinecones in that they consist of tightly clenched scales. Juniper berries have long been used to season gamey and strongly flavored meats. Its flavor is resinous with hints of citrus.
One of the most common spices for corned beef and cabbage, mustard seeds are often included in the spice blend used to season the dish. Some recipes require prepared mustard instead. Mustard brings a tangy bite to corned beef that can cut through its fattiness.