In a great example of the confusion that can occur between different cultures sharing a single language, the Irish have a vastly different definition of the word "bacon" than Americans. In the United States, bacon refers to one single cut of pork, usually cut and prepared in just one way. In Ireland, bacon can refer to many different parts of the pig, prepared in all manners by both the butcher and the home cook. Whether you're boggled by the nuances of a culinary conversation with an Irish person or you're unsure of what pork product to buy when an Irish recipe calls for "boiling bacon," you'll need to delve into the details of this linguistic conundrum.
Understanding Irish Bacon
In Ireland, the word "bacon" is almost but not quite synonymous with pork. Any cut of pork that's not ham or gammon, which is always from the leg of the pig (specifically the hind leg in the case of gammon), is called bacon. Irish butchers do have different names for the various cuts of pork, only they call them cuts of bacon, or ham/gammon. So, Irish bacon might be a loin, tenderloin, belly or collar, which is the equivalent of the shoulder in U.S. terms. What an American would call pork loin, an Irish person would call a loin of bacon.
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Unlike U.S. pork cuts, Irish bacon in all its versions is commonly brined prior to purchase. You can replicate this for an authentic taste of Irish bacon by soaking any cut of pork in brine and leaving it in the refrigerator for a few hours to a few days depending on size. At its simplest, the brine is a mixture of salt, sugar, water, peppercorns and a few bay leaves. It improves the tenderness and flavor of pork and is the same process as that used by many Americans for a Thanksgiving turkey.
What About Irish Boiling Bacon?
While bacon is a broad term in Ireland, boiling bacon is a bit more specific. It's cuts of bacon – meaning pork other than ham – that are suitable for any cooking process akin to boiling. This might be literally boiled bacon in plain water, but more often, it's a low, slow braising with potatoes and other vegetables added to the liquid at the right time. The traditional Irish dish of boiled bacon and cabbage, which is the direct ancestor of the Irish-American creation of corned beef and cabbage, features boiling bacon prepared in this way. Boiled bacon tends to yield leftovers, so the shredded or chopped meat can then feature in a wide variety of dishes.
The U.S. equivalent of Irish boiling bacon would be a whole pork loin. The Irish collar of bacon would also be considered suitable as boiling bacon. Its U.S. equivalent would be shoulder butt or picnic shoulder. Brine these cuts and rinse prior to boiling to replicate an authentic Irish dish. You can cook them whole or cut them into smaller pieces for a shorter cooking time; aim for fork-tender meat.
The Irish Version of American Bacon
In the U.S., bacon refers to just one thing – crispy, fatty slices of pork belly that are most famous as a breakfast food but delicious in a huge variety of culinary applications. The Irish do enjoy this type of bacon too, only they call it "rashers." The fried breakfast bacon preferred in Ireland is back bacon, which is cut from the loin and therefore similar to Canadian bacon. Sometimes, it includes a strip of belly meat attached to the loin. It's leaner than rashers and may or may not have the rind still attached. Back bacon in Ireland is cured and sometimes smoked as well.
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