Most recipes include nitrates or nitrites, which convert the natural myoglobin in beef to nitrosomyoglobin, giving a pink color. Nitrates and nitrites reduce the risk of dangerous botulism during curing by inhibiting the growth of Clostridium botulinum spores, but have been shown to be linked to increased cancer risk. Beef cured with salt only has a gray color and is sometimes called "New England corned beef". Often, sugar and spices are also added to recipes for corned beef.
Although the exact beginnings of corned beef are unknown, it most likely came about when people began preserving meat through salt-curing. Evidence of its legacy is apparent in numerous cultures, including ancient Europe and the Middle East. The word corn derives from Old English and is used to describe any small, hard particles or grains. In the case of corned beef, the word may refer to the coarse, granular salts used to cure the beef. The word "corned" may also refer to the corns of potassium nitrate, also known as saltpeter, which were formerly used to preserve the meat.
Although the practice of curing beef was found locally in many cultures, the industrial production of corned beef started in the British Industrial Revolution. Irish corned beef was used and traded extensively from the 17th century to the mid-19th century for British civilian consumption and as provisions for the British naval fleets and North American armies due to its nonperishable nature. The product was also traded to the French for use in Caribbean sugar plantations as sustenance for the colonists and the slave laborers. The 17th-century British industrial processes for corned beef did not distinguish between different cuts of beef beyond the tough and undesirable parts such as the beef necks and shanks. Rather, the grading was done by the weight of the cattle into "small beef", "cargo beef", and "best mess beef", the former being the worst and the latter the best. Much of the undesirable portions and lower grades were traded to the French, while better parts were saved for British consumption or shipped to British colonies.
Ireland produced a significant amount of the corned beef in the Atlantic trade from local cattle and salt imported from the Iberian Peninsula and southwestern France. Coastal cities, such as Dublin, Belfast, and Cork, created vast beef curing and packing industries, with Cork producing half of Ireland's annual beef exports in 1668. Although the production and trade of corned beef as a commodity was a source of great wealth for the colonial nations of Britain and France (which were participating in the Atlantic slave trade), in the colonies themselves, the product was looked upon with disdain due to its association with poverty and slavery.
Increasing corned beef production to satisfy the rising populations of the industrialised areas of Great Britain and Atlantic trade worsened the effects of the Irish Famine and the Great Potato Famine: