Red vs. Gray Corned Beef

Red vs Gray Corned Beef: What’s the Difference? (2023)

Last Updated on March 7, 2023 by Shari Mason

St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner, and what better way to celebrate than with a classic corned beef and cabbage dinner? Regarding corned beef, a debate has been simmering for years: red vs gray corned beef. 

While both types are delicious, they differ in color, texture, and taste. So, which one should you choose? 

Comparing Red and Gray Corned Beef

Gray Corned Beef on a Chopping board

Gray corned beef, an Irish American specialty popular in New England among Irish immigrants, is made using a salty brine solution, which gives it a gray-brown color.

As a result, the texture of cooked corned beef is softer and saltier than red corned beef. 

In the red version, the corned beef is cured in salty brine with nitrates, giving it the color, and has a firmer texture and a stronger, slightly better taste.

It has become more popular, especially canned corned beef, due to its vibrant color and better taste. 

Main Differences 

History & Origin

Boiled dinner is a staple meal for St. Patrick’s Day, with corned beef and cabbage as the centerpiece. Two distinct types of corned beef exist, each with its unique taste. 

Red corned beef, a New England-style invention from the 19th century, differs from Old World-style corned beef, which originated in Europe [1].


Corned beef is said to have two different types – red and gray. Red corned beef is made from round or red brisket cut with ample intermuscular fat and connective tissue, while grey corned beef is often made from tougher cuts like rump or round cuts. 

The Boston Irish corned beef is a specific red corned beef with a special spice blend, usually served on St. Patrick’s Day. In contrast, New England’s boiled dinner uses flat cut gray corned beef boiled with aromatics, seasoning, and cabbage [2].


Making corned beef lies on the curing process. In red corned beef, the thicker end of brisket is cured with a mixture of salt, water, sugar, and sodium nitrate, giving it its signature color. 

Curing gray corned beef is a simple mixture of salt and spices like peppercorns, bay leaves, and mustard seeds. Curing time and internal temperature are the main differences, with red corned beef taking up to two weeks and requiring longer cooking.


Red and gray corned beef is cured differently, hence the difference in corned taste. The red version is typically more tender and milder in flavor due to the addition of nitrates, which also gives it its distinctive red color. 

Gray corned beef, on the other hand, is often more flavorful and less salty than red corned meat due to the use of a simpler curing mixture of salt and spices. The taste can also be influenced by the type of meat used and the cooking method.


Corned beef can be pinkish-red or gray, depending on the curing process. Red corned beef gets its color from adding nitrates, which helps preserve the meat. 

However, to avoid nitrates and nitrites, a form of sodium nitrate, you can use saltwater brine. The gray color forms naturally when not using these additives.

The color difference can also depend on the type of meat used and the length of the curing process. 

What Color Should Corned Beef Be?

Slicing Corned Beef

The familiar pink red color comes from sodium salt added to the curing mixture. Corned beef is said to be “salt beef.” Nitrates are another salt added to the mixture, but the dull gray color appears if not used. 

You know, it’s hard to beat bacon at any time of day. But I also am a big fan of corned beef hash.

— Nick Offerman, American Actor

Traditionally, corned beef is pinkish red, but gray corned beef may have a more natural gray color if not cured with nitrates.

The Secret to Cooking Delicious Red & Grey Corned Beef

Red Corned Beef

For delicious Jewish delicatessens corned beef dinner, remove the seasoned brine from the corned beef brisket to avoid a salty outcome. Next, place the brisket in a large pot or slow cooker and let it simmer until fully cooked. 

To add depth to the flavor and enhance your eating experience, consider incorporating aromatic vegetables such as onions, carrots, and celery when you eat corned beef.

Grey Corned Beef

Corned beef, the only ingredient you need for this dish, is made from a tough cut of meat like point cut or flat cut, which requires longer cooking time.

Start by removing the meat from the saltwater brine, then add aromatic vegetables such as onions, garlic, and carrots to enhance its flavor. 


What is more tender, red or gray corned beef?

Red corned beef is more tender than its gray version because it is made from whole brisket. The addition of sodium nitrate during curing can help tenderize the meat.

What is gray corned beef referred to as?

Gray corned beef is sometimes called “uncured corned beef” or “uncorned beef.”

What color does beef turn when it’s gone bad?

It can turn brown, gray, or green when beef goes bad. The color change results from the meat’s breakdown of proteins and bacteria’s growth. 

Why did my corned beef turn gray?

Maybe the meat is not cured properly or cooked at a high temperature or in too much water. 

Key Takeaways

The main difference between red and gray corned beef goes beyond just their color.

While red corned beef is more commonly known and preferred for its tender texture and iconic color, gray corned beef has a unique taste and authenticity, particularly as an authentic New England variety. 

Whether you prefer red corned beef’s traditional flavor or gray corned beef’s more natural taste, both can be delicious and satisfying meals.


  2. – 
Shari Mason

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