With St. Patrick’s Day approaching and Dallasites all around becoming Irish for the weekend, my friend Laura (knowing that I love to cook and consider myself somewhat of a knowledgeable “foodie”) asked me if Irish stew is made from beef or lamb.
"Lamb,” I assured her, confident with my response.
However, the closer we get to the St. Patrick’s Day, “everything Irish” becomes more and more prominent. Grocery stores begin advertising corned beef and cabbage and displaying end cases of green beer.
In my Lower Greenville neighborhood, restaurants and bars begin planning for the crowds of leprechauns that will create a sea of green on Greenville Avenue during the annual street party.
With all of this “Irish” influence, I started questioning if the traditional Irish stew was really made from lamb or the more popular beef we find on menus today.
To get an answer, I asked the source— the restaurants that serve Irish fare.
I discovered that while Dubliner on Greenville Avenue and Malarkeys on Trinity Mills serves up a bowl of beef, Trinity Hall Irish Pub in Mockingbird Station ladles a dish of lamb.
All three restaurants are equally proud of their Irish stew, each considering their dish to be both delicious and traditional.
Now, I’m even more confused. In need of help, I decided to phone a friend—a friend in Boston.
After all, the first St. Patrick's Day Celebration in America is believed to have been held in Boston in 1737. Today the South Boston St. Patrick's Day parade is the second largest parade in the country. Boston, with its large Irish population, has numerous Irish Pubs and restaurants catering to both tourists and locals.
Emmets Pub and Restaurant on Boston’s Beacon Hill boasts, “You could be in Ireland in here.” Customer testimonials reflect, “This is one of the few places I have come across with born and bred Irish owners.”
With that reference for documentation, I called Emmets and spoke with General Manager Oran McGonagle. When I asked if the stew at Emmets was made with beef or lamb, he said, “Irish stew is made with beef. Shepherd’s Pie is made with lamb.”
“Is the stew traditionally made from beef?” I asked.
“Irish Stew is a stewed beef. The cheapest cut of beef, but nonetheless— beef. Our stew here is made with beef, and my mother makes her stew with beef,” he said.
Remembering Mother Machree, I questioned McGonagle no more.
So what’s the beef?
The beef is that I still did not know my answer, for sure, but that it was starting to look like I was wrong. Lamb was not the traditional meat in Irish stew. However, still not totally convinced, I hunted on, digging into the history of this one pot meal from Ireland.
I discovered that the original stew, "ballymaloe” or “Stobhach Gaelach,” (as it is called in Gaelic) is a traditional stew made from lamb or mutton. Mutton was most often used because it comes from less tender sheep (those over a year old), is fattier and has a stronger flavor. Potatoes, onions, parsley and, sometimes, parsnips and carrots were added to the stew pot.
If the traditional Irish stew was made with mutton or lamb, why is it served more often today with beef? (Even the world famous Guinness Storehouse in Dublin is using beef in place of lamb in their famous Irish stew.)
Many Americans prefer the more familiar taste of beef over that of lamb. But besides a taste preference, when the Irish people began immigrating to the United States, fleeing from the ravages of starvation caused by the potato famine, they naturally brought along their wonderful hearty food traditions. Lamb was not as plentiful in America as it was in Ireland, so they adapted their recipes to include the local offerings.
That all makes sense. Today, beef or lamb is a personal preference, but one thing is for sure—eating Irish stew is a St. Patrick’s Day tradition.
Following are two recipes, one using beef and one using lamb, for Irish stew that you can serve on St. Patrick’s Day.
Irish Stew With Lamb
Cook Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 lb mutton or lamb cutlets (bone removed) cut into 2"/5cm chunks
2 lb potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters
1 cup onion, roughly chopped
1 cup leeks, cleaned and finely sliced
1 cup carrots, roughly chopped
1½ pints dark beef stock
2 or 3 cabbage leaves, thinly sliced (optional)
Salt and Pepper
Heat the oven to 350F
In a large frying pan heat half the oil to hot but not smoking. Add half the lamb pieces and brown all over. Remove the lamb and place in a casserole, cover with a half of the potatoes, onions, leeks and carrots.
Add the remaining oil to the frying pan, heat again, then add the remaining lamb and brown all over. Add to the casserole and cover with the remaining vegetables.
Add the stock, cover with a tight fitting lid, cook in the oven for 1 hour. Add the cabbage (if using) replace the lid and cook for another hour. Check from time to time to make sure the stock isn't reducing too much, if it is add a little boiling water. The meat and vegetables should always be covered by liquid. If the sauce is too runny at the end, cook a little longer with the lid removed. Season with salt and pepper.
Beef and Irish Stout Stew
Cook Time: 2 – 3 hours
2 pounds lean beef stew meat, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 pinch salt and ground black pepper to taste
1 pinch cayenne pepper
2 large onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 1/2 cups Irish stout beer (such as Guinness®)
2 cups chopped carrot
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley for garnish
Toss the beef cubes with 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil. In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper. Dredge the beef in this to coat.
Heat the remaining oil in a deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the beef, and brown on all sides. Add the onions, and garlic. Stir the tomato paste into a small amount of water to dilute; pour into the pan and stir to blend. Reduce the heat to medium, cover, and cook for 5 minutes.
Pour 1/2 cup of the beer into the pan, and as it begins to boil, scrape any bits of food from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. This adds a lot of flavor to the broth. Pour in the rest of the beer, and add the carrots and thyme. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 2 to 3 hours, stirring occasionally. Taste and adjust seasoning before serving. Garnish with chopped parsley.