The Real Difference Between Beef Stew And Irish Stew

While Irish-Americans might typically make corned beef and cabbage to mark St. Patrick's Day, in Ireland, the traditional meal marking the holiday is Irish stew (via Racine County Eye). If you've never had it, you may be wondering: What differentiates Irish stew from beef stew? According to the New York Times, truly traditional Irish stew contains only a few ingredients: mutton, onions, potatoes, and sometimes carrots, instantly distinguishing it from a stew made from beef. Irish stew is also typically thickened with mashed potatoes, as opposed to a roux, which you won't often see in non-Irish stews.

The dish became hugely popular in Ireland during the early 19th century, when the Irish dependence on the potato was at its highest, before the Great Famine of 1845-49 (via Britannica). Stews were a simple but satisfying way for even very poor families to fill their bellies, so it's no wonder the dish became so ubiquitous. Of course, the modern Irish stew is more than a little different from its culinary ancestors.

The differences between traditional and modern Irish stew

Nowadays, chefs (both Irish and not) take more creative liberties with this classic dish; for instance using young lamb instead of mutton, for a more tender result, and adding Guinness stout for flavor (via The Culture Trip). In fact, some pubs serve both a traditional lamb stew, and a beef version, to cater to all tastes. Even offering young lamb as opposed to mutton is a fairly dramatic change since, in early 19th-century Ireland, the high economic value of sheep's wool and milk meant that only the old or non-producing animals would end up being eaten (via The Guardian).

Today, you tend to see the most dramatically different interpretations of Irish stew from the kitchens of home chefs. On Reddit, even Irish users describe their own family recipes as quite different from the humble 3-4 ingredient version from the 1800s. According to one, "I start with lamb stock (made myself from lamb bones with some meat on), with carrots, onions, peas, sweet bell peppers, and either lamb or another meat. I like it with focaccia and not mashed potatoes or soda bread, shoot me if you like." Other users were quick to point out that bell peppers seem absolutely foreign in an Irish stew. One wrote, "My gf's mother in Ireland said she remembers when bell peppers were new to Ireland, she's only 50." Even with all of these alterations, the popularity of the dish itself seems largely unchanged.