The Taxonomy of a Full Irish Breakfast
A full Irish breakfast is many things to many people. It is a hangover cure; it is a celebration of all things pork; it is a grease delivery system; it is the only way to start your Sunday morning. But chief among these things, it is a delicious breakfast that you need in your life.
At its simplest, the Full Irish is this: sausage, rashers (a fattier version of Canadian bacon that is, I’m sorry to say, much better), black pudding, white pudding, fried tomato, fried egg, fried mushrooms, baked beans, and some form of sliced bread on the side. To drink, orange juice is preferred, and a good pot of Irish tea is an absolute must.
The “full” breakfast is often referred to simply as “a fry” or “fry-up,” as nearly all of the ingredients can (and should) be fried in a skillet or pan on the stove, preferably the same one.
The longform name changes depending on what part of the islands you’re on. In the north of Ireland, the meal is referred to as an “Ulster Fry,” in the rest of Ireland as “the Full Irish,” in England as “the Full English,” and so on in both Scotland and Wales. Though each plate is similar, many tourists have mistakenly assumed that the contents remain the same. This is not the case. Even within the island of Ireland, there are variations, twists, spins, and aggressive morning arguments on the contents of the Full Irish.
So, what’s so special here?
Sausage: It must be Irish!
The first differentiator of the Full Irish is the sausage. The typically Irish sausage is held closely in every Irish person's heart. So much so that in 2013, when a popular supermarket announced it was being bought out, it took mere minutes for the future of their sausages to become the top national trending topic on Twitter. This prompted a full press release from the company, assuring breakfast lovers all over Ireland that their sausages would be safe.
The sausages on the plate of a Full Irish are typically medium links (about four to five inches long) made from minced Irish pork meat, seasoned with pepper, mace, and nutmeg (among other spices), and mixed with pork fat and ‘rusk,’ a kind of hard bread crumb that serves to bind the sausage in its casing. The sausages that grace plates in the UK, however, are a little different. These tend to follow more closely to the Cumberland style—with a higher pork content and greater reliance on seasonings such as sage and pepper for their flavor. But accept no substitutes, dear breakfaster: The Full Irish Breakfast demands a proper Irish sausage!
Black and White Pudding: The Blood Sausage of Champions
The second distinguishing factor in the Full Irish is the inclusion of both black and white pudding at the breakfast table.
Black pudding itself is a kind of blood sausage made from a combination of oats, pork fat, and blood. It is the product of a society that once looked at a pig and said, “Leave nothing behind except the squeal.” White pudding is much the same, but omits the inclusion of blood from the recipe that gives black pudding its namesake color.
Though black pudding does appear in the Ulster Fry in the north of Ireland, and occasionally in both Scottish and English versions, the black/white combination is a uniquely Irish tradition.
Even at that, no two puddings are alike. Often, this will be dictated by the preferences of a local butcher. While a more coarse, chunkier pudding consistency is generally preferred across the country and in the mass-market suppliers, smoother, almost paté-like variants of white pudding frequently appear in Dublin breakfast tables.
Rashers: The Better Bacon
That’s right. The Better Bacon. You heard me. You wanna fight an Irishman over something? Fight over this.
Rashers, also known as “back bacon,” or, more simply to the Irish, “bacon,” are a staple part of any “Full” breakfast. This meaty, salty slice of heaven is a cut of pork that includes some of the pork loin with the pork belly, unlike American bacon, which is exclusively pork belly.
Imagine someone took a pork loin chop and cut a super-thin slice from it—that’s a Rasher. Rashers are also cured differently from American bacon, using a wet- or dry-cure method rather than a smoking method. This makes for a saltier, meatier-tasting breakfast companion.
The Fried Egg: Runny Yolks Only
A proper runny fried egg is an essential element of any “Full” breakfast. While some people would contest that scrambled eggs are an acceptable substitute (particularly when cooking for large groups), those people are wrong and should be persecuted for their beliefs. Fried egg, runny yolk. The end.
Potatoes: A New Challenger Appears!
That’s right, you thought you’d gotten through reading about an Irish dish without potatoes, Well, you were wrong! The inclusion of spuds in a “Full Irish” is not mandatory, but you would be hard-pressed to find someone who would turn them away.
The form factor of the potato variant of the Full Irish can be a clear sign of how urban your breakfast is. More rustic Full Irish breakfasts, particularly those along the Shannon River or in fancy West-Midlands country house hotels, often include rough-chopped potatoes that have been partly boiled then fried on a hot skillet (home fries, essentially).
However, your average city-center greasy spoon will often have tiny triangles of pre-made deep-fried hashbrowns: crunchy, greasy delights that serve as an excellent means of adding crunch to a mouthful of beans.
Although french fries occasionally appear, they are often frowned upon (particularly up north), but somewhat more warmly embraced on the breakfast plates of the west coast. If they appear on your table, you’re probably in a pub somewhere near the sea.
The Bread: From Soda to Farl
The inclusion of bread for “moppin’ and soppin’” is absolutely essential in any Full Irish breakfast. However, the form of that bread can vary widely across the land.
By far the most common inclusion is simple white sliced pan, toasted and served on the side with some butter. How you use it is up to you, but it's not uncommon for diners to create a toast/butter platform or kind of “edible plate” with their toast for maximum hand-to-face breakfast action.
In more high-quality (i.e., the way its supposed to be) breakfasts, the presence of regular sliced pan is often supplemented with the addition of soda bread.
In the midlands, and more northern reaches of Ireland, this soda bread will tend to be a white soda, but along the coast and south of the Galway-Dublin road it’s much more common to find a wholemeal brown soda bread on your plate. In fact, once you reach the southern coasts, the term “soda” is synonymous with a whole-grain brown loaf, with little acknowledgement that a white flour variant exists.
By far the most glorious take on bread with a full breakfast comes from the Ulster Fry. These kings among men have long since realised that the bread in a full breakfast serves primarily as a vehicle for getting as much grease and butter into your hungover shell of a body as possible. And so it is written: “A large slice of white soda bread shall be taken to the same pan as fried the sausages and bacon, and there it shall be fried in a decadent volume of butter, until golden brown.” And the people wept, for they, too, had seen the buttery face of breakfast god.
Fry-ups can also contain a potato farl, a kind of heavy white bread made with potatoes. While it is not the most common element, it is generally agreed the whole island over that a good, hot potato farl with plenty of butter is the best way to add spuds to the Full Irish. A similar kind of potato bread also makes a frequent appearance in “the Full Scottish,” but is referred to as a “tattie scone.”
The Fried Tomato: Just Say “No”
Nobody knows why a fried tomato is included in a “Full” breakfast. To quote Shakespeare, “It is a tradition more honor'd in the breach than in the observance.” Still, though… no accounting for taste.
Irish Breakfast Tea (or just “tea” as I know it) is a black tea blend, primarily Assam in origin. It is served with milk, and you are allowed to add up to two spoons of sugar before people will start openly criticizing your life choices.
While there are many variants of tea served in the UK, in Ireland there are only two brands that are considered “acceptable” by anyone worth talking to: Barry’s and Lyons. Barry’s tea is by far the most common, particularly in the south near its hometown of Cork, and is still an Irish-owned brand. Lyons tends to make more of an appearance in Dublin where it originated, but can be found across the whole island.
No breakfast table can be said to be truly complete without the inclusion of sauce for your enjoyment. Traditionally, the Full Irish is accompanied by two kinds of sauce: ketchup and brown sauce. What is brown sauce, you ask? Well, it is a mysterious sauce with a taste so indescribable, it must be referred to only by its color. It was invented at a time when the British empire was trading with the whole globe. People were totally freaked out by all the different spices with exotic names like “tamarind” and “cloves.” So one day in 1895, a madman in Nottingham decided to combine these things to create “brown sauce,” and the world was forever changed.
The taste is similar to A-1 steak sauce, though more tangy and with a more vinegary hit. While the brand H.P. sauce is by far the most well known, the Full Irish is much more likely to be accompanied by the more peppery Irish variants “Chef Sauce“ or “YR.” Like every aspect of this article, arguments over which of these is the best are to be greatly encouraged at all times.
So there you have it, the makings of the Full Irish Breakfast. Of course, the only way to really know the essence of the Full Irish (and its many forms) is to experience it. After all, the proof of the black pudding is in the tasting.