It’s stunning, the things we take for granted. Gravity. Round tires. Pastrami.
Sorry kids, but this is going to be a longer than usual post. Turns out that talking about all the nuances and details of pastrami and pastrami-making takes a few words. There are a lot of misconceptions and uncertainties about this classic sandwich meat.
Pastrami, if done right, is a 3-4 day process (considerably longer if you’re cattle farmer) that requires brining, rubbing, smoking, and simmering. And pepper. Lots and lots of black pepper. All those hours of labor just to inhale it in 3 minutes. And it’s worth every mesquite chip. But there are some things to be aware of and careful about–especially if, like me, you’re a novice at working with cures and curing.
Before we get into a discussion of food safety and nitrate handling, let’s talk about the history of pastrami. In preparation for writing this post, I did a bit of research into pastrami’s roots. Smoked meat has a long, long history and pretty much every culture on the planet has some kind of smoking/barbecue tradition. From the Caribbean barbacoa to Italian salamis to Eastern European briskets and German sausages, the act of using smoke and salt to preserve and flavor meat, poultry, and fish, has a history dating back to the discovery of fire–or at least the discovery that adding fire made that mastodon especially tasty. Simply put, there are books dedicated to the history and craft of meat smoking; I’m not even going to pretend that I can do all of those thousands of pages justice in a singe thousand-word post.
But I can at least touch on a few highlights and dig into that Texas v New York debate for a sentence or two. Texas Monthly BBQ’s “The History of Texas Pastrami” goes much more in depth–if this is a subject that sparks your interest, it’s worth a read.
Pastrami, it is important to note, is Eastern European in origin and not Italian as some folks think–etymologically speaking, this is likely due to the modernization of the spelling. Early shipping manifests from Bralia, Romania, show the spelling as “pastroma” or “jerk beef”. Presumably, this jerk beef didn’t have the same level of seasoning and juiciness that we find in contemporary pastrami, suggesting that while the name has carried on, the food has evolved greatly.
As a Texas girl, I grew up eating smoked brisket. On summer Saturdays, my father would get up early and start the smoker–a big brick pit in our back yard. By late afternoon, our table would be graced with a beautiful piece of smoky, tender beef brisket. There were probably sides, as well, but the thing that stands sharpest in memory is the brisket. There are some things a girl just doesn’t forget.
The smoked-brisket tradition of Texas has its heart in the Hill country, a part of the state that starts with San Antonio to the south, and Austin to the north, then heads west for a while. This is the area that was originally homesteaded by early Polish and Romanian immigrants–the ones who brought the smoked meat traditions with them. Some food historians suggest that all smoked brisket comes from that little piece of Texas.
Pastrami, though, isn’t just a smoked brisket. It’s more like the love child of smoked brisket and corned beef. And to add to the confusion of food etymology, it needs to be noted that the corned beef we associate with Ireland isn’t Irish at all. It’s Jewish. In a Smithsonian article about corned beef and cabbage, Shaylyn Esposito details the advent of the corned beef/St Patrick’s day tradition and lays bare the truth that the so-called “Irish” corned beef we eat with our cabbage is, in fact, a Jewish dish (hello, New York Deli connection). As she tells us, “The Jewish population in New York City at the time were relatively new immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe. The corned beef they made was from brisket, a kosher cut of meat from the front of the cow. Since brisket is a tougher cut, the salting and cooking processes transformed the meat into the extremely tender, flavorful corned beef we know of today.”
And smoked brisket, as we’ve discussed, is classic Texas barbecue. I think it’s pretty easy to connect the dots between smoked meat and corned beef–as immigrants moved west from Ellis Island, culinary traditions began to co-mingle (like they do…perhaps pastrami is an early example of fusion cuisine), with the classically Jewish brined brisket meeting up with a stack of mesquite somewhere along the way and transforming into something absolutely magical.
Here’s the thing. I’m torn by my own mixed loyalties. Do I declare pastrami for my state of origin, or for my adopted home? I’m not sure it really matters–the pastrami is the thing, not its roots. Regardless where the smoke met the brine, the pastrami on rye is pure New York deli food. Also, it isn’t lost on me that for the second state in a row, we’re talking about cured, smoked meats. I’m sensing a theme in my life.
As I mentioned, this is a 3-day process–and when it comes to making pastrami, the real work is in the technique, not the recipe. The recipe is the easy part. In addition to scouring multiple dozens of websites for information about pastrami-making, I relied heavily on the book Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. While it may not be the definitive guide to smoked meat, it’s an excellent resource that demystifies the whole process of smoking, salting, and curing, making it an altogether excellent resource for the novice charcuterie-maker.
But enough of my rambling. We’re all just here for the pastrami.
Notes: I only used 4# of brisket (I smoked the rest, Texas-style); most briskets run anywhere from 8-16# depending on whether you buy just the flat, or both the flat and point. Adjust your amounts accordingly.
My pastrami has been described as “aggressively spiced”, which is either a very good thing, or a little overwhelming depending on your preference. If you’d like a milder pastrami, use no more than half of the black pepper.
4# beef brisket, trimmed to 1/4-1/2″
For the brine
1 Tbs pickling spice
3/4 cup kosher salt
3 teaspoons pink curing salt***
5 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 Tbs honey
1/4 cup (packed) brown sugar
1/2 gallon water
*** Pink salt should not be confused with Himalayan pink salt. Curing salt was pink long before that stuff showed up in our markets. The salt we’re talking about here has nitrates added–the nitrates act as a preservative on the meat while its in the brine and help prevent nasty things like botulism and spoilage. Nobody wants a botulism-infused pastrami. I usually get pink salt online from places like the Savory Spice Shop (where real people write real thank you notes on your packing slips!). There are other sources–find one you like, but make sure you’re buying curing salt. The smart thing to do is educate yourself–this podcast is a great starting point.
For the rub***
1/4 cup ground black pepper
1/2 cup toasted coriander seeds
***My pastrami has been described as “aggressively spiced”, which is either a very good thing, or a little overwhelming depending on your preference. If you’d like a milder pastrami, use half of the black pepper in your pre-smoke rub.
For the smoke
1 cup mesquite* chips
Trim the brisket so that the fat cap is no more than 1/4-1/2″ thick. Some fat is good, too much will inhibit smoke absorption.
The fat cap has been trimmed to between 1/2-1/4 inch. Remember, I carved this piece off of a whole brisket; yours is likely to be much larger.
Place all brine ingredients into a pot and bring to a simmer, stir until salts and sugar are dissolved.
Transfer to a non-reactive container deep enough to hold your brisket.
Chill to slightly lower than room temperature.
Carefully slide the brisket into your brining solution. Top with a heavy plate or bowl so that it remains submerged.
Happy brisket going for a briny swim.
Refrigerate for 3 days, turning once on the 2nd day.
If you use a stick-burner (wood-and-charcoal smoker), now’s the time to get your fire started. Whether you’re burning sticks or pellets, keep the temperature between 225-250º for the duration of your smoke. My 4# pastrami took about 5 hours to reach 190º. For a larger piece, plan on 1-1 1/2 hours per pound of meat.
Remove your brined brisket to a grate or cooling rack placed over a sheet pan. Blot with paper towels and allow to air-dry until the outside is dry.*
While your meat is drying, make the coriander-pepper rub by toasting the coriander seeds in a skillet over medium heat. If you’re using whole peppercorns, add those to the pan.
Toasting tasty coriander seeds
Coriander, meet paper pepper packet.
(Note: I did not use whole peppercorns. We were out of whole peppercorns on pastrami day. We were also out of plain old ground black pepper going slowly stale in a tin on pastrami day. What we DID have were a thousand or so of those little bitty paper pepper packets that I use when catering)
Grind the coriander (and pepper if you have such a whole-berried luxury) either by hand or in a spice grinder. I ground mine by hand because I wanted the textural contrast on the meat. While I was grinding the coriander, the hubs was opening hundreds of the little paper pepper packets. Hundreds. Literally. He’s a very nice guy. Plus, he got a couple of excellent pastrami sandwiches out of the deal.
Mix the coriander and pepper together in a bowl.
The combination of course-ground coriander and pepper from tiny paper pepper packets makes an interesting study in contrasts. It also didn’t hurt the flavor one little bit.
And by “liberally” I mean liberally. Again, if you don’t care for aggressive seasoning, use less of it.
Liberally coat the brisket with the pepper-coriander mix.
Check your smoker for temperature, and if you’re in the 225-250º range, you’re ready to put it on.
I add my wood at the beginning of the smoke, and then every 20 minutes or so for the first 90 minutes. At this point, your meat should be just about right in terms of smokiness. Continuing to add wood at this point opens you to the risk of over-smoking your meat. It’ll still be edible, just not nearly as good.
Once your meat is on, it’s time to hang out and read a while. After the smoking phase is over, you can ignore it for a while–just check your temps periodically so that you’re staying within the range.
We call this our “test kitchen”
Once the internal temperature has reached 190º*, pull it off the smoker and let it cool.
If you’re not making the sandwiches immediately, let your pastrami rest for at least an hour, then wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.The next step to our pastrami sandwich requires simmering the meat until it’s fork-tender. We’ll discuss this when we get to the actual sandwich post.
Brined, rubbed, smoked, and chillin’ on the counter
I used mesquite because it’s my all-purpose wood. It tends to be milder than a lot of the fruitwoods and I wanted the brining and bark to be the focal point of the meat. Feel free to substitute hickory, pecan, or any other wood you choose (though I don’t recommend bourbon-barrel. The sweetness fights hard against the inherent savoriness of pastrami.)
Dry meat forms a sticky outer coating called a pellicle. The pellicle helps the spices and smoke to adhere to your pastrami, so don’t skip this step.
Some people prefer to rinse the brine off the meat before allowing it to dry. I typically do this with dry-brining, but not with wet.
Why 190º? Because at this temperature, the collagen has broken down and the meat becomes tender. It’s technically food-safe by 140º, but not even close to ready to eat.