Pastrami is the quintessential New York sandwich meat.
Food blogger Tori Avey explains that deli-style pastrami came to prominence in NYC in the late 19th Century and has been a best-seller on menus ever since. She also notes that pastrami preparation is a notoriously long and arduous process, and not something to take lightly.
Making pastrami is time-consuming and requires a serious attention to detail to get it just right. But understanding the steps involved can come in handy when explaining to customers exactly what goes into making a great pastrami. It should also give them a deeper appreciation for all of the work involved.
Needless to say, it all starts with the right cut of meat. But in the case of pastrami, it is trimmed beef brisket, best cut from the navel, which was popular among poor Jewish immigrants arriving in New York in the late 1800s.
As Alison Spiegel points out in The Huffington Post, the best cut comes from the navel, which is next to the brisket and closer to the belly. This area is more fatty and tends to hold up well when being cooked for a long period of time.
While you can make pastrami with almost any cut of beef brisket, the navel is ideal.
The next step is to preserve the meat, while simultaneously improving its flavor and texture, which involves using a brine to cure the beef. Derrick Riches writes at The Spruce that a basic brine consists of water with enough salt to float an egg plus other seasonings such as black pepper, garlic and coriander.
When it comes to selecting salt, you’ll usually want to use one that’s enriched with sodium nitrite. Why? As The Home Preservation Bible team explains, this is what gives the meat its reddish-pink color and adds to the overall flavor profile. If you just use regular salt, you’ll end up with pastrami with a greyish color and a flavor that’s less robust.
When it comes to storing the beef in the brine, you’ll want to leave it in a cold, dark place for anywhere from one to four weeks. During this time, regular check-ins are necessary to monitor progress and prevent the meat from spoiling.
After curing, a spice rub will be applied the pastrami to enhance the flavor and give it its signature taste. The rub is what also creates the delicious bark. As you might imagine, the specific ingredients used in a rub can differ considerably. But Kevin H. of Extraordinary BBQ highlights a handful of spices that can be used to make a great-tasting pastrami rub:
You simply mix these together in a bowl and apply it to the cured beef.
Smoking pastrami is an art in and of itself. The ThermoWorks team explains that it’s usually best smoked at 225 to 250°F until it reaches an internal temperature of 150°F. This can take different lengths of time depending on the size of the meat and can be quite time-consuming for larger cuts.
For instance, it can take up to 10 hours to smoke a 10-pound brisket. However much larger cuts can take as long as three days, which means that it’s a serious labor of love. A good rule of thumb is to give it roughly an hour for each pound of meat.
This can often be done in-house for delis and restaurants that are selling limited quantities of pastrami. However, when done at scale, most will send their meat to a separate facility to be smoked because of the space needed (some facilities even use smokers that are as big as studio apartments).
There’s one important variable involved with the smoking process: the wood chips. Many of the big name delis and restaurants have their own unique blend of wood chips — and are highly secretive about those recipes. However, Grilling Companion explains that apple wood tends to work well for basic smoking because it gives it a nice flavor without overpowering the meat.
After smoking, most of the heavy lifting is done. It’s just a matter of getting it ready to be served.
Pastrami can be served either hot or cold — both of which are great. But you’ll find that many delis and restaurants opt for hot. The Cook’s Info team writes that it’s typically heated either through steaming or baking, but steaming tends to be the preferred method.
Laura Togut mentions at Serious Eats that besides simply warming the meat, steaming adds tenderness and helps loosen up the meat. This is what adds to the tender, melt-in-your-mouth texture that pastrami lovers long for. She adds that streaming usually takes anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes before it’s ready to slice.
Tim Hayward at The Guardian offers a simple yet effective way to steam pastrami in small batches. He recommends placing the smoked pieces onto a rack just a few centimeters over a pan of boiling water and then wrapping tinfoil around it. From there, you seal it up and allow the steam to circulate.
David Sax, author of Save the Deli and pastrami connoisseur, explains in The Atlantic that the invention of the automatic slicer allowed deli owners to make more sandwiches with less labor, while wasting less meat and increasing uniformity. Unfortunately, efficiency came at a cost — taste.
As someone who’s incredibly passionate about pastrami and delis in general, he believes that hand-cut pastrami is vastly superior to pastrami that’s sliced in a machine. Or, as he puts it, almost anything done by hand in the kitchen is superior to electronic counterparts.
Many of the top New York delis still slice their pastrami by hand, too, which is what gives many local pastrami sandwiches their authentic feel and flavor.
“Meathead” Goldwyn offers his advice on how to properly slice pastrami at Amazing Ribs. He says to look for which way the grain is running in the meat and to cut it into 1/8-inch thick slices perpendicular to the gain. Doing it this way makes it more tender, which is what you’re looking for. Cutting with the grain makes the meat tougher.
There’s one last topic to discuss, and that’s how to actually put the sandwich together. As Laura Togut at Serious Eats points out, there’s more to making a pastrami sandwich than you might think.
She says a properly assembled pastrami sandwich must strike the right balance between fat and lean meat. It should be piled fairly high (like you see in most NYC delis), but it shouldn’t be too bulgy. This is what makes it hearty without making the sandwich unnecessarily difficult to bite into.
As for condiments, there are a few options. Dan Cazentre mentions at Syracuse.com that spicy brown mustard and Russian dressing are the two preferred classics in traditional New York delis. Also note that mayo is an option; however, this would be considered an unpardonable sin to most of your old-style Jewish deli owners.
The pastrami sandwich is truly a New York classic with roots that go back well over a century.
Public Radio International’s Kenny Sokan references author Ted Merwin’s book Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli by saying that the pastrami sandwich was, and continues to be, a symbol of American bounty. When you consider all of the heritage and tradition behind it, pastrami really does offer a taste of American history and is something that deli and restaurant owners continue to take immense pride in.
As you can see, there’s a lot that goes into to making quality pastrami, and it’s quite meticulous. But as Aly Walansky mentions at Men’s Journal, the method behind pastrami preparation was developed as a means of taking tough, less flavorful cuts and elevating them into something special. That’s why there are so many steps involved.
But it’s the hard work and willingness not to cut corners that make for a truly delicious pastrami sandwich.
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