How to Make Pastrami
Once you’ve tasted this moist, smoky home made pastrami you’ll never want to buy it from the store again.
Making your own pastrami isn’t difficult but there are a lot of steps involved.
You’re also going to need a lot of patience. The full recipe takes 6 – 7 days from start to finish.
You can jump straight to the recipe at the bottom of the page, but I would recommend reading through the guide first as we cover a lot of important parts of the process in more detail.
What is Pastrami?
I’m sure you’ve tasted pastrami before. It’s commonly used in a Reuben sandwich as an alternative to more traditional corned beef.
The most prominent theory is that Pastrami was first served in the late 1800s by Romanian Jewish immigrants in New York. They brought the technique for preserving meat with them.
This video takes an interesting look at where Pastrami was invented.
It wasn’t until I decided to make my own pastrami that I learnt where this meat comes from and how it’s made.
I always thought Pastrami was a specific cut of preserved beef.
While the vast majority of pastrami consumed comes from corned beef, you can actually make it out of salmon, turkey or beef ribs.
The term pastrami broadly refers to the curing and then smoking process. Traditionally pastrami was also steamed.
Preparing your corned beef
To make the best pastrami, you really have to make your own corned beef.
Sure you could save a lot of time and buy store bought, but when you make it yourself you can make sure you use the right cut of beef and trim it to perfection.
Making your own corned beef isn’t hard, but it is time consuming. Don’t attempt this recipe unless you have some time on your hands!
You need to leave the brisket fully immersed in a cure mix in the fridge for 5-7 days.
1. Choosing the right cut and prepping the beef
Most corned beef is made from the brisket. You can use any part of the brisket, but the flat is commonly used because it’s easy to slice into even slices.
The point section of the brisket has more fat and connective tissue, so will produce a more tender end product.
You can also use the extra fatty cut next to to the brisket but closer to the belly known as the navel.
It comes down to personal preference, I like to use a good quality brisket flat with plenty of marbling.
If you’re struggling to find good brisket locally, Snake River Farms sells incredible brisket and lets you choose the exact weight you want.
Depending on where you buy your brisket, you will need to trim it:
- Use a sharp knife to remove all of the thick white fat, making sure to leave about 1/8″
- Remove any fat on the other side.
2. Curing the corned beef
In the days before refrigeration curing the meat was vital to prevent it spoiling.
The flavor and texture was a bonus.
The three main elements of the cure are water, salt and pink curing salt (Prague Powder #1).
We’re going to add a bunch of other ingredients to ramp up the flavor, and bring them all to boil in a large pot until the salt and sugar are dissolved.
I got the inspiration for the cure from this recipe over at atbbq.com.
The recipe we’re using is for a whole brisket flat. You can scale it up or down but you need to be careful. You can’t just increase or decrease the amount of Prague Powder #1.
Check out this guide which has a helpful calculator for scaling recipes with curing salt.
Make sure you have a large enough bucket or container to fit your beef and approximately 2 gallons of water.
You need to ensure the beef is fully submerged for the entire 5 – 7 days. Weigh it down with a bowl to prevent the meat floating.
You also want to flip the meat every day or so which will help stir up the cure.
You’ll notice the meat turn a pale gray color over time. This is perfectly normal!
After 6 days this is what my brisket looked like:
Before you can do anything with this you need to desalinate it. Place the beef into a tub of cold water and leave it in the fridge for around 8 hours.
Some recipes just wash the brisket under the tap for a few minutes so if you are pushed for time you can give that a try.
At this point you could make regular corned beef by simmering it in a large pot of water.
But we have a craving for smoked pastrami Reuben sandwiches, so we are not done yet!
Making the Pastrami
1. Making the Pastrami rub
All Pastrami rubs share the same two main ingredients.
- Freshly cracked black pepper
- Coriander powder
I prefer to make my own coriander powder by putting the seeds through my electric spice grinder.
The secret to a really good pastrami rub is to combine the ground ingredients with whole seeds that have been smashed up and cracked, but not turned into powder.
Once you have made the rub, spread a thin layer of regular mustard on the brisket to help the rub stick.
Then apply the rub liberally being sure to cover both sides.
Use your hand to help press the rub into the surface to make sure it really sticks.
At this point you can put the meat back into the fridge for two more days, but I got impatient and only let it sit for half an hour while I fired up my smoker.
2. Smoking the Pastrami
By now you should be a week into your Pastrami adventure, and you’re probably starting think you should have just bought some from the deli.
But trust me, all your work is about to pay off!
You want to fire up your smoker and get the temperature stable around 250°F.
I use my Smoke WiFi thermometer to keep an eye on the temperature, and later in the process I add the meat probe so that I know exactly when the pastrami is done.
I recommend using a charcoal smoker to get the best crust, but any smoker or grill setup for two-zone cooking will do the job.
Add a few first size chunks of your favorite smoke wood. I don’t think the type of wood matters a great deal. I’m using Apple wood chunks.
Place the meat on the smoker, with the fat side pointing up.
Now you have a few options.
- Smoke the Pastrami until you get to 205°F and it’s ready to eat
- Smoke until the bark gets a nice dark color, around 155°F and then wrap in foil until you get to 205°F
- Smoke until around 155°F and then steam the meat.
Finishing the Pastrami with a steam is the traditional way it’s done. So do this if you want to copy what the deli’s in New York do. Check out step 6 and 7 on this guide for how to steam Pastrami.
I decided to wrap my brisket, and increased the temperature in the smoker up to 300°F.
This is a good middle ground as wrapping the brisket will let it steam. The downside is that the bark does go a little soft.
It still tasted delicious, but if you want to get a really firm smoky bark leaving it unwrapped would be the way to go.
Keep smoking the brisket until it is nice and tender when probed, around 205 – 210°F.
Allow the meat to rest for 30 minutes to an hour before slicing.
3. Slicing and serving
You’re just about at the finish line, but you don’t want to slip up now. Slicing the meat correctly is crucial to get maximum tenderness.
Look closely at the meat and notice which way the grain is running.
You want to cut against the grain (perpendicular to the grain). Aim for nice thin slices.
This is where having a long, sharp slicing knife is crucial. My 12″ Victorinox slicing knife worked a treat.
You’ve got plenty of options for serving the pastrami. The most famous is of course the Reuben sandwich.
I also served the sliced pastrami on some thinly sliced rye bread with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing.
Don’t forget some pickles on the side! Leftover pastrami should be good in the fridge for 3 -5 days.
You can also freeze the leftover pastrami and then reheat it in the microwave. You can also vacuum pack the leftovers and then drop the bag in some boiling water to thaw and reheat it.
- 8 lb beef brisket flat
- pastrami rub recipe below
- 2 tbsp yellow mustard
- 1 tbsp black peppercorns
- 1 tbsp coriander seeds
- 1 tbsp mustard seeds
- 1 tbsp red chili flakes
- 1 tbsp whole allspice berries
- 1 tbsp whole cloves
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp ground mace
- 1 stick cinnamon crushed
- 2 bay leaves broken into pieces
- 1 gallon water
- 1½ cup Kosher salt
- 1 cup sugar
- 4 tsp pink curing salt look for curing salt #1 which might be labelled Prague powder #1
- 6 cloves garlic crushed
- ¼ cup pickling spice
- 8½ lb Ice You can replace the ice with 1 gallon of water, but you'll need to wait a few hours for the brine to cool before using it.
- 2 tbsp black pepper coarsely ground
- 1 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 tbsp paprika
- 2 tsp garlic powder
- 2 tsp onion powder
- ½ tsp mustard powder
- 2 tbsp black peppercorns whole
- 1 tbsp coriander seeds whole
- ½ Tsp mustard seeds whole
To Make the Pickling Spice
- Toast the coriander, peppercorns and mustard seeds in a dry fry pan over medium heat until they are fragrant. Keep the seeds moving and be careful they do not burn.
- Fold the toasted spices in a cloth napkin and then use a heavy pan or rolling pin to smash the spices, making sure that they start to crack open.
- Combine the toasted spices with the rest of the pickling spice ingredients and store in an airtight container.
To Make the Brisket
- Combine all brine ingredients except for the ice in a large pot. Bring to the boil and stir until the salt and sugar has dissolved.
- If using, add the ice to your brine bucket then pour the brine mix over the ice and stir. If you're not using ice add another gallon of cold water to the brine mixture and cool in the fridge for a few hours until cold.
- Trim the brisket flat so that there is a 1/8" layer of fat on one side only.
- Add the brisket to the cold brine solution. Place a bowl filled with brine on top of the meat to make sure it doesn't float.
- Refrigerate and let the brisket sit in the brine for 5 – 7 days. The thicker the meat the longer you will need to leave it. Make sure you flip the meat every day to help stir up the cure and make sure the brisket is always covered in brine.
To Make the Rub
- Combine all of the powder ingredients in a small bowl.
- Fold the peppercorns, coriander and mustard seeds in a clean cloth and use a heavy pan or rolling pin to smash them until they are cracked but not powdered.
- Mix all ingredients together
To Make the Pastrami
- Remove the brisket from the brine and cover it in a pot with cold water. Place it back in the fridge for at least 8 hours. If you are in a rush you can just wash the brisket under cold water for a few minutes but it may still be quite salty.
- Spread a thin layer of yellow mustard over the brisket and sprinkle the rub all over it. Use your hand to press the rub in. For a whole brisket flat I used the entire batch of rub.
- Fire up your smoker to 250°F and add 2-3 fist size chunks of smoke wood. Apple or cherry work well.
- Place the brisket on the smoker, fat side up, and smoke until the internal temperature hits 155 – 160°F. This should take around 5 hours.
- Once the brisket has developed a nice mahogany red bark, wrap it tightly in foil and increase the smoker temperature to 300°F.
- Continue smoking until the Pastrami feels tender when probed and has an internal temperature between 203 – 207°F.
- Take the Pastrami off the smoker and leave it to rest for at least half an hour. Slice thinly and serve.