What is pastrami
Pastrami is a deli meat or cold cut made from different cuts of beef. The navel end of the beef brisket, also called the plate cut, is the most common, although short rib and round can also be used. Compared to the brisket, the navel is denser, fattier, and less stringy, all of which contribute to a more high-end final product.
The raw meat is brined, rubbed with salt, garlic, sugar, and spices, dry-cured, smoked, and then boiled or steamed. Corned beef and pastrami were originally created to preserve meat in the days before refrigeration. Pastrami is one of the most iconic meats of American Jewish cuisine and New York City cuisine. Pastrami is usually served at delis on sandwiches such as pastrami on rye.
The taste of pastrami is reminiscent of roast beef and sausage. However, its flavour is not derived from the meat it is made from – instead, it derives from the method by which it is prepared. Technically, you can 'pastrami' any type of meat, including lamb and salmon. The process begins with brining the meat for up to a week in a marinade of salt, sugar, and spices. Afterwards, the meat is coated with a spicy sauce of coriander seeds, pepper, mustard seeds, fennel seeds, and garlic – this is where it gets its flavour.
Originally made by Lithuanian immigrant Sussman Volk using a Romanian friend's recipe, pastrami was first served in New York City in the late 1800s. The legend goes that Volk's pastrami became so popular that he opened a deli at 88 Delancey Street, where he served this iconic kosher meat on rye bread.
Pastrami vs. corned beef
Pastrami and corned beef differ primarily in how they're cut and processed. Both are brined cuts of beef, but that's all they have in common. While corned beef is typically made from brisket – a beef cut made from the lower chest of the cow – pastrami is either made from a cut called the deckle, a wide, lean cut, or the navel, a smaller, more tender cut right below the ribs. The navel cut is a fatty one, which can also stand up well to the long cooking process. You won't find it as stringy as corned beef. However, pastrami can also be made from brisket.
Pastrami and corned beef are brined in a mixture of salt, sugar, black pepper, cloves, coriander, bay leaves, juniper berries, and dill before they’re cooked. After brining, pastrami gets brushed with a spicy mixture of black pepper, coriander, mustard seeds, and fennel seeds – this is what gives it its charred appearance. Corned beef has no spice mixture at all.
Pastrami and corned beef are cooked differently. Pastrami is smoked over hardwood, usually with a pan of water nearby, which creates steam and keeps the meat moist. Afterwards, it's cooled and then steamed before serving. Corned beef is either boiled or steamed, and cabbage and other ingredients can be included. Here's an infographic outlining the history of corned beef and cabbage, an Irish tradition.
The origins of pastrami and corned beef are different: Pastrami has Romanian and Lithuanian origins, whereas corned beef comes from Ireland.
What to do with pastrami
Pastrami is usually served in sandwiches, piled high between slices of fluffy rye bread or bagels, and spread liberally with yellow mustard and pickles, but it can also be served in countless other ways – for instance, as a croque monsieur, the epitome of grilled cheese sandwiches, here prepared using pastrami and Gruyère cheese.
You can also enjoy this meaty and satisfying sandwich with a great variety of tasty sides for a wonderful and unforgettable meal.
Pickles or pickle spears are a delicious accompaniment to pastrami. Sliced pickles can also be incorporated into the sandwich. Nothing beats a bite of pickle to freshen up a meaty meal. And to truly experience the New York pastrami sandwich, serve up some sauerkraut as well.
And if you want to have a meal that stays true to its roots, have your pastrami sandwich with another Jewish classic: an amazingly delicious matzo ball soup.