What is pastrami?
Pastrami is the highly seasoned smoked beef prepared especially from shoulder cuts that was created in New York City and has now become popular all over the world. It is now traditionally prepared with beef, but it can also be prepared with pork, mutton, or turkey. Turkey pastrami has become the most popular alternative to the traditional beef version.
What is the origin of pastrami?
Although it is not a heresy to think of pastrami as an American invention, the classic New York deli meat was introduced to the United States in a wave of Jewish immigration from Bessarabia and Romania after 1872.
However, pastrami, with its now famous peppery spice blend, has a history that goes way beyond the 19th century, and has traveled through many countries and continents.
What is the origin of the word pastrami?
The word pastrami itself comes from Romanian pastramă. Pastramă actually comes from the Romanian verb păstra which means “to preserve food for a long period” whose etymology brings us to Turkish pastırma (short for bastırma, which means “pressed meat”).
Early references of the famous deli meat in English used the spelling “pastrama”, which is closer to the Romanian word pastramă. The modified “pastrami” spelling was probably introduced to mimic the American English salami.
What is pastırma?
Pastırma (also called basturma, pastourma, bastırma, or basterma) is a highly seasoned, air-dried cured beef that is now an integral part of the cuisines of many countries. This technique has been used in Anatolia for centuries, and Byzantine dried meat is thought to be at the origin of modern pastirma, and therefore pastrami.
In Armenia, the cured meat, which resembles Italian bresaola, is called basturma or abouhkd. It is famous for its strong smell due to the garlic and fenugreek mixture that the meat is coated in during preservation.
In Turkey, pastırma is consumed at breakfast and it is often used in omelettes, menemen (Turkish-style shakshuka) or a variation of eggs Benedict. Pastırma can also be served as a meze, or as a topping for pide bread, hamburgers, and hummus, or even a filling for a burek.
What is pastramă?
Pastramă is a traditional deli meat from Romania that can be prepared with lamb, as well as pork and mutton. Pastramă was initially created as a way to preserve the meat before modern refrigeration methods were invented. At the beginning, pastramă was a speciality from Wallachia (historical Romanian region) prepared with young ram’s meat.
Pastramă (also known as pastron) was introduced by the Romans to the city of Caesarea Mazaca in Anatolia.
In 455 AD the Gepids (an East Germanic tribe under King Ardarich) conquered Pannonia, a territory covering present-day western Hungary, eastern Austria, northern Croatia, north-western Serbia, northern Slovenia, western Slovakia and northern Bosnia and Herzegovina. They settled for two centuries in Transylvania. The Gepids were overrun by the Avars in 567 during the attack of Lombards. It is at this time that the Lombards discovered pastramă, known as bresaola (from bresada meaning “braised”).
From pastramă to pastrami
Among the Jewish Romanians, goose breasts were commonly used to make pastrami because they were inexpensive. However, beef navel (beef plate) was a cheaper cut of meat than goose meat in the United States, so the Romanian Jewish immigrants adapted their recipe and started to prepare pastrami with the cheaper-alternative.
What is the origin of pastrami in the United States?
Some people say beef pastrami was first made in the United States by an immigrant kosher butcher, Sussman Volk, in 1887. Volk, a kosher butcher and New York immigrant from Lithuania, claimed he received the recipe from a Romanian friend in exchange for storing the friend’s luggage while the friend was returning to Romania.
According to his great-granddaughter, author Patricia Volk, he was making pastrami according to the recipe and was serving the deli meat on sandwiches from his butcher shop. The sandwich became so popular that Volk converted the butcher shop into a deli restaurant to sell his pastrami sandwich.
But that story is disputed by the owners of Katz’s Delicatessen, which opened in 1888. Katz’s is currently the oldest deli in the nation, and a New York landmark.
How to make homemade pastrami
New York pastrami is generally made from the navel end of the beef brisket. The raw meat cut is cured in brine in a mixture of salt, sugar, and spices for up to a week, then dried and coated with a mix of spices including garlic, coriander, black pepper, paprika, cloves, allspice, and mustard seed. It is then smoked for several hours, before being steamed until the connective tissues within the meat break down.
The characteristic flavors of pastrami include smoke, spicy black pepper, and the sweet citrus tang of coriander seeds. The original process involved placing meat in saddle bags, where it was pressed by the riders’ legs as they rode. The modern Turkish version involves rubbing the beef in salt to cure it, then drying it in the open air for several days, and covering it with a thick spice rub.
Once crucial for the preservation of meat, the curing, drying, smoking techniques, as well as the spices, are now all used more for the flavor.
The pastrami preparation techniques are now even used on seafood, and in particular salmon, which responds well to the preparation method.
Corned beef vs Pastrami
Pastrami can be made with store-bought or homemade corned beef. Like pastrami, corned beef was initially created as a way to preserve meat before refrigeration.
Corned beef can comes in two forms:
Uncooked corned beef is a piece of beef that is sold in a brine solution of curing salts, salt, and pickling spices. It is usually packaged in a plastic bag with some of the brine in it. It is very salty.
Cooked and ready-to-eat corned beef is cured in brine, but it has been cooked. It is usually found packaged in slices or sliced fresh at the deli counter.
Where is the corn in corned beef?
Corned beef has no corn, so where does the name come from? Corn was in fact the old British name for “grain”. Since a “corn of salt” was similar to now saying a “grain of salt”, corned beef became just another name for “salted beef”, and corning is really the same as curing or pickling.
Corned beef was a staple food among civilians in Great Britain and among the troops in Europe during World War II, mostly because fresh meat was expensive and difficult to find. Corned beef was sold in cans. Like pastrami, sliced corned beef is very popular in Jewish deli restaurants and it is also a key ingredient of the Reuben sandwich, along with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, Russian dressing, and rye bread.
Corned beef is usually a section of the brisket or navel (beef plate) that is soaked for a few days in a flavored brine.
Jewish delis in New York
Once considered institutions in New York, Jewish deli restaurants are getting harder to find lately. As of 2016, there were only about 15 Jewish delis left in the Big Apple, down from about 1,500 in the 1930s.
But there are still a few deli institutions left such as Katz’s Delicatessen. The NY landmark has been making pastrami on the Lower East Side at the edge of what was once called Little Romania since 1888.
Katz’s Delicatessen claims that its beef is brined for three weeks, before being smoked for three days, and boiled for 3 hours. The pastrami is then steamed right before it is served on rye bread.
Katz’s is a timeless landmark, which is also the site of the ultra famous scene from “Harry met Sally” where Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm.
It took me 8 days to prepare this pastrami from a raw cut of beef.
The first step was to brine the meat for about 6 days to prepare homemade corned beef before desalinating it for a couple days. I then took the corned beef to my friend David so we could prepare it to smoke it in his smoker. This took about 12 hours, although it could be shorter, depending on the temperature, the smoker and the cut of beef.
The steaming process only took a couple hours, but at this point, we were so impatient to finally taste this juicy pastrami.
We ate our pastrami on rye bread lathered with brown mustard. Of course, we served it with the traditional gherkins, as well as coleslaw on the side.
Yes, this pastrami recipe is very time consuming, but it is so worth it and you will have the most perfect hot pastrami sandwich.
- 4 lb beef brisket , or navel (plate), boneless short rib meat, flank steak, tongue, or round
- 4 quarts water
- 8 oz. kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons Prague Powder #1
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 6 tablespoons pickling spices (mustard seeds, allspice, coriander seeds, clove, ginger, red pepper flakes, bay leaf, cinnamon stick)
- 4 cloves garlic , pressed
- 2 tablespoons yellow mustard seeds
- 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
- 2 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon brown sugar
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- 4 lb corned beef (recipe below or store-bought, brined uncooked)
- 8 tablespoons pastrami rub (recipe below)
- Rye Bread
- Brown mustard
- Clean a container large enough to hold the brine and the meat, such as a large glass container.
- Mix the Prague Powder #1, brown sugar, pickling spices and garlic cloves. Add to the water and stir until the powder and ground ingredients are dissolved.
- Add the meat to the curing solution. Since it will probably float to the surface, use a glass or plastic bowl filled with brine on top of the meat until it submerges.
- Make sure there is enough brine to cover the meat by at least 1 inch. Refrigerate.
Let it cure for at least 4 days (ideally 6), depending on the thickness of the meat. Move the meat every day to stir up the curing solution.
- At the end of the brining, the outer layer of the meat will be light gray. The inside should look just like raw meat, slightly pinker.
- Toast the coriander and mustard seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes.
- Grind the seeds with a mortar with a pestle or in a spice grinder until you have a rough sandy texture.
- Combine the ground spices with the pepper, paprika, salt, sugar, and garlic.
Desalinate by placing the corned beef in a pot slightly larger than the meat and cover it with cold water in the fridge for at least 24 hours.
- Rinse the meat, and place it on a large plate.
- Apply the spice rub generously. Press the rub onto the meat surface so that it can adhere. Use less rub on thin parts of the meat cut.
- Place the plate in the refrigerator for a minimum of 3 days uncovered.
Preheat the smoker to 225 F / 107 C. Use any wood, such as cherry wood.
Place the meat in the smoker. Smoke the with indirect heat until it reaches about 160 F / 70 C.
If you do not steam the smoked meat right away, wrap in foil and and keep it refrigerated for up to a week.
- In a large steamer (or in a large pot or pan with a wire rack), place the meat, making sure that the meat is not in contact with the water.
Put the steamer on the stove at low to medium heat. Steam for two hours or until the meat is heated through to 203 F / 95 C. Add hot water as needed, to make sure the steamer never dries out.
- For a firm crust, place on a hot grill, in the oven or under the broiler for a few minutes.
Cut the meat by hand with a sharp knife in thin slices, about ½ inch thick, perpendicular to the grain.
- Spread brown mustard on two slices of untoasted rye bread.
- Serve pastrami between the slices of rye bread, with pickles and coleslaw on the side.