How to Make Pastrami from Scratch

How to Make Pastrami from Scratch

Pastrami is hands-down the most delicious thing to ever come from my smoker. It’s also one of the most rewarding recipes you can make; or in other words, it’s a long and somewhat complicated process. You’ll have to cure your meat for at least a week before getting up early to fire up your smoker. But I promise it’s worth it!

While I started writing this post as a traditional recipe with a list of ingredients and directions, I felt like a more thorough walkthrough of the process – with pictures included – would be more effective. There are so many informational tidbits and potential variations worth including that just don’t fit in tidy, concise list. However, I did include a standard formatted recipe near the end, and you can jump to that section by clicking here.

I hope you’ll enjoy this guide on how to make pastrami at home, and please let me know if you have any questions about the process!

Pastrami is beef that has been soaked in a brine, heavily seasoned, and smoked. It originated as a way to preserve meat before refrigeration, since soaking beef in a salty brine was an effective way to protect it from bacteria.

half of pastrami brisket

Jewish immigrants from Romania and Bessarabia are credited with introducing pastrami to United States during the mid to late-19th century. These Jewish Romanians traditionally used goose breast to make pastrami, but they found beef to be cheaper in America.

Pastrami vs Corned Beef

What’s the difference between pastrami and corned beef? The main distinction is that while both are cured, only pastrami is smoked. So the first step of soaking the beef in a brine is the same whether you’re making pastrami or corned beef. When you add a dry rub of spices and smoke the meat, that’s when you’re really making pastrami. Corned beef, on the other hand, is simply cooked by boiling after it’s done curing.

Choosing Your Meat

Pastrami is typically made from brisket flat, which is the leaner portion of the brisket. However, some folks – like Steven Raichlen – recommend using beef navel. Know that the navel, which is essentially the beef equivalent of pork belly, is significantly fattier than brisket. I personally find brisket to be fatty enough, and it’s also easier to find brisket at your local grocery store or butcher. For those reasons I usually go with brisket flat:

beef brisket flat

And if you can only find a whole brisket (not just the flat), that will work too. However, you’ll be in for a longer cook, and the brisket point will give you fattier slices that aren’t quite as nice and presentable as the slices from the flat.

Making a Brine and Curing Your Meat

Once you’ve got your beef, the next step is curing it. This will be done through wet curing, which means the meat is soaked in a brining liquid. 

At minimum your brine will contain a good amount of Kosher salt as well as Prague Powder #1. The former preserves the meat, while the latter, also known as pink curing salt, gives pastrami its appetizing pink color. Note that this is NOT the same stuff as pink Himalayan salt – Prague Powder #1 contains sodium nitrite, while Himalayan salt does not.

The curing process is also an opportunity to introduce a ton of flavor. Sugar, garlic cloves, and various spices are typically included. A pickling spice is a convenient mix of spices that work perfectly for pastrami. It’s great if you don’t have a ton of spices in your pantry, but if you do, feel free to make your own. For reference, here’s the ingredients in the pickling spice I currently have:

pickling spice ingredients

Whatever you add to your brine, it’s a good idea to boil the mixture before curing your meat. This will allow you to easily dissolve the salt and sugar, and it will also wake up the spices a bit. Just enough boiling to get everything dissolved nicely is fine.

boiled brining liquid for pastrami

Be sure that the liquid is cool before adding your meat. It’s easiest to add ice rather than waiting. Then, finally, you can get your brisket soaking. This can be a little tricky, since you’ll want your meat to be completely submerged. You can use a briner bucket, which has an adjustable lid, or a large tupperware container with a ceramic plate on top of your meat works fine:

plate keeping curing meat submerged

Desalination

Desalination, the process of soaking your meat in fresh water after curing to remove excess salt, is an optional step. Some recipes act as if your pastrami will be inedible without it, and others don’t mention it at all. I’ve tried both ways, and when I didn’t desalinate, I found the pastrami to be a bit too salty for my taste. However, it was still absolutely delicious.

If you choose to desalinate, 8 hours is a sufficient amount of time, and changing the water a couple times will help. If you don’t have any time to desalinate, be sure to thoroughly rinse your meat after curing it – that will get rid of a good amount of salt.

Pastrami Rub | Essential Ingredients and Variations

The primary ingredients in a pastrami rub are black pepper and coriander. In fact, you can find great recipes (like this one) that only include these two ingredients. In addition to pepper and coriander, you might also consider adding relatively small amounts of the following:

  • mustard (seeds or power)
  • brown sugar
  • paprika
  • garlic powder
  • onion powder
  • ground ginger
toasting coriander and peppercorns on stove

To make your rub even more delicious, I recommend toasting and grinding whole coriander seeds and peppercorns. Just throw them in a pan over medium heat and stir occasionally. When you can really start to smell the toasty deliciousness, they are done. Be sure to give them a little time to cool before grinding. 

After you grind up the coriander and pepper, you’ll probably still have some whole pieces left. I remember being concerned that these might be unpleasant to bite through. However, after cooking for several hours, they soften up enough.

And whatever you add to your rub, note that there’s no need to add salt or spice mixes that contain salt. As explained above, the brine provides more than enough sodium.

Smoking and Wrapping

After applying the rub, it’s finally time to smoke. This is where your brisket really becomes pastrami! I used my Camp Chef smoker for the pictured pastrami, but you can set up a standard charcoal grill for offset cooking/smoking if you don’t have a dedicated smoker.

You’ll want your smoker at 250°, but anywhere in the 225° – 275° range is fine. After smoking for 4-5 hours, you should have a nice mahogany bark:

pastrami bark from smoking

At that point, you can wrap your meat in foil to accelerate the cooking process and keep your pastrami nice and juicy. You can increase your temperature to 275°, and since the meat isn’t taking on more smoke after being wrapped, it’s fine to do this second part of the cook in your oven. I’ll usually opt for the oven to save wood, and because the oven is obviously better at maintaining a consistent temperature.

You’re not really aiming for a specific temperature, but rather your meat should be probe tender. Stick a probe in the meat at a few different spots, and it should slide in easily – like butter. The brisket should also feel loose and flexible when you pick it up. And while I said you shouldn’t look for a specific temperature, right around 200° is usually when it’s done.

When you’re confident your pastrami is nice and tender, all you have to do before digging in is let it rest for 30-60 minutes.

Slicing Your Pastrami

After letting your pastrami rest, it’s finally time to eat. While some folks will intentionally cool their pastrami to make it like a deli meat, I think that’s crazy! It’s amazing when it’s still hot, and you’ll probably have leftovers you can eat cold.

Anyway, let’s talk slicing. As you probably know, you’ll want to slice against the grain. If you are just working with a brisket flat, that makes things pretty simple – just find the grain and cut against it all the way through. If you have a whole (“packer”) brisket, you’ll need to turn the brisket about halfway through and cut perpendicular to your initial flat slices. This is necessary because the grain of the ‘point’ muscle runs opposite to the flat. 

I find video more useful than written instructions for this situation, so check out this clip of Aaron Franklin (starting at 6:45) if you haven’t sliced up a brisket before:

What about slice width? Some people like to slice pastrami really thin, similar to how a deli might. I like to go pencil-width thick, much like a traditional smoked brisket. Remember that you’re more likely to make a mess of your bark if you try to make really thin slices.

Summary Recipe

I should note that this recipe is really a combination of three sources. The bulk of it comes from All Things Barbecue (check out their video here). However, I like to add a few additional spices to the rub; specifically, I found about ginger from Steven Raichlen’s recipe. Lastly, I learned about desalination from Amazing Ribs after my first pastrami ended up a little too salty. If you have any special techniques or ingredients of your own, let me know in the comments!

And now for the recipe. In addition to a beef brisket flat or beef navel, here’s what you’ll need:

Brine Ingredients

  • 1 gallon water
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups kosher salt
  • 4 teaspoons Prague Powder #1 (aka pink curing salt)
  • 1/2 cup pickling spice
  • 10 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 8.5 pounds ice (roughly another gallon)

Pastrami Rub Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup peppercorns
  • 1/4 cup whole coriander seeds
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon mustard powder

Directions

  1. Combine brine ingredients in a large pot and boil until salt and sugar are completely dissolved. Add ice and stir to cool the mixture.
  2. In a brining bucket or other large container, place your meat in the brining liquid. If necessary, use a plate or other object to ensure the meat is fully submerged.
  3. Cure meat in refrigerator for 1 week.
  4. After curing, desalinate your meat by placing it in fresh water for ~8 hours, changing the water a couple times. If you don’t have that much time, even an hour or two can be useful for getting rid of a significant amount of sodium. If you don’t have any time, be sure to thoroughly rinse off your meat at the very least.
  5. Toast peppercorns and coriander seeds in a pan over medium heat until fragrant – this should only take a couple minutes. Grind after allowing them to cool.
  6. Add the remaining ingredients for the rub and apply to the meat.
  7. Smoke at ~250° for 5 hours.
  8. Wrap and continue smoking at 275°-300° until probe tender. Your meat should be in the 200° to 205° range when it’s done.
  9. Allow your meat to rest for at least 30 minutes before digging in.

Pastrami Shortcuts

What if you don’t want to wait out the curing process? Or your wife doesn’t want a brisket soaking in the refrigerator for a week?

Luckily, as I mentioned in the introduction, there are some shortcuts that can be taken. If you want to skip the curing, you can buy an uncooked corned beef brisket from the grocery store. Then you just have to season and smoke it.

What if it’s freezing cold and you can’t be bothered to use your smoker, but you absolutely need to make some homemade pastrami? You could definitely use your oven. Your pastrami will lack that smokey flavor, but you can partially make up for that by adding some smoked paprika (or another smoked spice) to your rub.

And if you’re really in a hurry, you can cut down cooking time considerably with an Instant Pot – check out Pressure Luck Cooking for a great recipe.

The Perfect Pastrami Sandwich Recipe

…is up for debate. Most folks can agree that rye is the bread you’ll want, and many say untoasted is the way to go – I suppose this creates a more uniformly soft texture and allows the bread to absorb some juices from the meat. For condiments, you can keep it simple with a little mustard or add some extra flavor with Russian dressing.

I personally prefer a pastrami Reuben sandwich. While the Reuben is typically made with corned beef, it’s even better with pastrami. Check out Steven Raichlen’s recipe if you want to give it a try.

Summing Things Up

I hope you’ve found this guide to be useful and you’ll give a try at making pastrami at home. If you consider yourself a barbecue enthusiast or even just have a smoker that you use occasionally, it’s a crime to not give this recipe a try!

And as always, if you have any questions or tips, please leave them in the comments below.

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