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Pastrami Made From Scratch

Pastrami Sandwich
Pastrami Sandwich

When I saw this month’s Charcutiere Challenge, “to brine, and then corn, a piece of beef” I admit I was disappointed. Not in the challenge part of it, but by the fact that I really don’t like corned beef. Its saltiness and flaccid texture has never appealed to me. My mother agreed and suggested we try making pastrami which is basically brined beef taken one step further by applying a dry rub and smoking it after the brining process.

This is not a single day, cook-to-eat process. It’s a multi-day, you-have-to-really-want-it project. However, like most things which are cooked from scratch at home, the end product is worth it, significantly better than anything you typically buy in the grocery store. I still think pastrami is too salty for my personal preference, but I really enjoyed the sandwiches I ate with it on the home made rye bread I made using the recipe from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.

The main recipe for the pastrami came from Michael Ruhlman’s book Charcuterie and below are our notes on the curing and smoking process.  We taste tested sandwiches two times, once before the low cooking and once after, and there was a definite increase in tenderness after the slow cooking so I highly recommend it. The challenge brought us both a better understanding of how this popular dish is made and how just a few variables can completely change the taste of essentially the same piece of meat.

1.      We started with a 3.5 lb piece of brisket which was cut into two pieces, with the “point” still containing the major fat layer.

2.      Each piece was place in a zip lock bag with a brine mixture containing all the “regular” spices: salt, sugar, pink (curing) salt, pickling spice. To one we added juniper berries, cracked black pepper, crushed garlic and  bay leaf. To the other, Tuscan meat spice, and smoked paprika.

3.       The meat was kept in the brine for 2.5 days-then removed, washed off, and soaked in cold water for a few hours, changing the water frequently. This was done in hopes of removing some of the saltiness. At this point if you wanted to make traditional corned beef you would simmer the brisket with more spices to make it tender.

4.       After rinsing each piece was dried and allowed to sit in the refrigerator over night on a rack to dry out.

5.       The next day we put a separate dry rub on each piece and wrapped it tightly in plastic wrap. One was traditional; pepper and coriander. The other was spice with Spanish smoked paprika, BBQ seasoning, urfa bibr pepper, garlic Tuscan meat blend, and chipoltle pepper. The meat then sat in the dry rub for 24 hrs refrigerated (pictures)

6.      On the final day, the meat was hot smoked for about 3.5 hours, with smoke only for the first 2 hours.  Note that meat does not look pink or reddish until after the smoke has been applied.

7.      The final step is to cook the meat in a low temp oven covered, for about 4 hours, at 200 degrees to further tenderize it. This allows more of the fat to cook off. Note the difference in the amount of fat before cooking in the oven and after in the photo below. Even though those are the two different pieces, you can see how much of the fat might render off during the second cooking process.


  • Simone

    Now that is a serious amount of work to get a pastrami sandwich! 🙂 I am very impressed and it does look very good, but I do think I might sort of skip on making all this…

    • formerchef

      Yes, it is a lot of work, but some things are worth doing at least once, “just because.” I’m glad we did it so I now understand the process.

  • BBQ Chef

    This really looks great, but if you want to remove most or all the salt after taste all you have to do is soak in water changing it often for a longer time than you say. Also the sitting overnight is not really to dry it out, but instead it gives time for the cure to equalize in the meat.
    BTW: If after you do all this and the meat is still too salty, DO NOT THROW IT AWAY! Instead just soak it again in water for a few more hours exchanging the water a few times and set it in the frig to dry. The smoke flavor will not be effected because once the meat is smoked, it will always be smoked no matter what you do to it.
    I have had many that make bacon and ham and it is too salty for them so they throw it away and all they had to do was soak the meat some more.

  • Archie

    Why on this earth or any other would you want to render the fat off? Pastrami should be made from the big end of a brisket that is stronly marbled. Remember: When a bear is finsished doing his business in the woods, he goes looking for fat and sugar. Fat be goooooood.

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