Making Your Own Pastrami

After my first visit to New York over the summer, I came back determined to make a pastrami sandwich as close to this beauty from the Mile End Deli:
new-york-sandwichI wanted meat as soft and red as this, and enough to be able to load up my sandwiches that heavily.

And so, after plenty of research, and after Rob Rattray cut me a perfect piece of brisket, I ended up with this:
03-finished-pastrami-sandwichPretty close, and it tasted superb.
It takes a long time, and there’s a lot of steps, but each stage is pretty easy.

Here’s what we did.

Pastrami is a New York Jewish way to make the cheap cut of brisket into a star.
Because it takes so long, it’s more of a planning operation than a cooking one – Perfect Planning Provides Perfect Pastrami (© me, just now).

Supermarkets sell  briskets, but they only tend to be around a kilo.
If you’re going to all this trouble, you might as well go big with a joint that will do you several meals. And in Aberystwyth that means Mr Rattray.
I tipped him off about what i wanted, and a few days later I was the proud owner of this 4kg piece of brisket.
01-raw-brisketIt was just over £32, but it will feed 12 generously.

The first job is to give it a long brining – this softens the meat, turns it red, and gives the flavour a boost.
I put four litres of water into a big pan, and added 250g of sea salt, 150g brown sugar, a few garlic cloves and bay leaves.
I then added a bit of spicing – this isn’t an exact science, use what you have.
I chucked in some cloves, peppercorns, juniper berries and a dried chilli.

prague-1-saltFinally, I added 4tsp of Prague #1 powder.
This is optional, but it’s what gives the meat its red colour, so I don’t think it’s really optional.
Be careful – it’s very powerful. And only use it for this – it’s not the same as pink Himalayan salt.
It was about £8 from eBay, but it will do at least ten briskets, and it’s not going to go off.

I brought the pan to the boil, stirred it up to dissolve everything, and left it to cool.
I’d bought a large Tupperware from the new Big Charlie’s in Aber for £2.50, so I put the meat and brine in that.
(I should have put something heavy in to submerge the meat better.)
02-briningThis fitted nicely in a drawer in the fridge, so I put away and forgot about it for a week.
However, I now learn that two weeks is better, and some people insist on three, maybe changing the brine after a week.

Surprisingly, after all that brining, you then need to wash it and soak it in fresh clean water for a day to stop it being too salty.

At this point, we got scared about how big the 4kg (9lb!) piece was, and how we were going to cook it, so I cut it into two 2kg-ish pieces.
04-brined-brisketAnd look – the meat has indeed gone a deep red!
We were delighted that this crucial stage had worked.

The next stage is to give it a good smoking on the BBQ, so I gave it a dry off and made a rub for it.
(I used to be very sceptical about these electric mini-choppers. Until I got one.)
05-spicesI put in four tablespoons of black peppercorns, two tablespoons of coriander seeds (and some powder), a teaspoon of mustard powder, a tablespoon of brown sugar, a tablespoon of paprika  and two teaspoons each of garlic powder and onion powder.
In the end, it turned out to be a pretty spicy bark, so I’ll cut back the heat next time.
06-rubbed-brisketThe next stage is to give it a smoky flavour.
Once the rub was on, I stuck the two pieces in the ProQ smoker for about six hours, until the internal temperature hit around 160F.
07-smoking-brisketThis certainly felt an odd thing to be doing on a cold November morning, but it has to be a bit smoky, and I do love my smoker.

The smoking is only half the cooking as brisket needs to hit 203F.
At 203F, all the chewy fat and connective tissue will have melted away, leaving you with soft, tasty meat.
Once the meat hits 160F, you have a choice.
You can leave it in the smoker until it reaches 203F, but this will take a long time. Like making Pulled Pork, this is probably best done overnight.

The other option – and this is what yer Jewish deli in New York does – is to steam it.
I wrapped one piece in foil for the next day, and concentrated on the larger piece.

The first stage is to put it on a rack in an oven tray, and put some apple juice and water in the bottom.
08-post-smoke-brisketAnd then make a foil tent over the brisket, and stick it on the hob.
09-steaming-brisketIt needs to stay here until it hits 203F, but we had a problem.
It was already 4.45, and I had my two nephews, plus Dafydd and Bethan, to feed.
I gave them all snacks, but as I watched the thermometer inch up, I knew I was doomed.

By 6.45, there was a major insurrection, and although the internal temperature had only hit 175F, we served up.
Yes, that counts as “well done” if you’re doing a roasting joint, but not with a tougher piece like brisket.

Initial impression was very good – it really looked the biz.
10-first-brisketBut you can see there’s a line through the middle where the brining didn’t reach – we definitely need to increase brine time to two weeks with a big piece like this.
And although it looked and tasted great, it was too chewy.
It needed a longer cook – reaching 203F is really important.
We still enjoyed our sandwiches, of course, which were vastly improved with some pickled cucumbers Bethan had rustled up.
On the second day I allowed a longer steaming time (four or five hours), and I put my foil parcel of meat and apple juice in the oven at 120C.
The meat hit 200F, and this had a huge effect.
It looked and tasted as perfect as before –
11-cooked-brisket– but it was now a lot softer.
It was now pastrami.
The second day I served it with potato salad:
12-pastrami-dinner£32 felt a lot to pay for a single piece of meat, until you add up that we fed four people for two meals, plus had at least five lunches out of it and a pastrami hash.
pastrami-hash-1The meat became smokier during the week as the flavours developed.

I know it sounds like a lot of faff, but it’s all in the planning, and each stage is easy.

**Update  25 December 2016**
Ho ho ho.
We have just done pastrami as Christmas lunch, and it was very successful.
I cooked it on the smoker for the whole time – 18 hours in total, although I could have got away with 14.
Put it on the ProQ smoker at 5pm Christmas Eve, filled it with charcoal around 11pm and almost closed the air vents.
Got up at 7am to make coffee – the meat was at 192F.
Would have been fine then, but I wanted to go up to the famed 203F, and 8am is a bit early for a big plate of beef.
I topped it up with charcoal, and went back to bed.
By 11.30, both thermometers were looking perfect:
Smoker temp 234F, meat temp 202F.
I removed the meat, and wrapped it in foil for half an hour to rest.

When I came to carve it, it was still warm and meltingly soft.
To be honest, I could really “carve” it – it just falls apart (professional delis usually refrigerate after smoking so you can cut it properly).
I could have removed that layer of fat, but it’s very tasty and soft!
I served it with potato salad and some leaves – it’s a big, smoky, tasty Christmas dinner!
We also had some homemade pickled cucumbers on the side.
Smoking the joint overnight makes for a low-stress Christmas lunch – you do a bit of work the day before, and most of the time it’s cooking you’re asleep.
Rustle up some Sides on Christmas morning, and you’re golden.
Merry Christmas!


References / Further Reading

This article from Amazing Ribs started us on the road, and it has great info about Katz’s deli in New York (as seen in ‘When Harry Met Sally’).

And this article covers similar ground, but maybe a little more succinctly.
I used their Potato Salad recipe too, and like Amazing Ribs, it’s an exhaustive BBQ resource.

And finally, the pictures in this Guardian article were really handy.

Good luck!





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