Tuesday, February 21

A Lesson in Pastrami

by Al Herbach

In the Jewish deli world, there is no meat that is more prized than pastrami. But what is pastrami, why did it become a Jewish staple and why is the version you get in a deli so much better than any other kind?  

Pastrami is made from brisket. This cut of beef (also used for the eponymous Friday night dinner entree) and corned beef (a whole other topic) is from the lower chest of the cow. It is a tough cut of meat because the muscles in the chest actually support the majority of the weight of the cow and get more exercise. The toughness makes it a cheaper cut of meat that was afforded by poor Eastern European Jews, and therefore, they developed methods of cooking the brisket that would tenderize it.  

Pastrami is one meat where you really want to go to the experts. Everyone says they have a recipe or knows someone who makes their own, but the truth is that it is much easier to go to your butcher. The process can take weeks to complete: 
  1. First, you brine the brisket and then coat it with a mix of spices. Each purveyor has a secret mix of spices, but commonly we find coriander, pepper, allspice, garlic and paprika. 
  2. Then, as all BBQ pitmasters know, the meat is smoked low and slow. The extended cooking time helps break down all that toughness. Another benefit to the brining and smoking is that it preserves the meat for a longer period of time. 
Now we have all the ingredients for a great pastrami.

Pastrami should be served hot and sliced thin. For the purist, seeded rye bread and spicy mustard bring out the best flavor. Two of the most popular ways to enjoy pastrami are on a Reuben with sauerkraut and Swiss cheese or on a Rachel with coleslaw.  

What you shouldn't do is go to the supermarket and buy pastrami. The pastrami (and most other deli meats) in the deli section are usually pumped with preservatives to increase shelf life. If you have ever tasted a lunch meat that had a slightly metallic taste and a rubbery texture, that is the reason - so enough already! Find your nearest Jewish deli or trusted butcher, order some pastrami and make yourself a sandwich. Would that be so wrong?

Guest blogger Al Herbach CEO of SchmaltzOnline, a classic Jewish deli that ships Jewish goodness to people all around the country.  

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