Home-Smoked Pastrami, Part 2

Hot pastrami on rye

Photo by jeffreyw via Creative Commons.

Recently we told you about the fascinating history of pastrami. (Hint—it involves camels, geese, and beef navels.) This time I’m going to reveal the 8 steps to pastrami nirvana, complete with my fail-proof recipe for pastrami you cook like barbecued brisket. The only other thing you need is mustard.

  1. The meat: The traditional cut for pastrami is beef navel—a rectangular muscle richly striated with fat from the underbelly of the steer and typically weighing 5 to 9 pounds. You’ll need to special order it from your butcher. You can also make great pastrami with brisket (my preference)—the fattier, the better.
  2. The brine: Pastrami owes its salty garlicky flavor to a 2-week soak in brine—water, salt, garlic, onion, and other aromatics. You also add Prague powder (a nitrate-based curing salt), which gives pastrami its trademark crimson pink color and helps extend the shelf life. Unlike smoked brisket, pastrami develops no smoke ring—it should be reddish pink throughout. If you wind up with a gray patch in the center, you haven’t brined it long enough; increase the brining time the next time you make it. I like to brine pastrami in double heavy-duty resealable plastic bags in a roasting pan in the refrigerator. Turn the meat once a day so it brines evenly.
  3. The rinse and dry: Rinse the brined pastrami thoroughly with cold water. (Some people soak it in cold water for a few hours to remove any excess salt. I don’t—pastrami is supposed to be salty.) Blot the pastrami with paper towels, then place it on a wire rack on a rimmed baking sheet and let it air dry for a couple hours in the refrigerator.
  4. The rub: The traditional pastrami rub is equal parts black pepper and coriander seed—preferably freshly ground. Additional pastrami flavorings can include mustard seed, paprika, garlic powder, and sometimes, a little brown sugar. Apply the rub in a thick crust, patting it onto the meat.
  5. The smoke: Cook pastrami low and slow in your smoker using apple, cherry, oak, or a combination of these woods. Depending on the size of the pastrami, you’ll need 8 to 14 hours of smoking at 225 degrees. You generally get enough smoke halfway through the cooking process—remember, pastrami is about spice and smoke in that order, not like brisket, which is more about smoke.
  6. The wrap: Not practiced by everyone, but I like to wrap the pastrami in butcher paper about three-quarters of the way through the cooking process and finish cooking it wrapped. Note: This must be plain butcher paper—not the plastic-coated paper you get at natural foods stores and supermarkets. The paper seals in juices while letting the meat breathe. I find it produces a moister pastrami.
  7. The rest: As with all smoked meats, you want to rest pastrami before you serve it—preferably wrapped in butcher paper in an insulated cooler for a couple hours. Resting “relaxes” the meat and increases its juiciness. It also eliminates any worries about split-second timing. You can cook the pastrami several hours before you plan to serve it.
  8. The slice: Unwrap the pastrami and place it on the cutting board. Slice it crosswise across the grain thinly (1/8 inch) or thickly (1/4 inch) as you desire.

Get the recipe for Home-Smoked Pastrami.

Read Home-Smoked Pastrami, Part 1.