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Pastrami - Dry Cured

Originally posted: 05/01/2001
Last updated: 09/02/2014

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Summary

  • Choose a brisket flat with even thickness across the end of the meat.
  • Trim the fat side to 1/8".
  • Dry-cure for three days in the refrigerator.
  • Rinse and soak for one hour before cooking, then apply the cooking rub.
  • Smoke at 225-250°F to 165°F internal temperature.
  • Wrap in foil and let rest in a dry cooler for two hours.
  • Slice thin across the grain.
Cured brisket with cooking rub applied, ready for the smoker
Cured brisket flat with cooking rub applied, ready for the smoker
 
Slices of homemade pastrami smoked in the Weber Bullet
Slices of homemade pastrami smoked in the Weber Bullet
 

I've loved pastrami for years but never gave much thought to making it myself. I figured that I could buy good pastrami at the store for less money than it would cost me to make it, so why bother?  Well, I found that I could make pastrami that gave the store-bought stuff a run for its money, and it was a fun process as well. If you like pastrami and know how to cook a brisket, you might want to give it a try, too.

Here are some pictures I took March 9-13, 2005 when I cured and smoked a pastrami on the Weber Bullet. This isn't exactly barbecue by traditional standards, but it is one more great use for your WSM!

As always...click on any of the pictures to view a larger image.


Select & Prepare The Brisket

USDA Choice, Certified Angus Beef brisket flat in Cryovac
Photo 1
USDA Choice shield and Certified Angus Beef seal
Photo 2
Fat side after trimming to 1/8"
Photo 3
   

Is Pastrami The Same As Smoked Corned Beef?Pastrami is made by curing a beef brisket or bottom round for several days, then cooking it slowly to an internal temperature of 160-165°F. The pastrami you see in the grocery store is usually made from bottom round, which yields a large, round slice of meat. The pastrami you find at the best delicatessens is made from brisket, which yields a long, narrow slice.

When making pastrami, I like to use a USDA Choice brisket flat with a 1/8" fat cap.

It's important to leave no more than a 1/8" layer of fat, otherwise the curing agent may not penetrate the meat fully, leaving an uncured area in the middle of the brisket.

When choosing a brisket:

  • Select a brisket flat weighing 5-8 pounds, with a layer of white, hard fat that you can trim down to 1/8". Many brisket flats at the grocery store are "super-trimmed" by the butcher, leaving no fat cap at all, so ask for an untrimmed flat still in the Cryovac with the fat cap intact. That 1/8" layer of fat will help retain moisture in the brisket during cooking, and will add flavor when eaten.
  • If you can, choose a brisket flat that is fairly thick, and with even thickness across the end of the meat. If the brisket is too thin, especially at the edges, you'll end up with pastrami jerky, which might sound appealing, but it's not.

I do not recommend using a whole brisket. The thickness of a whole brisket requires that a liquid curing solution be injected every 1" or so throughout the entire brisket, in order for the meat to cure all the way through. This is easily done in a factory using specialized equipment, but it's a hassle to do in the kitchen using a single cooking syringe. By using a brisket flat, you can use the dry cure method described below and avoid having to inject the meat altogether.

Photo 1 shows the brisket flat I purchased in Cryovac from my butcher. It was USDA Choice Certified Angus Beef and weighed 8.06 pounds before trimming.

Photo 2 shows the USDA Choice shield and the Certified Angus Beef seal imprinted on the Cryovac packaging.

Photo 3 shows the fat side of the brisket after I trimmed the fat down to 1/8". This brisket had a very small portion of the point end laying over the flat, which I trimmed off and discarded.

After trimming, I was left with a 6.25 pound brisket ready for curing.

Apply The Dry Cure

Applying the dry cure to the brisket
Photo 4
       

About Curing AgentsTo transform a fresh brisket flat into pastrami, you must cure the meat. Sodium nitrate is the primary ingredient that creates the distinctive color and flavor that we associate with cured meats.

In commercial applications, a liquid curing solution is injected into the meat, then the meat is refrigerated and allowed to soak in the solution for several days before seasoning and cooking. At home, however, it's much easier to use a dry curing method in the refrigerator, and you'll get the same great results.

Here's the recipe:

Pastrami Dry Cure 
1/4 cup Morton Tender Quick
1/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup freshly ground black pepper
2 Tablespoons granulated garlic powder
2 Tablespoons ground coriander
Combine all ingredients and mix thoroughly. Makes enough cure for one brisket flat.

Black pepper and coriander are the primary flavors that we associate with pastrami. Morton Tender Quick (salt, sugar, sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite, and propylene glycol) acts as the curing agent and provides salt and sugar to flavor the meat. It can be found at many Wal-Mart stores throughout the U.S. (on the same aisle where salt is sold), and at butcher supply stores and online suppliers like Allied Kenco.

Pour half of the dry cure on one side of the brisket, rubbing it evenly over the surface and the edges, then repeat on the other side. It will seem like way too much cure to use, but it's not—use it all.

Do not shake off the excess cure. Place the brisket in a 2-gallon Ziploc bag, seal the bag, lay it out flat on a rimmed sheet pan, and refrigerate for three days.

Cure The Brisket For Three Days

Cured brisket in 2-gallon Ziploc bag
Photo 5
       

The only thing you have to do during the next three days is turn the bag over twice a day, each time giving it a gentle shake back and forth to mix things up. The turning and mixing helps the meat to cure evenly.

By the end of the first day, you may notice some liquid collecting in the bottom of the bag. This liquid is being drawn out of the meat by the salt in the cure. By the second day, the dry mixture will have turned into a paste covering the meat, and you'll get a strong, spicy odor coming from the bag. In fact, it will really start to smell up your refrigerator!

Photo 5 shows the brisket still in the Ziploc bag after curing in the refrigerator for three days. Depending on when you'll cook the brisket, you can let it cure for as long as four days with no problem.

Rinse & Soak The Brisket

Brisket after three days of curing in refrigerator
Photo 6
Soaking the cured brisket
Photo 7
     

About an hour before you're ready to cook the brisket, remove it from the bag. Photo 6 shows how the brisket looks after curing, turning a red-brown color.

Rinse the brisket thoroughly under cold running water. While rinsing, rub the surface to remove as much of the pepper and other seasonings as you can from the meat. You can't rinse too much.

After rinsing, place the meat in a container and cover with cold water. Let the meat soak for 30 minutes, change the water, and let soak for another 30 minutes. This helps reduce the saltiness of the meat.

After soaking, dry thoroughly with paper towels.

Fire The WSM

As the brisket soaks, fire-up the cooker using the Standard Method—one full Weber chimney of hot Kingsford charcoal briquettes in the charcoal bowl, followed by another half or full chimney of unlit Kingsford (depending on weather conditions), allowing all coals to become fully lit before cooking.

Apply The Cooking Rub

This salt-free rub provides a peppery finish to the smoked pastrami. I like to use a slightly coarse grind of black peppercorns and coriander seeds, because it creates a crusty exterior I like to see on pastrami. You can substitute regular ground coriander if you don't want to go to the trouble of grinding coriander seeds.

Pastrami Cooking Rub 
3 Tablespoons freshly ground black pepper, slightly coarse grind
1 teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds, slightly coarse grind
1 teaspoon granulated garlic powder
Combine all ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Apply a generous amount of rub to all surfaces of the meat, more than you would for normal barbecue. I used almost all of this rub on my brisket.

Once the rub is applied, put the meat into the cooker immediately.

Smoke The Brisket

Cured and seasoned brisket goes into the cooker
Photo 8
Three chunks of dry pecan smoke wood
Photo 9
Smoked pastrami coming out of the cooker
Photo 10
   

When all the coals are covered with gray ash, assemble the cooker.

Fill the water pan with cool tap water.

Close all three bottom vents. Open the top vent fully and leave it that way throughout the entire cook.

Place the brisket fat-side down on the top grate. The fat layer will help shield the brisket from the heat radiating up from the bottom of the cooker. Photo 8 shows the cured and seasoned brisket going into the WSM.

Place three medium-sized chunks of dry pecan smoke wood on the hot coals through the access door. Go light on the amount of smoke wood—you want to impart a moderate smokiness that will compliment, not overwhelm, the flavor of the pastrami. Photo 9 shows the pecan chunks I used.

With the meat and water onboard, the cooker temperature will quickly begin to drop into the 225-250°F range. Adjust the bottom vents to maintain this temperature range, measured at the lid, throughout the entire cooking session.

Cook the brisket until it reaches an average internal temperature of 165°. It will probably read higher or lower in various locations, depending on the thickness of the meat, so shoot for an average of 165°F.

The brisket does not need to be turned or basted during cooking, nor does the water pan need to be refilled.

Here's how the cooker temperatures and vent settings went during the cook:

Time Lid Temp Meat Temp Vent 1 % Vent 2 % Vent 3 %
1:15pm - - 0 0 0
1:30pm 252 - 0 0 0
1:45pm 223 - 50 0 0
2:00pm 230 - 50 0 0
2:15pm 236 - 50 0 0
2:30pm 236 - 50 0 0
2:45pm 236 - 50 0 0
3:00pm 234 - 50 0 0
3:15pm 236 152 50 0 0
3:30pm 242 - 50 0 0
3:50pm 235 157 50 0 0
4:00pm 239 - 50 0 0
4:15pm 234 156 50 50 50
4:30pm 251 - 50 50 0
4:45pm 245 - 50 50 0
5:00pm 238 160-170 50 50 0

Note that the vent percentages represent the way I set the vents at the time indicated.

After 3 hours, 45 minutes of cooking, this brisket hit 160°F in the thicker spots and 170°F in the thinner spots. I figured this averaged 165°F, so I removed the meat from the cooker.

Photo 10 shows the smoked pastrami just as it came out of the WSM.

Let The Pastrami Rest

Wrapping smoked pastrami in aluminum foil
Photo 11
Foiled pastrami goes into dry cooler to rest
Photo 12
     

Wrap the brisket in two layers of wide, heavy-duty aluminum foil and place it fat-side up in a dry cooler.

Let the meat rest for two hours in the cooler. Carryover heat will continue to cook the brisket, and juices collecting in the foil will reabsorb and redistribute within the meat. Placing the meat fat-side up allows the lean side of the brisket to bathe in the juices, helping to soften the meat.

Photo 11 shows the freshly smoked pastrami as it's being wrapped in foil.

Photo 12 shows the brisket going into the dry cooler. The bath towel in the bottom helps protect the interior of the cooler from the hot brisket.

You Made Real Pastrami!

Smoked pastrami cut in half
Photo 13
Slicing cold pastrami using a mandolin slicer
Photo 14
Close-up of sliced pastrami
Photo 15
   

After a two hour rest, slice the meat thin across the grain and eat it immediately in your favorite sandwich. Alternatively, refrigerate the meat overnight and slice it cold the next day.

I refrigerated this pastrami overnight before slicing. Photo 13 shows how the pastrami looked when I cut into it. That little 1/8" layer of fat doesn't even need to be trimmed away before eating; in fact, it adds a lot of flavor.

Since I don't own a meat slicer, I sliced the cold pastrami using a mandoline (a tool used to slice vegetables) set to the thinnest setting. Photos 14-15 show what a great job the mandoline does at making deli-style, thin-sliced pastrami.

If you compare the tenderness of this pastrami to that of barbecued brisket, you'll notice that it's not as tender—the slices do not pull apart easily. This isn't a problem. Remember, this is not barbecued brisket. It has an entirely different texture as a result of the curing process. This is why you want to slice the pastrami across the grain as thinly as possible.

A 5-6 pound brisket flat will yield about 4 pounds of pastrami after cooking, so you're going to have leftovers. Handle your pastrami the same way they do at the deli—slice off what you need, and wrap the remainder tightly in plastic wrap (or vacuum pack using a FoodSaver) and store in the refrigerator.

To reheat, place the slices on a plate, cover with plastic wrap, and microwave gently at a 20-30% setting for just a minute or two, taking care not to overheat. It's just about as good as it was on day one...maybe even better!

My cooking log notes that the pastrami had a dark brown, crusty exterior, yet it appeared moist. When I cut into it, the meat had good texture and was quite moist inside, exhibiting the pink color you associate with pastrami. It had a very peppery aroma and taste, which I liked a lot. My notes shout, "Insane! Surpassed my expectations! Blown away!"

Pastrami Problems

Pastrami with uncured center
Photo 16
       

This photo shows a brisket flat that did not cure all the way through. This happened because at one end of the brisket flat, I neglected to trim the fat down to 1/8". I left a 1/2"-3/4" thick layer of fat over this spot.

The lesson: Trim the fat down to 1/8" thick so the cure can penetrate all the way through the meat.

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