November 04, 2007
How to make home made pastrami and corned beef

A few months ago, I tried making my own pastrami, starting from some pre-corned beef. I was OK, but not great, I decided to try again, this time, making everything from scratch.

As I mentioned before, the difference between corned beef and pastrami is subtle. In both cases, a beef brisket is 'corned' by curing it in a salt brine for a couple weeks. This comes from the days before refrigeration, where the use of salt and sugar to preserve meat for a long time was common. The term 'corn' comes from the fact that long ago, the salt used to preserve beef was roughly the shape of a corn kernel.

To turn the corned brisket into a corned beef, you boil the meat.
To turn the corned brisket into pastrami, you smoke the meat.

First I bought a large brisket. I cut the brisket in half, one half to make into pastrami and one half to make into corned beef. Now I had to corn the beef.

The recipe I used was:

2 quarts water
3/4 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup brown sugar
10 whole cloves
1 tablespoon pickling spices
2 tablespoons saltpeter (potassium nitrate)

The saltpeter is not essential, but it acts as a preservative and keeps the red color of the meat. I want the meat to look authentic and red, so I order saltpeter, since you really can't buy it in a store these days.

I placed the beef in large bags with the corning brine. I doubled the bags up just in case of leakage.

The bags were then placed in the bottom of the fridge for two weeks. Thanks to my wife, Michele, for putting up with a drawer full of corning beef for two weeks.

After two long weeks, I pulled the bags out the fridge.

Out of the bag, the outside looked a little gray and I had my concerns about the effectiveness of the saltpeter. The meat smelled fresh. I guess this preserving thing really does work.

For the pastrami, I used the same rub from my previous pastrami cooking. I felt the flavor was good, so why mess with it.

Here it it going into the smoker. I smoked it for about 6 hours, changing the chips once, to give it a little extra smokiness.

After resting, this is the pastrami. It smelled pretty damn good, and I was anxious to give it a try.

The color was great. The saltpeter worked!

Alas, the meat was a bit tough. The flavor was good, but the toughness was a problem. Also, it was quite salty.

My friend Ken came over and we discussed it. There are a couple possibilities as to why it didn't come out as good as I had hoped.

The main mistake was leaving it open in the smoker too long. When I make a brisket, I usually smoke it for 2 hours, then wrap it up in aluminum foil to seal in the moisture. I should have done that in this case. Also, several pastrami recipes recommend soaking the corned beef in water for an hour or so to pull out some of the salt. Next time, I'll give this a try.

Now it was time to make the corned beef. The meat looked good and was even still red on the outside.

I wanted authentic corned beef, so that means corned beef and cabbage.

I modified this recipe a bit, dropping the butter, bay leaves, and carrots. Here's the meat starting to cook with the whole onion keeping it company.

After 3 hours on the stove, I pulled the meat out and let it rest. Then I sliced it up, hoping for the best.

The meat was fantastic. The color was great, once again proving the value of the saltpeter. The flavor was perfect and the mouth feel was wonderful. Rich and flavorful, while melting in the mouth. I am very happy with the results.

Of course, it wouldn't be traditional corned beef without the cabbage and potatoes. It all tasted great together.

While it took some time to make, i definitely recommend trying this yourself. The corned beef especially, as it was much simpler than the pastrami. I need to keep trying to perfect my pastrami though. Stay tuned.

Posted by michael at November 04, 2007 07:49 PM



Posted by: Little Kenny [] on November 5, 2007 9:40 AM

Wow, I've been meaning to try this myself. It Looks fantastic. I am so hungry now.

Posted by: steve lodefink [] on November 5, 2007 9:42 AM

Salt in the water actually draws out more of the salt and puts in flavor. I know, its sounds weird, but its true. Instead of soaking out the flavor, I'd wash the pastrami and then pad it dry. Its got to be really dry before you put on the powder, othewise its like a giant salt lick.

Posted by: Devin [] on November 5, 2007 10:55 AM

Don't forget that the piece you used as the Pastrami was actually the flat of the brisket and that piece tends to be very lean which is not generally (IMHO) the same cut that Pastrami comes from -- most Pastrami I've had is well marbled -- something that the Brisket flat is definitely not.. Next time you might consider swapping the flat & point and make the 'point' be the pastrami and leave the flat for the corned beef..

Posted by: Rick F. [] on November 7, 2007 5:54 PM

Nice job, Mike. Makes me hungry just looking at it. So glad I'm a carnivore. :)

Posted by: Bribo [] on November 7, 2007 6:35 PM

Bribo: The Meat is a LIE.

Posted by: BillB [] on November 9, 2007 6:50 AM

This was a triumph
Iím making a note here: HUGE SUCCESS
Itís hard to overstate my satisfaction.

Posted by: Bribo [] on November 9, 2007 2:42 PM

You should soak the pickled beef in fresh water overnight, changing the water several times. This will eliminate some of the saltiness. Also, sounds like the Pastrami needed to go longer, it was probably tough because it did not get to a high enough temperature. Probably needed 3-4 mores hours. What was the final temp when you pulled it out?

Posted by: Michael [] on November 13, 2007 12:27 PM
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