So what is pastrami? Simply put, it’s Jewish barbecue, a.k.a. corned beef with chutzpah!
Arguably the most famous beef pastrami is found at Katz’s Delicatessen in New York City. Katz’s is a timeless throwback and is the site of Harry met Sally’s fake orgasm when they both met real pastrami. When you go, make sure to leave your diet behind and remember to say I’ll have what she’s having! (click here to share this on Twitter).
When I set out to create my own homemade pastrami recipe, I went directly to the source, pumping Katz’s Chef Kenny Kohn for tips and technique for cooking and smoking the pastrami. Of course I can’t be sure Kohn was leveling with me about the Katz’s method. I asked him some questions twice in two interviews and I got two different answers. I’ve pumped other employees and gotten different answers still. I’m not saying they lie, but they do seem to be protecting their secrets with a straight face. I have spent hours in Katz’s watching. I have watched every YouTube video. Readers have sent me clues. I’ve come mighty darn close in taste and now you can too with this take on Katz pastrami!
Culinary historians believe the highly seasoned, smoked, juicy, bright pink beef in a dark robe, was invented by poor Jews in schtetls (a Yiddish to English dictionary is below) in Romania where it may have been made from goose or duck meat. Today some avant garde chefs are returning to that tradition, even making it from salmon, turkey, or other cuts of beef, like round. Without refrigeration, meat spoiled quickly, so they rubbed it heavily with salt and pepper and other spices, and smoked it. This both tenderized it, flavored it, and helped it keep longer. Today, most pastrami is made from beef brisket or navel (a.k.a. plate), tough, stringy, fatty, cheap cuts. The process turns it tender and succulent.
Some say beef pastrami was first made in the US by an immigrant kosher butcher, Sussman Volk, in 1887, but that date is disputed by the owners of Katz’s which opened in 1888. Katz’s is the oldest deli in the nation, and a haimish New York landmark. If you have never been there, make the schlep to 205 E. Houston St. (pronounced HOW-stun) right after you get off the boat from the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island to complete the immigrant experience. Spend some time checking out the photos of presidents and other macher on the walls. The place is a museum. Since pastrami is essentially cured beef, or corned beef, that has been smoked, you can make your own with store-bought corned beef, though homemade is really the way to go.
It is absolutely worth waiting in line for the hand carved hot pastrami sandwich (doesn’t that picture of the carving table, below, just make you verklempt), and if you are lucky, you can rest your tukhus at the table where the most memorable scene from the movie When Harry Met Sally was filmed. Yes, it was in Katz’s that Sally (Meg Ryan) demonstrated for nudnik Harry (Billy Crystal) how a woman can fake it. Estelle Reiner, the mamele of director Rob Reiner, after watching Sally moan and groan and pound the table, utters one of the best lines in the history of filmdom: “I’ll have what she’s having”. Kohn says Sally’s ecstasy wasn’t an act, it was the pastrami, but it looks to me like she is having the turkey. The whole scene is on the video at right.
When you enter, you will be given a ticket. Don’t lose it or you’ll have to pay $50 when you check out. Take your place in a fast moving line and schmooze with the other droolers. You can get table service, but then you’ll miss the show at the counter.
When you get to the front of the line, know what you want. Naturally I recommend the pastrami, but you can order all manner of traditional kosher-style cured meats like corned beef, a Reuben sandwich, beef tongue, a first rate kosher hot dog, knoblewurst, killer salami, and kishka. There’s also chopped liver, liverwurst, and, of course, bagels with a schmear and lox. Save room for the bowl of half-sour pickles and pickled tomatoes on every table, or order matzo ball soup, knishes, latkes, blintzes, or kugel. Finish with a classic New York cheesecake and wash it all down with a beer or an egg cream. They sell no chazeray here.
If you need a cheat sheet, scroll down. Learn these terms so you sound like a maven and so you don’t have to ask for an explanation like a goy, even if you and all the Irish shamuses and most everyone else in the joint are. When you’re done, you can “Send a Salami to a Boy in the Army” something they have been doing since the 1940s.
My standard order when I get to NY is pastrami on rye with yellow mustard on both slices of bread. That’s it, bubbie. When the carver asks if you want “fatty or lean”, don’t be meshuga. Answer “fatty”. If you want to sound expert say “plenty of speck (pronounced “shpek”), please”. This is no time to count calories. If he said “juicier” or “drier” you wouldn’t hesitate, would you? But this is serious fleishig so they calls it the ways they sees it. You got a problem with that?
Place a tip on the counter as he carves, and he’ll slip you a nice free nosh. The meat is piled high, and you can get it with mustard, kraut, and melted Swiss. Don’t be a putz and ask for mayo. And by the way, when it comes out of the steam box, it looks like a meteorite. It is not burned. That is just the black pepper laden spice rub that has darkened during the smoking process. And when it is carved, it is bright pink. It is not undercooked, that’s just the color it turns during the curing process.
As best as I can tell Katz’s process begins with brisket. This is the pectoral muscles. Some think they use plate, a.k.a. navel. This is a cut from the area below the ribs, behind the brisket and it is a lot fattier than brisket and has a lot of unchewable sinew. The picture I took below looks a lot more like brisket to me than plate. I use brisket because carving plate leaves huge rivers of fat in the meat.
Chef Kenny Kohn says they soak the meat for weeks in a salty, spicy brine/cure. What comes out is essentially corned beef, but their pastrami process is different from their corned beef process because the corned beef is dry cured, not soaked in a brine. At least that’s what they tell me.
After wet curing, the pastrami is then coated with a secret rub that tastes to be mostly black pepper and coriander, and then it is refrigerated for a day or two. Then it is smoked, refrigerated for a day or two, and finally, the day it is to be served, it is boiled. That’s a carver at Katz’s above.
To do it all the way from scratch there are several time consuming steps:
You can eliminate the step (1) and go straight to step (2) by buying a good corned beef. But beware, not all commercial corned beef is the same. Some are poor quality and some have up to 35% of its weight injected water and salt.
Making your own corned beef and turning it into pastrami means that you can make it to your taste. Like cloves? Gahead. Want sugar in the rub? I won’t tell on you. Want more smoke? Who’s gonna stop you? More pepper? Bless you. Trust me, boychik, do it yourself and you will eat shards of meat packed with spicy flavor and silky richness mit groys fargenign. Surprisingly, the smoke wraps its fingers into everything without being obvious. Forgive me if I kvell.
Notice that there is no smoke ring in pastrami, the pink ring on and below the surface typical in smoked meats, even barbecue brisket. That’s because the smoke ring is nitrate tinged myoglobin in the meat caused by compounds in the smoke. This meat is pink throughout because of the pink curing salt used in making the corned beef which has sodium nitrite in it. Don’t worry, it’s safe.
Most of it is made from lean cuts like round, injected with brine and nitrites, and sliced thin. Not the same by a long shot.
Since the Romanian Jews started in the 1890s they’ve been making a version of pastrami in Montreal that they call simply smoked meat. It is usually made from brisket. You can order your smoked meat lean, medium, or fatty to get different parts of the brisket on your sandwich. Both pastrami and Montreal smoked meat are typically served on rye bread with mustard, but smoked meat sandwiches tend to be smaller than pastrami sandwiches.
Some other key differences: Montreal smoked meat usually is dry brined with curing salt and often has a darker red color than pastrami, which is typically pinkish red. Montreal smoked meat rarely has sugar in the rub, so the spice taste is more intense. The city of Montreal outlawed wood smoking decades ago, so the meat is most often smoked in an electric smoker. Otherwise, pastrami and Montreal smoked meat are very similar.
Forgive me for being a bit too cute for my own good, but I could not help, ahem, spicing things up with a little Yiddish with a lot of help from the Yiddish Glossary on Bubbygram. Yiddish is like Spanglish, a mashup of an old world language or two, in this case German, Russian, and Hebrew, with English. Ditto with the menu. The recipes originated in Old Country peasant food, and were adapted in the US. Many of you will recognize some of the words which have crept into daily use by even goys, but if you need a translation, here you go:
Want to start a fight? Proclaim that Katz’s is the best deli in New York. There will surely be someone within earshot who will argue vigorously in favor of the 2nd Avenue, Stage, Eisenberg, Zabar’s, or one of the dozens of others. Ask me and I’ll say Katz’s. I have not tasted them all. That is a lifetime of work. Sadly, Jewish delis are an endangered species. If this is a topic of interest to you, and it should be, get ahold of David Sax’s book Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen.
Serve with: an egg cream or a local New York beer like a Brooklyn Lager.
Published On: 5/19/2012 Last Modified: 4/6/2021