Making Your Own Pastrami Is Actually as Hard as It Sounds
If you live in Baltimore, you eventually resign yourself to the fact that certain food joneses just aren't going to get resolved. That's why it pays to have transplant friends, who you can wheedle into being grub mules when they visit home. So thanks, Reuben, for taking the train all the way to New York to get pastrami from Katz's, and then not eating it on the train ride back here.
Truly good pastrami is undoubtedly the most sublime and rarest of American cured meats. Making it the traditional way takes a staggering amount of time and effort; consequently the overwhelming majority of pastrami out there is the generic, watered-down industrial product that's all but indistinguishable from other lunch meats, except for the trademark black-pepper coating. The real stuff is one of those foods that, once you try it, makes you bitter toward the world for passing off such crappy fakes.
In Romanian, the word pastrama is a verb meaning to preserve meat, so pastrami is actually something you'd do, as in, "Yeah I'd pastrami that beef--I'd pastrami the hell out of that beef!" The process, which has origins in Turkey, consists of curing meat with salt, saltpeter (a naturally occurring preservative), and a heavy coating of pungent spices, then smoking. Romanian Jews immigrating to the Northeast U.S. and Canada brought the technique with them, and we now have New York-style pastrami, and Montreal smoked meat, its lesser-known, more northerly counterpart.
Here in Baltimore, we're lucky to have at least one deli, Attman's, that serves up pastrami noticeably superior to the pabulum found elsewhere. I don't want to name names, but calls to other venerable delis confirmed they all use mass-produced pastrami that's just as likely to be found at a supermarket. Attman's commissions its own pastrami based on a decades-old recipe, but further details were predictably unforthcoming. The flavor is intense, complex, and good, but the texture is problematic--it's an unfamiliar cut with variegated grains and lots of connective tissue, which doesn't seem to render completely, resulting in a sometimes chewy, stringy product.
The pinnacle of pastrami artistry for me is Katz's in New York. Its is really transcendent: smoky, spicy, and tender, yet with a compact grain, well-lubricated with rendered fat and hewn by hand into thick slabs. But it's $23.75/pound not including the eight hours travel time, and the grub-mule system is unreliable. I once considered pastrami too holy, too mystical, too difficult for one as lowly (and lazy) as I to attempt. But emboldened by a string of smoked/cured meat successes last year (due in no small part to acquiring a massive Tiernan "Son of Brisket" smoker), I decided to suck it up and give it a go.
Two factors needed to be addressed initially: the cut of beef and the curing process. I searched high and low for the so-called plate cuts--navel plate or pastrami cut, favored by hard-core enthusiasts for higher fat content. Wasserman and Lemberger's kosher butcher on Reisterstown Road could get some special order, but the price I was quoted, $8/pound, convinced me to stick with the more readily available brisket.
Butchers usually carry fresh brisket, with the dependable J.A. Regan in Lexington Market on the low price end with $3.79/pound and Whole Foods on the high end at $15/pound. Yet again, Amish butcher guy was the best solution to my meat quandaries, with his grass-fed local brisket priced at $4.39/pound.
Then there is the curing process, during which the sodium nitrate penetrates into the meat, or more precisely engages in osmotic exchange. While researching Maryland stuffed ham, my attempts to obtain sodium nitrate--curing salt or saltpeter, which is used for its anti-bacterial, flavor, and color-enhancing properties--were stymied. I called practically every cooking/camping/fishing/hunting/drug store, and it turns out Bass Pro Shops in Arundel Mills is the only retail source of curing salt I could find, though it did contain a tiny amount of red food coloring, too. You can also get it online.
There are two curing routes--dry (which takes least three weeks) and wet (a mere three days)--and both methods require, salt, sodium nitrate, black pepper, and coriander. I tried to hasten the wet brine time using two methods, vacuum marination and injection. I decided cutting the dry-cure time in half to 10 days was a reasonable goal. After curing, the meat is coated with an aromatic crust, consisting mostly of crushed black pepper and coriander, and pressed with weights for at least a day. It's then smoked over hardwood (I used hickory and cherry) for several hours, and finally steamed for about three hours to complete cooking and enhance texture.
I also compared prepackaged uncooked corned beef--brisket that's already injected and plumped up with brine (sometimes accounting for a quarter of total weight!)--which is easy to find at most supermarkets. This I treated to only the final spice coating and pressing, but smoked and steamed like the others. Finally, I came across a method, which I applied to a dry-cured pastrami, that omitted the preliminary smoking process in favor of a brief smoke over burning sugar after steaming. These homemade pastramis were then pitted against Katz's and Attman's in a blind tasting.
Ranking them was difficult because they were so different from each other, and subjective reviews were all over the place. However, based on raw numbers, I can claim success. The homemade pastramis tasted real, and a couple were, frankly, freaking amazing, with the dry-cure receiving the highest overall marks. Interestingly, the unsmoked, dry-cure pastrami came in second, and only one taster noticed its lack of smokiness. Bottom line, I'm proud to say curing your own pastrami can be done. It's a monumental pain in the ass but totally worth it.
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