If you’re looking for a new BBQ project to get working on, this is it! Pastrami is cured, spiced, and smoked brisket that was originally developed as a means of preserving meat. We typically use juicy, flavorful pastrami in sandwiches, but it can be used for so much more! We have a recipe and the key temperatures and expert tips you need for pastrami perfection.
Curing for Meat Preservation
Prior to the age of refrigeration, slaughtering a cow or a pig was a big deal. Either you needed to use all of the meat right away, or somehow preserve what wasn’t used. Until the 20th century, salting (curing) was a primary method used to preserve meat.
“Corning” meat is a method of curing that was called such because of the corn-shaped salt used in the process. Corned beef is traditionally dry-cured for 7-10 days with pickling spices. Pastrami is corned beef that is also smoked. The process we use in the following recipe is a wet-cure, essentially brining the meat.
Why A Brisket Flat?
Making pastrami dates back to Turkish Nomads from the Ottoman empire of the 13th century. More often than not, the meats that would have been made pastrami-style would have been mutton (sheep or goat) rather than beef. Later on, as pastrami was more widely prepared, the traditional cut of meat for pastrami was beef navel or the belly.
Brisket is far more widely available than beef navel, and the flat is leaner than the point, making it easier to slice thinly for sandwiches. You can use the point of the brisket if you prefer the fattier, richer meat. It may fall apart as you slice it, but it’ll still taste amazing!
Start out with cured meat. You can use commercially-prepared corned beef, or cure it yourself. The curing process takes 7-10 days, so buying the meat ready to go is a great option in a pinch. But like most foods, homemade cured beef is far tastier.
Pastrami in 4 Steps
- Rinse & Rub
You can start off with store-bought corned beef, but curing your own always tastes better. Traditional curing ingredients are salt, curing salts, sugar, and pickling spices (bay leaves, black peppercorns, allspice, whole allspice, cinnamon sticks, ground ginger, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, and whole cloves). This step imparts flavor, color, and improves shelf life.
The salty solution dehydrates the meat slightly, compacting the muscle fibers more tightly together, resulting in meat with a fine, soft texture. To adequately flavor the meat and allow the curing salt ample time to color and flavor the meat, it needs to stay submerged in the brine for 7-10 days.
*For more information on curing meat for corned beef, check out our post Thermal Tips: St. Patrick’s Day Corned Beef.
Curing Salt (Prague Powder): What is It and What Does It Do?
Salt is the main effective ingredient in a curing solution, and this recipe uses pink curing salt (prague powder) in addition to regular table salt. Curing salt is composed of 6.25% sodium nitrite and 93.75% sodium chloride and is usually colored pink so it isn’t accidentally mistaken for regular table salt. The nitrites in curing salt brighten the meat’s color and improve its flavor, safety, and storage life.
It’s the nitrites in the curing salt that give cured meats their characteristic sharp flavor. It reacts in the meat to form nitric oxide which prevents fat oxidation, keeping the fat from developing rancid flavors. This same reaction binds to the meat’s myoglobin, producing the bright pink/red color of cured meats. The most important function of curing salts in curing meats before refrigeration is the suppression of bacterial growth.
2. Rinse & Rub
After curing, it’s important to rinse off all the salty curing solution so the final product isn’t too salty. Then pat the meat dry before applying the spice rub liberally to all sides. Pastrami rub recipes usually have very strong flavors and are fairly coarse. Because the cure makes the meat so salty, we chose to use a spice rub that doesn’t contain any salt. Some common pastrami spice rub ingredients are black pepper, coriander, red pepper flakes, brown sugar, and sometimes juniper berries.
The corned beef is next smoked until it reaches 150°F (66°C) to start the low and slow cooking process and absorb delicious smoke flavor. Smoke the corned beef at 225-250°F (107-121°C) until it reaches an internal temperature of 150°F (66°C). The meat takes on plenty of smoke flavor and develops a nice bark that will withstand the steaming step.
Why steam the brisket?
Curing the meat in a salty solution for a week draws out quite a bit of moisture, and this last step is traditionally used to introduce moisture back to the meat at the end of the cooking process. The pastrami is steamed (either on the stovetop or in the oven) until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 203°F (95°C).
Brisket is a very tough cut of meat packed with connective tissue. The best way to break down connective tissue, turning it into succulent gelatin, is to cook the meat at a low temperature for a long time. When steaming, you need to be sure that the cooking environment never exceeds 212°F (100°C).
Smoked Pastrami Recipe
- 1 brisket flat, about 5-6 lbs. (2-1/4 to 2-3/4 kg.)
- 3/4 cup (8 oz. [227 grams]) kosher salt
- 1 cup (5-1/2 oz. [156 grams]) brown sugar
- 4 whole cloves of garlic, crushed
- 2 tbsp. (2/3 oz. [19 grams]) whole mustard seed
- 2 tbsp. (2/3 oz. [19 grams]) whole coriander seed
- 1 tbsp. (1/4 oz. [7 grams]) ground ginger
- 2 tsp. (2/3 oz. [19 grams]) prague powder (pink curing salt)
- 1 tbsp. (1/4 oz. [7 grams]) whole allspice berries
- 6 whole cloves
- 2 tbsp. (2/3 oz. [19 grams]) whole black peppercorns
- 6 bay leaves
- 1 gallon (3-3/4 liters) water
- 1/2 cup (2-3/4 oz. [78 grams]) brown sugar
- 1/3 cup (2.5 oz. [71 grams]) whole black peppercorns
- 1/3 cup (2 oz. [57 grams]) whole coriander seed
- 1 tbsp. (1/2 oz. [14 grams]) granulated garlic
- 1 tbsp. (1/2 oz. [14 grams]) granulated onion
- 1 tbsp. (1/4 oz. [7 grams]) red pepper flakes
- 2 tbsp. (1/2 oz. [14 grams]) paprika
- ChefAlarm® (to track the smoker’s air temperature)
- DOT® (to track the meat’s internal temperature)
- Thermapen® (to verify the meat’s doneness temperature)
- Wood Chips for smoke (apple and cherry work well)
- Trim the brisket’s fat cap, leaving about 1/8 to 1/4 of an inch (1/3 to 2/3 cm).
Curing: 7-10 Days
- Pour the water into a large container, add all of the cure ingredients and whisk until the salt and sugar are dissolved.
- Place the trimmed brisket into the cure, cover tightly with a lid or plastic wrap, and refrigerate.
- Cure your brisket for at least 7 days and up to 10 days, flipping the meat over daily for even curing.
Day of the Cook: Prepare Your Smoker
- Preheat your smoker to maintain a temperature of 225-250°F (107-121°C). Secure a Pro-Series® Air Probe to your smoker with a Grate Clip. Set your ChefAlarm’s low alarm to 220°F (104°C), and the high alarm to 255°F (124°C). These alarms will help you manage your fire and vents to maintain the perfect ambient temperature in your smoker.
- Add wood chips or chunks to the coals, and close the lid to allow the smoke to begin to develop.
Rinse & Rub
- While your smoker is developing smoke, make the spice rub by coarsely grinding the coriander and black pepper in a spice grinder or blender, and toss all of the ingredients together well to mix.
- Rinse the brisket well under cool water and pat completely dry. Apply the spice rub liberally to all sides of the brisket.
- Place a Pro-Series High-Temp Penetration Probe into the thickest part of the center of the meat and attach the probe to your DOT (you could also use another ChefAlarm, but you don’t need to monitor a low temperature with the meat).
- Set the meat’s high alarm to 150°F (66°C), and let the pastrami smoke until the high alarm sounds.
- The length of time it takes for your pastrami to reach 150°F (66°C) will depend on how well the smoker’s temperature was maintained, and the size of the brisket. It will likely take between 3-5 hours.
- Once your DOT’s high alarm sounds, verify that 150°F (66°C) is the lowest temperature in your pastrami by spot-checking its internal temperature in multiple places with an instant-read thermometer like a Thermapen.
- If a lower temperature is found, replace the meat’s Pro-Series probe and continue cooking until the lowest temperature is 150°F (66°C).
➤ Thermal Tip: The pastrami can be wrapped and refrigerated at this point if you need to save the final steaming step for another day.
- Preheat your oven to 250°F (121°C).
- Prepare a roasting pan by placing a roasting rack inside the pan, pour water into the pan to fill it by about 1 inch.
- Place the pastrami (with its probe still in place) onto the roasting rack and tent with foil, sealing around the edge of the roasting pan.
- Place the pastrami into the oven, set your DOT‘s high alarm to 203°F (95°C), and allow the meat to steam until the high alarm sounds. This step will take about 4-5 hours.
- When the high alarm sounds, verify the pastrami’s internal temperature with a Thermapen and allow it to rest at room temperature, covered, for about 20 minutes.
Slice and Serve
- Cut into thin slices with a carving knife and serve on bread (anything you like: rye, sourdough, baguette, etc.) with mustard and sauerkraut (we also served ours with a little swiss cheese).
Don’t think pastrami is only for sandwiches! Give it a try with eggs benedict, ramen, on pizza, with macaroni and cheese, in an omelet, or tossed with a chef salad. Now you have a new excuse to smoke a brisket—time to get cooking!
On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee