Homemade Pastrami

Delicatessen aficionados might cringe at the idea of homemade pastrami cooked in the oven since wood smoking is supposed to be the customary cooking method—at least, that’s what they think. In truth, some of the most lauded pastrami and smoked meats involve no wood smoke at all. In his must-read chronicle, Save the Deli, writer and deli aficionado David Sax reveals that the smoky flavor in commercially produced pastrami comes from fat dripping down and sizzling on the gas element of the ovens that are used.

This recipe begins with the same cured (“corned”) beef brisket as in our Backyard Barbecue Pastrami (see variation below). But here, the brisket is steam-roasted until tender, avoiding the more complex process required to make the barbecued version. Smoked paprika adds its elemental flavor without getting in the way of the traditional coriander and black pepper seasonings. The process to create this deli classic is time-consuming—5 days to brine plus 3 to 4 hours to cook. But trust us, your patience will be rewarded.–Nick Zukin and Michael Zusman

LC Your Own Personal Pastrami Note

Yep. You can make your own homemade pastrami. Easy peasy. So go on. What are you waiting for?

Homemade Pastrami Recipe

  • Quick Glance
  • 45 M
  • 5 D, 7 H
  • Makes 3 to 4 pounds

Ingredients

  • For the brine
  • 3 quarts (12 cups) cold water, for the brine
  • 2 cups Diamond Crystal (or other large-crystal) kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup pink curing salt (a mixture of 6.25% sodium nitrite, salt, and a touch of red dye, also known as Prague Mix #1 or Instacure #1 or Curing Salt #1)
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed dark or light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 2 tablespoons pickling spice
  • 1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds
  • 1 tablespoon whole yellow mustard seeds
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 quarts (12 cups) ice-cold water, for the brine
  • One 3- to 4-pound beef brisket
  • 4 cups cold water, for humidifying the oven
  • For the spice rub
  • 1/4 cup ground coriander
  • 2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons smoked paprika

Directions

  • Make the brine
  • 1. Fill a large stockpot with 3 quarts (12 cups) cold water. Add the kosher and pink curing salts, granulated and brown sugars, honey, pickling spice, coriander and mustard seeds, and garlic. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring often to fully dissolve the salt and sugar in the water. Immediately remove the pot from the heat once the brine boils.
  • 2. Add the 3 quarts ice-cold water to a 2-gallon (or larger) food-safe container that will fit in your refrigerator. Pour the brine into the container and place the container, uncovered, in the refrigerator until completely cool.
  • 3. Trim the excess fat from the brisket until the fat layer remaining on the brisket is about 1/4 inch thick. Submerge the brisket in the cooled brine. (It may be necessary to cut the brisket into 2 pieces to submerge it.) Refrigerate the brisket for 5 days, stirring the brine and flipping the brisket once a day. Make sure that if any of the brisket sides are touching one another that you regularly turn them away from each other to expose all the brisket to the brine.
  • Make the spice rub
  • 4. Mix together the coriander, pepper, and paprika in a small bowl.
  • Roast the pastrami
  • 5. Remove the brisket from the brine and pat it dry. Rub 1/4 spice cup rub evenly on the nonfatty side of the brisket, then flip the brisket and rub the remaining spice mixture onto the fatty side. Let the brisket come to room temperature, about 2 hours.
  • 6. Preheat the oven to 300°F (149°C). Pour 4 cups cold water into the bottom of a 12-by-15-inch roasting pan. Set a wire rack inside the pan.
  • 7. Place the brisket on the wire rack, fatty side up. Tightly cover the brisket and roasting pan with a double layer aluminum foil. Bake until the brisket reaches an internal temperature of 200°F (93°C). This should take about 1 hour per pound or 3 to 4 hours total. Let the meat rest for at least 30 minutes before slicing.
  • 8. Without trimming the fat, carve the pastrami against the grain into 1/4-inch-thick slices—or, to be less exact, into slices as thin as possible without the meat falling apart. Keep the meat tightly wrapped in aluminum foil or plastic wrap in the fridge for up to 1 week or frozen for up to 6 months.

Backyard Barbecue Pastrami Variation

  • While this pastrami takes more time to produce than the Homemade Pastrami, the resulting depth of flavor makes it worth the extra effort. With the wide variety of smokers and barbecue grills available on the market, we can only offer general instructions on how to perfect this superior pastrami. But as with all successful meat smoking, the key is low and slow. Prepare the Homemade Pastrami recipe as directed through step 5, omitting the paprika in the spice rub. In an outdoor smoker or barbecue grill, smoke the meat, fatty side up, at 225°F (107°C) for 6 to 8 hours, or until it reaches an internal temperature of 160°F (71°C) to 175°F (79°C). Oak, maple, pecan, hickory, or fruit woods may be used, depending on availability and preference. (Avoid mesquite, as it gives a harsh flavor to long-smoked meats.) Preheat the oven to 300°F (149°C). Place the brisket in a roasting pan and tightly cover the brisket and pan with a double layer aluminum foil. Bake until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 200°F (93°C), 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
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Testers Choice

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Testers Choice
Suzanne Fortier

Mar 10, 2014

Wow. Who knew it could be so easy to make your own high-quality homemade pastrami? This recipe made a lean, slightly spicy, smoky-tasting (from the smoked paprika) pastrami that certainly could hold its own with anything I've ever mail-ordered from New York. At less than $11/pound, it's fairly economical, too (Katz's Deli charges $12.50 a pound, unsliced, plus shipping). I purchased a 3 1/2-pound flat-cut brisket from Whole Foods and mixed up the brine mostly with ingredients I already had in my kitchen. The only unusual ingredient is the pink salt or Prague Powder #1, which is salt and 6% sodium nitrite. I got it online from The Spice House. I brined the meat in a large ceramic bowl (it wasn't quite 2 gallons, but it was close enough) and weighted the meat with a plate. The brine is rather pungent and I was glad to get it out of the fridge after the five-day brining period! After removing the meat from the brine, I coated it with the spice mixture and, after 2 hours—during which time the meat came to room temperature and my daughter made 3 batches of cookies—I put the brisket in the oven, fat side up (not sure why the instructions would say fat side down), and cooked it for 3 1/2 hours, or exactly 1 hour per pound. At this point, the thickest part of the meat was 200°F. The result was sublime: tender, spicy, and delicious. My only critique is that I found it a touch too salty and wonder if you could cut back a bit on the kosher salt. A tip: The meat is much easier to cut after it has cooled in the refrigerator. I would recommend cutting it no thicker than 1/8 inch. I made a deli-style sandwich with Polish rye bread, deli mustard, melted Swiss cheese, and, of course, the pastrami.

Testers Choice
Jackie G.

Mar 10, 2014

It's pretty hard to believe that we cooked up homemade pastrami. Really. We made pastrami. Pastrami is something that you buy at a deli. But we really made pastrami. Now it’s not something that would be easy for just anyone to make. You need time, and, if you want to smoke it like we did, you need a smoker. And patience. If you have all of those things, and if you like pastrami, this is the recipe for you. We liked slicing it far thinner than the recipe called for. We made an assortment of different sandwiches with the pastrami. Pastrami on rye with cole slaw and Russian dressing (where I grew up, this was called a "Pastrami Special"). And then there's our version of a Reuben, with pastrami, sauerkraut, Comté cheese, and Dijon mustard on rye, grilled till golden with melty goodness. The recipe makes quite a lot of pastrami. We're going to seal the rest in packages and freeze them so that the pastrami can be enjoyed in the future. I'm looking forward to it.

Testers Choice
Linda Pacchiano

Mar 10, 2014

I made the oven version of this homemade pastrami recipe. I've had pastrami sandwiches at several of the best delis in New York City. This pastrami was very comparable in terms of flavor and smokiness. Never having cured meat before, I followed the instructions in the recipe precisely and the pastrami turned out perfectly. Once the brine was made, it was simply a matter of turning the meat and stirring the brine once a day for 5 days. I didn't have pink curing salt in my pantry and so I ordered it online. The 4-ounce package provided enough for this recipe plus some leftovers, so unless you plan to do a lot of curing, purchase the smallest amount that is offered. To emulate the full New York experience, I served it on good rye bread with cole slaw and Russian dressing and some steak fries and pickles on the side. It was good to know that I can pretty much recreate that experience in my own kitchen!

Testers Choice
Melissa Maedgen

Mar 10, 2014

Pastrami isn't exactly what I'd call part of my native cuisine. In fact, I can't say for sure whether I'd ever even eaten it before making this recipe. But I have brined a lot of meat, and I've smoked a lot of meat, and I think I know what's good. This was good! Just to be sure, I took it to a party with a bona fide New Yorker present to see if it met with his approval. His response was, "Apparently I've been buying crappy pastrami all my life." Everyone raved about it.

I'd like to add a clarification on the ingredients.There is also a curing salt #2 out there, which contains sodium nitrate in addition to the sodium nitrite, and that is not what you are looking for. You can buy curing salt #1 online from shops that cater to home sausage makers and hunters, as well as on amazon.com. The author doesn't give much direction on how to smoke the meat, but I'll add a few tips. When smoking brisket, whether for this recipe or anything else, you want to smoke it with the fat cap up the whole time. Don't flip it. If you're using an offset smoker, with the firebox to the side, you may want to rotate the brisket 180 degrees during the cooking, but don't flip it.

If you're using a brisket flat cut, the cooking time for this recipe is quite a bit off. Mine had reached 190°F by 6 hours. I reduced the oven time to half an hour to compensate for the fact that the brisket was almost at the final temp when I took it off the smoker. In looking into how pastrami is made, I learned that traditionally, it's smoked first, then steamed. I think the reason behind the oven time in this recipe is to simulate the steaming step. If so, I see no reason why you couldn't just wrap the brisket in foil and leave it on the smoker. Heat is heat, more or less, and if the brisket is wrapped in foil, it will steam whether it's in a smoker or an oven, so you can save yourself the trouble of heating up another appliance.The cooking time was really the only issue with the recipe. The spice rub was perfect. No, it doesn't need salt, as it's soaked up plenty from the brine. I served this at home as a pastrami version of a Reuben sandwich. For the party, I made a sort of pumpernickel flatbread and let people top it with either Reuben toppings or just mustard and pickles, whichever they preferred. Leftovers went into a potato hash, which would make a nice breakfast with an egg on top. And I've seen a recipe for a pastrami eggs Benedict which is calling my name. Lots of good stuff to do with this delicious smoked meat.

Testers Choice
Sue Epstein

Mar 10, 2014

Being that real pastrami is unavailable where I live, I've been looking for a good homemade pastrami recipe for a long time. So, needless to say, I was thrilled to try this recipe. I had a very large brisket (about 7 to 8 pounds), so I cut it in half and made half in the oven and the other half on my gas grill. I've pickled briskets many times in the past, and this recipe is pretty straightforward. I couldn't find pink curing salt here, so I omitted it but I don't think it made a difference. [Editor's Note: Actually, the pink curing salt serves a very important purpose, and is essential. We're glad Sue loved the recipe without it, but we insist that you, dear reader, find pink curing salt. It helps to ensure safe preservation of the meat.] Almost every single recipe for pickling or brining meat tells you that it's important that the meat be kept submerged. Although this recipe did say to submerge the meat, it didn't specify making sure that you keep it submerged. I placed a can of vegetables in a sealed bag on top of the meat to keep it under the liquid. I pickled the brisket for 6 days, then cut it in half and followed the instructions exactly. The pastrami that I cooked on the grill was much tastier than the one baked in the oven. I thought the oven-baked one was okay but didn't compare to the grill-cooked one. The grill-smoked pastrami smelled better, tasted better, and was more tender. I also think it's important to not use a lean brisket. Look for— or ask your butcher for—a brisket with a 1/4-inch layer of fat on top.


Comments
Comments
  1. Nick Zukin says:

    @Melissa
    Thanks for the extra smoking instructions. We kept them intentionally vague because there is so much variation in smokers that we figured either someone would have the experience necessary to do it right or would hopefully seek out information focused on smoking meats to learn more than we could provide.

    @Sue
    We agree! The smoked version is much better. I wish everyone had a smoker! It’s the way pastrami tasted 100 years ago. In the 5 day brined version, you’re probably safe not using the pink salt, but if you were to do a longer dry cured version, it would probably be a lot more dangerous. Also, the flavor will be slightly different and you won’t get the nice pink/red color to the meat you get by using a curing salt.

    Thanks for all the comments.

    Nick Zukin
    Co-Author, Artisan Jewish Deli at Home

  2. Diana M. says:

    I couldn’t find pink curing salt… everything I’ve read online indicates certain disaster if I don’t use it. This brisket is set to go on the smoker Sunday (yes, i waited til the last possible moment to start preparing it) and I’m starting to panic. Any hints or suggestions?

    • David Leite David Leite says:

      Diana, it’s not certain disaster. There are plenty of recipes that say pink salt is optional. The meat will be fine, just take care to cook it completely. The biggest difference will be the color. I say go with it. And…breathe! Report back on Monday.

  3. Sue says:

    David and Nick, you two seem to disagree about using pink salt. Could you substitute saltpeter for the pink salt?

    • David Leite David Leite says:

      Sue, saltpeter was used in corning beef and in some lace it is. But sodium nitrite is more common now. I’d stay stick to pink salt. Michael Ruhlman, whose corned beef I’ve made many times and whom I’ve contacted about this issue, say you can omit pink salt. Personally, I don’t, but it is an option.

    • Nick Zukin says:

      I wouldn’t say we disagree. But I do have some caveats. It is going to taste different. If you were going to an unrefrigerated cure (not recommended) or do a long cure (longer than a week), it could be dangerous. But with a typical 4 or 5 day brine, it’s likely no big deal if you have it or not. But the flavor will be different. And it won’t have the attractive red color that cured meat has. It will cook grey. There are a variety of curing salts, but pink salt is relatively easy to find and consistent. And if you have a recipe using it, just stick with it.

      • David Leite David Leite says:

        Sue, I think Nick and I are pretty much on the same page. I agree completely with what he says–especially the caveats about safety. Nick, if I am ever in your area, I’d love to sit down and talk and chew on pastrami.

  4. ruthie says:

    So this is basically corned beef, only smoked??? I never knew, although I’ve made that several times so I’m comfortable with that part of the process. So, if I ever manage to eat up all the pastrami in my freezer, I will definitely try this out. Although, I have to say that for my tastes, it is very stingy on the pepper coating the outside. ;) I confess! I eat pastrami for the pepper.

    I have been using a little “fire bowl” (Grilliput brand) to do some light smoking (like fish or cheese) in a small kettle grill or even in a Dutch oven. Seeing the option of oven baking this, I’m wondering if you could put the little fire bowl in the oven and do a combo for a shorter period of time — a whole brisket wouldn’t fit in my little kettle grill. I do have a smoker but…I’m not sure what I was thinking when I bought it years ago, but I could darn near smoke a whole hog in that thing! I haven’t fired it up in years because it always seems like overkill. LOL!

    Thanks, David and Nick, for a little demystification.

    • David Leite David Leite says:

      Ruthie, you, smoke and spices is what turns corned beef into pastrami. I love the simple elegance of that.

      I’m going to dissuade you from putting the fire bowl into your oven. They’re not meant to be smokers, and I’m concerned that it could cause damage to the oven or kitchen, or cause the smoke alarm to bray for hours~

  5. ruthie says:

    You’re right. I was starting to worry that everything I put in the oven thereafter would taste smoked. ;) And it seemed so efficient, too. Maybe I need…aha! My mother had a bigger kettle grill that will work perfectly. Homemade pastrami, here I come!

  6. Patrick Cusack says:

    @Melissa, thanks for the smoking tips! Chicago weather has finally broke and I just put the brined meat in the smoker, I’m using a mix of hickory and maple wood chips. Now I wait…

  7. Audrey says:

    We made the smoked version yesterday and the taste was truly wonderful. We smoked it for 3 hours and then finished it in the oven until it reached 200 degrees. We then refrigerated it overnight and reheated the next day. My only disappointment was that it was too tender to slice and pretty much fell apart unless sliced very thickly. Is there a trick to the slicing?

    • David Leite David Leite says:

      Audrey, so glad you liked it. The fact it fell apart is a plus in my book! Tender, tender, tender. Did you cut it across the grain? Also was it completely chilled when you cut it?

  8. Audrey says:

    David, thanks for your quick reply. We sliced it after we reheated it and did not think to check if we were cutting against the grain. So we’ll remember next time. And there will be a next time because the taste was superb! Thanks again.

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