For this homemade pastrami, beef brisket is brined (or corned) in a pickling mix for 5 days. The now-corned beef is rubbed with black pepper, coriander, and smoked paprika, and baked in the oven. If you must smoke it, see the variation.
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
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Homemade Pastrami FAQs
What is the difference between Pastrami and Corned Beef?
The biggest difference between the two types of meat lies in the cooking process. Corned beef is spice and salt-cured and then typically boiled or steamed. Pastrami is seasoned similarly, generally peppered heavily, and then smoked – but it can be slow-baked as well, as in this recipe.
Where did Pastrami and Corned Beef originate?
We’re glad you asked. Contrary to popular belief, corned beef did NOT originate in Ireland. (gasp!) The first generations of Irish immigrants to the US developed the recipe out of necessity. A Saint Patrick’s Day feast in Ireland included boiled bacon, but the immigrants were too poor to afford pork and bacon products. Instead, they used a more affordable cut of meat: beef brisket.
Pastrami was first made in Turkey during the Ottoman empire and made its way along the spice route to Romania. Romanian Jewish immigrants brought the recipe to the United States and the meat found its fame in New York City. Pastrami can be made from goose, goat, and mutton, but most commonly is made from beef brisket as well.
What ingredients make the best pastrami sandwich?
For cold-cut pastrami, we love mustard, swiss, a little mayo, and lettuce and tomato. On our hot pastrami sandwiches, it’s just mustard and melty swiss, grilled to perfection. Your bread choice is important here too. Rye is the way to go for a classic pastrami sandwich.
For the brine
- 3 quarts cold water for the brine
- 10 1/2 ounces kosher salt (about 2 cups Diamond Crystal brand OR 1 heaping cup Morton’s brand)
- 1 3/4 teaspoon 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 yellow mustard seeds
- 4 cloves garlic minced
- 3 quarts 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
Make the brine
- Fill a large stock pot with 3 quarts (12 cups) cold water. Add the kosher and pink curing salts (it's essential to weigh the kosher salt for accuracy rather than go by a volume measure, trust us), 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.
- 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.
- 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
- Mix together the coriander, pepper, and paprika in a small bowl.
Roast the pastrami
- Remove the brisket from the brine and pat it dry. Rub 1/4 cup spice 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Homemade Pastrami VariationBackyard Barbecue Pastrami 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.
Recipe Testers’ Reviews
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Originally published March 10, 2014