Humans like pastrami. Thick juicy slabs of it dripping from a toasted sandwich, melty cheese glueing the crimson meat to sharp sauerkraut and sweet russian dressing. Oh it seems I’ve just described my favourite sandwich, the Reuben! But the reality is in the UK the pastrami that we normally encounter is the equivalent to cheap wafer thin ham. Next time you eat any sandwich described as “New York” ask yourself how close are you actually getting to the soft, juicy, meaty, sweet, spicy pastrami or saltbeef of that city.
Being a Foodist I don’t put up with that nonsense. I make my own pastrami and what’s more I use beef cheeks. They’re a perfect portion size and the sticky gelatinous quality of cheeks makes it extra special. The first steps to making pastrami is to make saltbeef. It’s so easy, seriously if you can breathe you can make saltbeef. Here’s the recipe:
3kg beef cheeks (or a nicely marbled brisket)
2.5 litres water
110g dark brown sugar
18g pink salt (#1 cure)
3 cloves garlic minced
5 pieces mace
13g coriander seed
15g whole black pepper
4 bay leaves
1 tsp ground ginger
1 cassia stick
1 star anise
1. Make the brine by warming all the ingredients together except the beef. This will infuse all the aromatics. Cool the brine before submerging the beef in it. Cover and store in the fridge for at least 5 days or anything up to a month, the thicker your beef the longer the brining. This is an equilibrium brine* so thinner cuts will not over brine, you can leave it in there until you’re ready to cook it as saltbeef or take it to the next level and pastramify it (skip step 2)
2. Cooking saltbeef. Take the raw saltbeef out of the brine and simmer it gently in water until tender, around 3hrs. Technical bit: you’re looking to maintain an internal temperature of 90-95C for about 90mins to break down the tough collagen (especially in the cheek). But best test of all is it’s done when a knife slips through easily.
3. Make the pastrami coating by grinding together 30g of black pepper and 30g coriander seed. Take the raw saltbeef out of the brine, rinse quickly, pat dry and smother it will the pepper/coriander coating.
4. Hot smoke the coated saltbeef for 3hrs at 130C. Use whatever wood you like, oak and pecan is nice. After three hours the internal temp will probably be around 70C.
5. Foil your beef tightly and finish it either on the smoker or transfer it to an oven for another three hours. Or until the pastrami is tender. Again you want to maintain a 90-95C internal temp for 90mins to break down the collagen. You can opt to steam finish your pastrami too, which helps to leach some of the saltiness out and mellows the smoke and spice.
* My original recipe on smokeandumami uses an 11% strength brine (11g salt in 100g water) and quite a lot of it. The beef is then brined for a short 3 days. This recipe redux uses a 4% strength brine based on the total mass of water and beef. This way of equilibrium brining uses less liquid, which is good for fridge space. It’s also a lot more forgiving with time, allowing you to leave the meat in the brine with no fear of over brining. Thanks to my mans Nick “Professor Brisket” Loman for laying the theory down.