Originally referring to a meat preservation technique, the word "pastrami" shares Romanian, Yiddish and Turkish roots. Today, a call for "pastrami" at most local U.S. delis will get you a tasty sandwich; in New York City, the meat is considered an icon of the local food scene. Although traditional curing methods are no longer necessary for food preservation, pastrami-making remains one of the tastiest uses for tough cuts such as brisket.
History of Pastrami
Traditionally, the cheapest cuts of lamb, mutton, or pork were made into pastrami. The meat was rubbed with salt and spices, then wind-dried and occasionally cold-smoked until adequately preserved. The method that Romanian Jews brought to New York in the late 19th century evolved into the beef pastrami sandwich served throughout North America today.
Preparing the Meat
Brining the meat in a salt solution is the first step in pastrami preparation. Alternatively, some methods specify a dry rub instead of a wet brine. Nitrate-containing curing salt, not the type of meat, causes the pink hue typically associated with pastrami. Next, the meat is coated with a spice mixture and smoked until tender. Depending on the cut of meat, some recipes call for subsequent steaming to further break down connective tissues. The meat is thinly sliced against the grain to serve.
Although modern pastrami technique varies from the original Romanian process, New York pastrami has not changed since the late 19th century. The famous pastrami served in New York delis is made from the navel end of the beef brisket, known as the plate cut. This is a popular cut for pastrami-making as it is considered kosher, since it comes from the front quarters of the cow. Beef brisket, round and short rib cuts are also commonly made into pastrami.
You can make pastrami out of any meat, including turkey, chicken, goose, lamb, goat, venison and veal. Some restaurants are even bucking the kosher tradition by making pastrami from cuts of pork. Especially lean meats lend themselves well to pastrami because the long curing and cooking process breaks down tough muscle fibers. Today, you can even buy vegetarian pastrami made from soy or wheat flour.