Sunday, November 11, 2012

Jewish Haute-Charcuterie: Pastrami

There are few foods that elicit such a visceral response in humans such as the emotions that flow from the consumption of meats, particularly those that have been kissed by the winged angels of curing and smoking.  The refinement of a well produced meaty treat forces us to walk a fine line between gentile pinky in the air tea drinking haughtiness and Neanderthal-like tendencies to smear food on our bodies and writhe in the meaty goodness that is the trifecta of meat, spices and smoke.  I recently invited a number of friends over to partake in the creation of some encased meat products and to feed these huddles masses I begged my wife to allow me to make a pastrami.  After many promises (and more begging) she conceded.  To be perfectly honest I think she was just tired of hearing me whine, "But it's just a little meat... Pleeeeeeeese????  With sugar on top?????"   Yeah, in hindsight it was definitely the begging like a fat kid who just saw a Snickers in the grocery checkout aisle.  (Don't hate, that was actually me last week)

So with approval in hand I skipped on over to my local Costco Business to procure some meat o' the gods.  These days pastrami is made from the brisket which is the major muscle between the cow's front legs and up a little towards the animal's chest.  Because the muscle is directly used for support and mobility for such a large creature the muscle is at the same time very flavorful from all the use but tough as nails and needs a looooong and sloooow cooking to bring out the best in flavor and texture. The brisket can be purchased split into its two primary muscles; the 'point' cut and the 'flat' cut or both still attached together.  When together the point overlaps about half of the flat and over the front, kinda like a meat version of a Salvador Dali melting clock....but tastier.  People who prefer the point cut like it because it tends to have a greater amount of marbling (read: intramuscular fat) and fat = flavor-town.  However, the point cut is oddly shaped, the grains run a funky direction making slicing more of a challenge and for some people it's just too fatty.  The point is like the Ying to the flat's Yang.  The flat cut tends towards a fairly consistent square shape, has a more predictable grain for easier slicing and is leaner.  In today's America where fat = the Devil the flat cut is marketed as the superior choice due on large part to its lower fat content (however still not low-fat).  

While we currently recognize brisket as the king of both pastrami and its kissing-cousin, corned beef, it was originally made with a cut called the Navel and was the Jewish answer to pork-based charcuterie.  Now as far as the Navel is concerned I'm assuming that the reference is to the animal's belly-button ( do cows have belly buttons? While I'm pretty sure, anatomically speaking, they must but I'm not going to ask to see it) and not some bovine version of the navy.  From a posting over at one of the blogs I follow,, beef navel is the cow version of pork belly and has a higher percentage of fat to lean even when compared to the brisket point cut.  I'll seek it out down the road but I had neither the time nor available fundage to go from sea to shining sea for some steak on the hoof, brisket would fit the bill fine for me this time around thank you very much. 

Now back to the selection process.  There are a couple criteria I use when purchasing a brisket, first of all I'd like to avoid purchasing a bunch of fat that I'm just going to trim off.  While I can normally find a use for trim I don't want to pay for something that's just going to be cut off.  Second, and it also relates back to fat content, I like fatty tasty animal flesh as much as the next fat cook but I'm going to be adding quite a lot of flavor through other processes and would prefer a leaner brisket and this is how to select one.  First, gently poke your brisket choices all over and feel how hard and thick feeling your meat is (ewwww, get your mind out of the gutter mister!   What kind if blog do you think this is?). What your actually feeling for is the amount of exterior fat in the brisket, a great deal of which we previously discussed would be trimmed off.  The softer the meat the less fat that will ultimately be trimmed off.  Fat solidifies at a higher temperature than lean meat so the harder the brisket higher the fat content.  Similar to the poke test pick up the brisket and see how flaccid, err....I mean floppy it is.   Once again, the harder and more solid the meat = more fat.   So if you want lots of fat get a brisket that's hard on the outside and pretty solid when its picked up.  I on the other hand prefer a leaner brisket so picked a 12 lb hunk of soft and flaccid meat.  

Here we see the brisket in all its glory.  Also note the fat cap above the USDA Choice sticker.

This next picture is the trimmed brisket, the plate cut is on the bottom, the point is on the top right kinda flopped onto itself and the trim is in the left.

The base recipe is from Charcuterie and called for a 5 lb brisket but since I ended up with about 10 lbs of brisket I doubled the recipe.   Even though you might look at your brine and think its enough you should make the appropriate amount of brine for your brisket to allow for the proper amounts of salt and cure for both flavor and protection from nasties.  

As I've mentioned on the past I highly encourage the use of a scale to weigh your ingredients rather than measure by volume as it's much more accurate.  Also, if you prefer not to make your own pickling spice you can purchase a pre-made blend at your local grocers and it'll be fine.


3 quarts water 
350 grams (1.5 cups) kosher salt
225 grams (1 cup) sugar
42 grams (8 tsp) pink salt / cure #1 
8 grams (1Tbl) pickling spice (recipe below)
90 grams (1/2 cup packed) dark brown sugar
1/4 cup honey 
5 cloves garlic, crushed 
1 lb ice (yes, weigh it)

5 lb brisket, your preferred cut, fat trimmed to approx 1/4" thickness 

8 grams (1 Tbl) coriander seeds
10 grams (1 Tbl) black peppercorns
1.5 tsp mustard seeds
1.5 tsp smoked paprika (aka Spanish pimenton)
1 Tbl garlic powder 

Pickling Spice

20 grams (2Tbl) black peppercorns 
20 grams (2 Tbl) mustard seeds
20 grams (2 Tbl) coriander seeds
12 grams (2 Tbl) chile flakes
14 grams (2 Tbl) allspice berries
8 grams (1 Tbl) ground mace
2 cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces
8 grams (1 Tbl) ground ginger
10 grams (2 Tbl) juniper berries
6 grams (1 Tbl) star anise
6 grams (1 Tbl) cardamom pods

Here are the pickling spices all happy-like:

For the pickling spice: Toast the peppercorns, coriander seeds and mustard seeds until they become fragrant then crack either with a mortar and pestle, the side of a chefs knife or bottom of a heavy pot or pan.  Don't grind things up fine, you want it to be on the chunky side.  Reserve additional for other recipes such as corned beef and pickles. 

For the Brine: Combine the water through garlic cloves in a large pot of water and heat, stirring occasionally until the sugars and salts have dissolved.  You shouldn't have to get it all the way to a boil but it's not a problem if you do, just don't reduce the liquid.  Once dissolved remove the liquid (now referred to as a brine) and stir in the ice.  The ice is not a requirement; it's there to speed the brine-making process along by quickly chilling your brine.  If you don't want to use it and have the time you can just start with a full gallon of water.  Either way you'll need to get the brine down to less than 40 degrees F before adding the meat.  

Put the meat into the now cooled brine and weigh it down with a plate to keep it submerged and put the whole shebang into a fridge for safe keeping.  

Every day turn the meat over and brine for a total of 6-7 days.  When done brining pull the meat from the liquid, give it a good rinse, pat it dry with some paper towels and put it back into the refrigerator preferably elevated on something like a cookie sheet to rest overnight.  During this time the proteins that have been drawn to the surface by the brine will dry and become tacky.  This tacky coating is called a pellicle and is what the spices (and assuming you're going for the full enchilada) and smoke will adhere to tomorrow.  

Now comes the fun part, pull the brisket out of the fridge, set it on the counter and direct a fan on it for an hour.  This will bring it up to ambient temperature and keep condensation at bay.  While the temperature is equalizing on the brisket get the spice coating going.  Lightly toast the peppercorns, mustard seeds and coriander until fragarant and grind to a powder then mix with the paprika and garlic powder.  After your hour is up, coat the brisket well with your spices and smoke to your heart's content.  I went for about 8 hrs but you might want to start light, say 4-5 hrs.  At this time you can officially call it pastrami.

Close-up of the pastrami rub:

Pastrami rubbed-down and headed to the smoker:

If you have the luxury of a hot smoker you want to get the pastrami up to 160 degrees F.  I, however, do not so after I was done cold-smoking I put the meat on a sheet tray, covered it with foil and plopped it in a very low oven and slooooowly brought it to 155 (don't worry, the residual heat in the meat will get it to 160).  You're going to want to taste it at this point and revel in your awesomeness, however, for optimum slicing compliance chill overnight before slicing super thin across the grain of the meat thusly:   

I like to serve mine on rye or russian bread topped with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and mustard which I have conveniently included a photo of below for you to drool over.  If you're feeling puckish check out my recipes for Hard Cider Whole-Grain Mustard and homemade Sauerkraut (believe you me, totally worth the effort).

Tasting notes: I'm going to cut my smoke time down to the aforementioned 4-5 hrs.  The smoke level was very well received but personally I found it a little on the heavy side.  Also, I'm going to jettison the mustard seeds, paprika and garlic powder from the coating.  While they're not uncommon I found that the coating tasted a little on the sweet side and want the harshness from the pepper to shine a little more.  Similarly I'm considering reducing the honey and brown sugar levels in the brine to about half the recommended amount. 


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