Pastranomy: Close to Katz's Home Made Pastrami Recipe
Pastrami is Kosher barbecue, it is corned beef with chutzpah, and it is at its ballsiest at Katz's Delicatessen in New York City. Katz's is a timeless throwback is where Harry met Sally's fake orgasm and they both met real pastrami. When you go, make sure to have what she's having, and leave your diet behind.
I have never duplicated Katz's pastrami, even though I pumped Chef Kenny Kohn for tips on technique, but I've come mighty durn close. That's what it looks like above. It is complex and smoky, but not in the way that other smoked meats are smoky. The smoke is not overt. It is blended in thoroughly. It is highly seasoned, but the black pepper and coriander rub is never domineering, and swimming across all your buds are a range of other herbs and spices. That's because pastrami is probably the most complicated process on this website. We start by soaking the beef for a week in a highly seasoned brine/cure to make corned beef. Then we soak it in plain water to remove excess salt. Then we rub it and let them nestle in for a few days, then we smoke it, then we chill it, and finally we steam it. Whew!
Of course I can't be sure Kohn was leveling with me about the Katz's method. I asked him some questions twice in two interviews and I got two different answers. And if you spend a few hours at Katz's watching them, then you spend a day watching YouTube videos of Katz's and reading reviews (as I have), you get a variety of conflicting stories from Katz's managment and employees. I'm not saying they lie, but they do seem to be protecting their secrets with a straight face.
Culinary historians believe the highly seasoned, smoked, juicy, bright pink beef in a dark robe, was invented by poor Jews in schtetls (a Yiddish to English dictionary is below) in Romania where it may have been made from goose or duck meat. Today some avant garde chefs are returning to that tradition, even making it from salmon, turkey, or other cuts of beef, like round. Without refrigeration, meat spoiled quickly, so they rubbed it heavily with salt and pepper and other spices, and smoked it. This both tenderized it, flavored it, and helped it keep longer. Today, most pastrami is made from beef brisket or navel (a.k.a. plate), tough, stringy, fatty, cheap cuts. The process turns it tender and succulent.
Some say beef pastrami was first made in the US by an immigrant kosher butcher, Sussman Volk, in 1887, but that date is disputed by the owners of Katz's which opened in 1888. Katz's is the oldest deli in the nation, and a haimish New York landmark. If you have never been there, make the schlep to 205 E. Houston St. (pronounced HOW-ston) right after you get off the boat from the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island to complete the immigrant experience. Spend some time checking out the photos of presidents and other macher on the walls. The place is a museum.
It is absolutely worth waiting in line for the hand carved hot pastrami sandwich (doesn't that picture of the carving table, below, just make you verklempt), and if you are lucky, you can rest your tukhus at the table where the most memorable scene from the movie When Harry Met Sally was filmed. Yes, it was in Katz's that Sally (Meg Ryan) demonstrated for nudnik Harry (Billy Crystal) how a woman can fake it. Estelle Reiner, the mamele of director Rob Reiner, after watching Sally moan and groan and pound the table, utters one of the best lines in the history of filmdom: "I'll have what she's having". Kohn says Sally's ecstacy wasn't an act, it was the pastrami. The whole scene is on the video at right.
When you enter, you will be given a ticket. Don't lose it or you'll have to pay $50 when you check out. Take your place in a fast moving line and schmooze with the other droolers. You can get table service, but then you'll miss the show at the counter.
When you get to the front of the line, know what you want. Naturally I recommend the pastrami, but you can order all manner of traditional kosher cured meats like corned beef, a Reuben sandwich, beef tongue, a first rate kosher hot dog, knoblewurst, killer salami, and kishka. There's also chopped liver, liverwurst, and, of course, bagels with a schmear and lox. Save room for the bowl of half-sour pickles and pickled tomatoes on every table, or order matzo ball soup, knishes, latkes, blintzes, or kugel. Finish with a classic New York cheesecake and wash it all down with a beer or an egg cream. They sell no chazeray here. If you need a cheat sheet, scroll down. Learn these terms so you sound like a maven and so you don't have to ask for an explanation like a goy, even if you and all the Irish shamuses and most everyone else in the joint are. When you're done, you can "Send a Salami to a Boy in the Army" something they have been doing since the 1940s.
My standard order when I get to NY is pastrami on rye with yellow mustard on both slices of bread. That's it, bubbie. When the carver asks if you want "fatty or lean", don't be meshuga. Answer "fatty". If you want to sound expert say "plenty of speck (pronounced "shpek"), please". This is no time to count calories. If he said "juicier" or "drier" you wouldn't hesitate, would you? But this is serious fleishig so they calls it the ways they sees it. You got a problem with that?
Place a tip on the counter as he carves, and he'll slip you a nice free nosh. The meat is piled high, and you can get it with mustard, kraut, and melted Swiss. Don't be a putz and ask for mayo. And by the way, when it comes out of the steam box, it looks like a meteorite. It is not burned. That is just the black pepper laden spice rub that has darkened during the smoking process. And when it is carved, it is bright pink. It is not undercooked, that's just the color it turns during the curing process.
How Katz's makes pastrami
As best as I can tell by triangulating from interviews with cooks, countermen, cutters, and watching hours of YouTube, Katz's process begins with beef plate, a.k.a. navel. This is a cut from the area below the ribs, behind the brisket and it is just a bit more tender and fattier than brisket, which is cut from the chest. Chef Kenny Kohn says they soak the meat for weeks in a salty, spicy brine. What comes out is essentially corned beef, but their pastrami process is different from their corned beef process because the corned beef is dry cured, not soaked in a brine.
After brining, the pastrami is then coated with a secret rub that tastes to be mostly black pepper and coriander, and then it is refrigerated for a day or two. Then it is smoked, refrigerated for a day or two, and finally, the day it is to be served, it is steamed. That's a carver at Katz's below.
Montreal Smoked Meat
Since the Romanian Jews started in the 1890s they've been making a version of pastrami in Montreal that they call simply smoked meat. I am told it is usually made from brisket, not plate.
No smoke ring in pastrami
Notice that there is no smokering in pastrami, the pink ring on and below the surface typical in smoked meats, even barbecue brisket. That's because the smoke ring is nitrate tinged myoglobin in the meat caused by compounds in the smoke. This meat is pink throughout because of the pink curing salt used in making the corned beef which has sodium nitrite in it. Don't worry, it's safe.
Grocery store pastrami
Most of it is made from lean cuts like round, injected with brine and nitrites, and sliced thin. Not the same by a long shot.
Other delicious delis
Want to start a fight? Pronounce that Katz's is the best deli in New York. There will surely be someone within earshot who will argue vigorously in favor of the Carnegie, 2nd Avenue, Stage, Eisenberg, Zabar's, or one of the dozens of others. Ask me and I'll say Katz's. I have not tasted them all. That is a lifetime of work. Notice that Carnegie Deli is not on my short list. The meat is OK, but the schtick of this tourist trap is just a bit too much for a real pastrami lover.
Sadly, Kosher delis are an endangered species. If this is a topic of interest to you, and it should be, get ahold of David Sax's book Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen.
Click here to read his article about The Roots of the Deli in Saveur magazine.
Cheat sheet for Katz's menu and translating
How Meathead makes pastrami
To do it all the way from scratch there are several time consuming steps:
- Cure the beef.
- Soak the corned beef.
- Rub and let is sit.
- Smoke the corned beef.
- Let it sit.
- Steam it and serve.
You can eliminate the first step by buying a good corned beef. But beware, most of them are made by injecting the brine, up to 35%!
Making your own corned beef and turning it into pastrami means that you can make it to your taste. Like cloves? Gahead. Want sugar in the rub? I won't tell on you. Want more smoke? Who's gonna stop you? More pepper? Bless you. Trust me, boychik, do it yourself and you will eat shards of meat packed with spicy flavor and silky richness mit groys fargenign. Surprisingly, the smoke wraps its fingers into everything without being obvious. Forgive me if I kvell.
Here. I'll spill the whole megillah:
Recipe for Close to Katz's Pastrami
Makes. About 3 pounds of pastrami after shrinkage, enough for 4 good sandwiches after trimming
Preparation time. Oy!
Cooking time. 6 hours approximately to smoke it plus 2 hours to simmer it, total 6 hours
Serve with. Latkes and kosher dill pickled tomatoes and potato salad.
4 pounds of good corned beef, preferably home made (click for recipe)
4 tablespoons fresh coarsely ground black pepper
2 tablespoons coriander powder
1 teaspoon mustard powder
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon paprika
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons onion powder
4 to 8 ounces of smoke wood
About store bought corned beef. Corned beef comes in two forms, ready to eat, and brined. Ready to eat corned beef is cured, then cooked, and usually packaged in slices or sliced at the deli counter. Do not use this! Brined corned beef is usually a hunk of brisket that has been cured in a salt solution and packaged in a hearty cryovac plastic bag with some of the brine. It has not been cooked yet. That's the stuff you want.
About the rub. The paprika mostly adds color. If you want to veer from the conventional and amp it up a bit, substitute ancho powder or American chili powder, but be careful, the black pepper and mustard supply an ample kick. You can leave anything out that you want except the black pepper and the coriander.
1) Make your own corned beef. It is just plain better than storebought. For pastrami, the flat section of the brisket is favored by many because it makes nice even slices for sandwiches, but I prefer the point section of the brisket because it is fattier, richer, and more tender. Yes, it sometimes breaks apart, but who notices on a sammy? If you can get it, go for navel (a.k.a. plate). But it can also be made from flank steak, or leaner cuts. If you are using brisket, one side of the meat will probably have a thick layer of fat on it called the cap. Remove all of the fat cap except about 1/8" and if there is any filmy membrane on the other side, remove it all. That thin layer of fat is important. The process takes about a week.
2) Desalinate. Put the corned beef in a pot slightly larger than the meat and cover it with cold water in the fridge for at least 8 hours. This removes excess salt. Trust me, you need to do this or you will be gulping water all night after your meal.
3) Rub. Make the rub by blending together all the spices. Rinse the meat, pat it dry with paper towels, coat it with a thin layer of cooking oil, apply the rub liberally, about 4 tablespoons per squre foot of surface, and press it into the surface to help it adhere. If there is a thin part of meat, use less rub. Put in the fridge for a minimum of 2 days. My best batch sat for almost a week.
4) Smoke. Set up your smoker or your grill for smoking. You will find instructions for this in my Tips & Techniques section. If you can, use a charcoal smoker. It produces a deeper darker crust than gas, electric, or even pellets, but it still comes out fabulous on a pellet burner or gasser. Preheat to 225°F. Pick your wood. I don't think it makes a huge difference with all the other flavors banging around in there. My best batch was with cherry wood. Smoke it fat-side up over indirect heat at 225°F until it reaches 190°F to 200°F. Add wood when the smoke dwindles. If you wish you can smoke it for 3 to 4 hours and finish it indoors, but this stuff can take all the smoke you throw at it, so outdoors is better. It could take 12 hours or more depending on the thickness.
5) Chill. When it is done cooking, go ahead and cut a taste. I know you want to. All the flavor is there, but it may still be a bit chewy. Wrap in foil and refrigerate for at least 12 hours. You can keep it for a week if you wish.
6) Steam. When it is time to serve it is time to steam heat and tenderize. If you have a bamboo or metal steamer in which the meat will fit, you can use that. If not, you can make a steamer by putting a wire rack in a baking pan. If necessary you can sit the rack on wads of foil to keep it out of the water. Put the meat on the foil in which it was wrapped or the steam will wash off much of the rub. Do not slice the meat first.
If you made a steamer with a baking pan, cover it with foil. If the pan is steel, but don't let the foil touch the meat. The salt, the water, the steel, and the aluminum can interact and create electrical charges that can melt the foil! This is a phenomenon called the "lasagna cell" because it happens to lasagna often.
Put the pan on a burner, turn the heat to medium low, and steam it an hour or two until heated through to 203°F. The exact time will depend on the meat's thickness and how hot the water is. Add hot water as needed, making sure the pan never dries out. Don't rush this. Take it all the way to 203°F.
7) Slicing. Slicing is crucial to maximize tenderness. Look at the meat and notice which way the grain is running. Cut it by hand in thin slices, about 1/8" thick, perpendicular to the grain. If you cut parallel to the grain it will be much chewier. Don't try to slice it with a machine. It will just fall apart.
8) Serve. I serve it nekkid on fresh untoasted rye bread. A good brown mustard on both slices and a few shreds of sauerkraut is nice but not necessary. Now this is going to sound wierd: It may need a light sprinkling of salt. The soaking process occasionally removes too much. So taste it and if you wish, sprinkle it on lightly. At Katz's they put about 1 pound of meat on each sandwich, and the Carnegie Deli uses even more. That's just too much for me devour without unhinging my jaw. 1/2 to 3/4 pound per sandwich is more than enough for home use. If you want, you can make a Rockin' Pastrami Reuben with sauerkraut, melted swiss, and thousand island dressing. Reubens were originally made with corned beef, but there's no rule that you can't make one from pastrami. In fact, I highly recommend it.
9) Leftovers freeze well and they can be reheated in the microwave or steamed. They can also be made into a killer hash. Ess, bench, sei a mensch!
This page was revised 2/3/2012
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