This past spring I was making the rounds of some local garage sales when I stumbled on a great find- a barrel meat smoker in pristine condition for only 20 bucks. This particular smoker is a really basic, just a metal barrel with three racks, a pan for water to keep the meat tender, and an electric element at the bottom on top of which you place the wood chips.
Serious barbeque enthusiasts out there would probably scoff at my little smoker, but given the the dirt cheap price and the fact that I had never smoked anything in my life, I figured it was a good way to get started. I followed this purchase by buying a copy of The Joy of Smoking and Salt Curing by Monte Burch. If you have any interest in tackling the art of smoking meat and fish, I highly recommend this little book. The instructions are very clear and concise, and it covers all the most basic points of the science of meat preservation.
One recipe in the book has been intriguing me since the first time I cracked it open – how to make pastrami. Honestly, I never knew that making pastrami was something that could be done at home. I always figured it was some magical piece of meat-making that only great Jewish delicatessens were capable of accomplishing. But there it was in the book, and the directions seemed simple enough.
First step was to acquire some beef brisket. Brisket is a cut of meat from the breast or lower chest of a cow, and it is full of connective tissue. As a result, it is a fairly tough cut of meat, requiring a long marinade or very slow cooking in liquid to be tender enough to eat. I got mine from Jacobs and Toney, a butcher shop in Warrensburg. Anyone who has ever passed through Warrensburg knows Jacobs and Toney – if you haven’t actually been a customer there, you have surely seen the huge MEAT STORE OF THE NORTH sign beckoning from Main Street. Jacobs and Toney has excellent quality meat and their service is phenomenal. They did not have any brisket on hand, but they were more than happy to order one for me. A few days later, a call informed me that my brisket was in. A whole brisket is a fairly large-about 15-20 pounds. I told the guys in the shop what I needed it for, and they were more than happy to trim, cut it into appropriate size pieces, and freezer wrap the rest.
I then headed home and started my exciting pastrami project. Making a pastrami is not complicated, but it does involve several steps which take about two weeks to accomplish. Pastrami is basically a smoked corned beef. The meat is placed in a salt water brine mixed with spices and allowed to sit (or “corn”) for 7 to 10 days. Corning is an ancient way of preserving meat, devised in the days before refrigeration. Salt creates a hostile environment in which most microorganisms that cause the spoilage of food can not survive. Additionally, the salt works as a tenderizer.
In addition to the saltwater brine, the recipe in the book also called for the use of a curing agent. Curing agents are those infamous nitrates that have gotten such a bad rap in the world of food. I personally am not afraid to use cure in my meats, as I eat such things in small quantities and only infrequently. The bigger problem was obtaining cure. Morton (the salt company) makes two products, Morton Tender Quick and Morton Sugar Cure, but neither is available locally and would have involved having to order some online. I did a little research and found that a nitrate based cure is not necessary as the primary benefit is to retain the red color people expect from store-bought meat. With this is mind, I decided to go with a nitrate-free recipe to make my corned beef.
I made the brine (recipe below) and put the brisket in, making sure that the meat was fully submerged. This is an essential part of the process, because the salt water creates an anaerobic environment in which microorganisms can not grow. Any meat exposed to the air is in danger of becoming contaminated. I then let the meat sit in the brine for 10 days, turning it over in it’s bowl daily to ensure the meat was evenly penetrated with the spices and salt.
After 10 days, I had a corned beef. At this point, if you wanted, you could boil the beef over low heat for a few hours and you would have a delicious corned beef that would out-do any corned beef you have ever bought for St. Paddy’s day. Pastrami requires a few more steps. After the brining, remove the brisket from the brine and pat dry. Completely coat both sides of the meat in a spice rub comprised mainly of cracked peppercorns and coriander seed (recipe below), then place the meat back in the fridge for another 24 hours, after which it’s ready for smoking!
Smoking your almost pastrami involves placing the slab on the highest rack in the smoker, and allowing it to smoke for an hour. After the first hour has passed, remove the meat from the smoker, and wrap it tightly in aluminum foil, and place back into the smoker until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees. This is necessary because leaving the meat exposed in the smoker for too long will cause it to have too strong a smoky flavor. Once the meat has reached temperature, remove it from the smoker and place it in a double boiler with a steaming basket to steam. Steaming tenderizes the meat further. I steamed my pastrami for about 30 minutes.
After I removed the pastrami from the steamer, I sliced up a few pieces. I have to tell you, I was a little skeptical- I had never tried this before and was a little afraid that after all this work, it would not turn out right. Was I ever wrong. It was absolutely fantastic! Not only did it taste like pastrami, it tasted the like the best pastrami I have ever had. And it only got better when placed between two slices of rye bread slathered with a good grainy mustard and couple of pieces of Swiss cheese!
Step 1: Make the brine
1 4-5 lb piece of beef brisket
2 quarts water
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 cinnamon sticks
2 teaspoons mustard seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
10 whole cloves
10 whole allspice berries
12 whole juniper berries
2-4 bay leaves, crumbled
1/2 tsp ground ginger
Place water, salt, sugar and spices in pan on the stove. Cook over high heat, stirring constantly with a whisk, until the salt and sugar has completely dissolved. You now need to remove the brine from the heat and allow to cool in the refrigerator. I made my brine in the evening, and allowed it to sit in the fridge overnight. Once cooled, place your meat in the brine. As stated above, meat must be fully submerged. I used a large Tupperware bowl, but you could also place it in a 2 gallon zip lock bag. If you are using a bowl, turn your meat daily for 7 to 10 days to ensure meat is evenly penetrated.
Step 2: Adding the spice crust
Mix together the following in a bowl:
1/4 cup cracked (not ground!) peppercorns
1/4 cup cracked (not ground) coriander seed
(to achieve ‘cracking” I placed the peppercorn and coriander seed in a coffee grinder for a few whirls until desired consistency was achieved
1 tablespoon mustard seed
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon garlic powder
Place your brisket on top of a large piece of plastic wrap. Apply spice mixture to the brisket and rub evenly over both ends an sides of the meat. Wrap the plastic tightly around the meat and place back into the fridge for another 24 hours.
Step 3: Smoking
Set up your smoker. I used hickory chips, but probably would have used apple had we had some handy. Place uncovered piece of meat on top rack of smoker. My smoker does not have a specific temperature gauge, it merely reads low, medium, high. I placed mine at high. If you have a temperature gauge, smoke it at 240 degrees for 1 hour. Remove meat from smoker and wrap tightly in aluminum foil, place back in smoker and cook until internal temperature reaches 160 degrees (this took about 2 hours)
Step 4: Steaming
Remove meat from smoker and place on a steaming basket in a double boiler. Steam until you have reached desired tenderness. This took me about 30 minutes. This is also a good way to reheat you meat if you want hot pastrami sandwiches!