Homemade Pastrami

homemade pastrami toronto deli history kensington

Before I was a chef, certain food was easily understood. Roast beef was a cut of beef roasted. Boiled carrots, grilled fish needed no explanation. Other foods were a mystery. Pastrami and corned beef in particular were fascinating to me. It's delicious, but what is it? It looks like meat but is salty ,sweet, spicy, and a strange red colour no matter how long you cook it. My mom would buy it sometimes in these little boil in the bag portions from Shopsy's. It was a treat and I loved it. As a teenager if we were at a movie or something I would pick a Druxy's  deli sandwich over a Big Mac whenever I could. In 1986 I moved to Kensington market and started cooking school. I began to learn things. I began to understand deli.

Kensington Market through the ages
Kensington market was the coolest place ever for a young chef student. In the 80's they still sold chickens, rabbits, and pigeons alive in cages. Exotic fruits and vegetables lined the streets with dried beans, spices, and coffee. Compared to North York it was like being in a strange foreign land.  At lunch time I could get great cheap food in Chinatown, then buy Portuguese sausages, Jamaican hot sauce, and cowpeas to experiment with. There was also Switzer's the last of the Kensington delis.

Old Kensington Market
Starting in the 1920's Kensington Market was the centre of the Jewish community in Toronto and much like New York or Montreal kosher delicatessens opened up to serve the community. Shopsy's and Switzer's were two of the better known delis, but there were several others. As time went on newer immigrants moved in and much of the Jewish community moved north where a new generation of delis opened up around the area of Bathurst and Lawerence.

Some delis in Toronto
Switzer's was a great retro experience. Diner style booths and lunch counter. Faded autographed pictures. I don't remember the food very well, but the atmosphere was exciting. When I graduated and started making more money, I started hitting the north Toronto delis and worked my way though the menus. Corned beef at Pancer's, knish and latkes at Marky's, matzo ball soup or frankfurters and beans at Yitz's. It was all pretty great, but I still don't get gefilte fish.

So what is pastrami, and why is it associated with the North American Jewish community? Pastrami is a variation on the Romanian word pastramă which indicates something that is preserved. Some of the first Jewish immigrants to New York were from Romania and they brought the recipe for this cured and smoked meat with them. In Europe this process could be applied to lamb, pork, goose, or almost any meat. It was a natural way to preserve foods before refrigeration. In America beef navel or brisket was a cheap option and the modern Americanized pastrami recipe was developed. A common occupation of Jewish immigrants was to sell prepared foods from pushcarts, and selling pastrami in a sandwich was a logical and popular choice.

New York pushcart at the turn of the century
German immigrants had already established Delikatessen, shops which sold prepared foods and delicacies like liverwurst, pickled herring, prepared vegetables, and cold cuts. Soon the concepts merged and the modern American deli was born. Pastrami on rye became a New York staple, and delis like Katz's and Carnagie's became internationally famous. The idea spread and delis started popping up wherever large Jewish populations settled. Montreal in particular has a strong and unique deli heritage and Montreal smoked meat is a famous variation on pastrami.

Whether my recipe for pastrami is NewYork style pastrami or Montreal smoked meat style is debatable. I use the whole brisket as in Montreal, but the brine is sweeter like the New York style. Maybe it's Toronto style pastrami. I don't know, but its good.

brining brisket
brisket brined for 11 days
The recipe for pastrami starts the same way as corned beef. A raw whole beef brisket is brined in a salty sweet aromatic liquid for many days until it is preserved and pickled. At this point the meat is simmered until tender for corned beef. I brined my brisket for eleven days and used some more unique spices such as star anise and cloves in my mix, as well as sodium nitrate, a preserving agent which keeps the meat its pink colour after cooking.

pastrami rub brisket
For pastrami a dry rub is applied to the corned beef and it is smoked for several hours. The traditional rub for pastrami is coriander seed, black pepper and garlic. I added black mustard seed, brown sugar and smoked paprika to my rub.
pastrami brisket smoking
pastrami brisket smoking
I have a Bradley smoker at work so I used the apple wood bricks to smoke the brisket for about 3 hours, then slow roasted it in the smoker without bricks for another 8 hours. The first time I tried making pastrami I smoked it the whole time it was too strong, so I cut back the smoking time. Depending on the smoking method you use, the length of time to smoke will vary greatly, but the brisket will need approximately 12 hours of roasting at around 180°F to be cooked and tender.
pastrami spice rub
spices for pastrami rub

The finished product was great. Maybe a bit crumbly and salty at the thin end of the brisket, but in general it sliced and tasted as good as pastrami at any deli I've been to.

reuben sandwich rachel pastrami
rachel sandwich with homemade pastrami
Reuban sandwiches are a deli classic with corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and thousand island dressing. A Rachel sandwich uses pastrami instead of corned beef and coleslaw instead of sauerkraut.. I served it as a special and I sold the entire brisket in one night. I saved the crumbly bits that were left over and made smoked meat poutine the next day. It's a Montreal late night specialty of french fries topped with cheese curds, pastrami and gravy. Zane Caplansky of Caplansky's Deli is one of the chefs keeping the deli tradition alive in Toronto and has his own version of smoked meat poutine using smoked meat gravy that he serves in his food truck roaming around the Toronto area. Here's a link to a short video:

 Recipe For Homemade Pastrami

The Meat
1 whole beef brisket cut in half at midpoint.This is for ease of storage.

The Brine:
8L water
3 cups kosher salt
4 tsp sodium nitrate
1 cup brown sugar
20 garlic cloves
1 cup pickling spice mix
10 cloves
10 piece star anise
Bring the above to a boil in a pot and let cool. Place whole brisket cut in half in a non-reactive plastic or stainless steel container and cover completely with brine. The beef may float so weigh down with some plates. refrigerate for 9 to 11 days. 9 will do, but I feel the extra time gives it a more authentic texture. rinse the brisket thoroughly and apply the dry rub liberally.

Dry Rub:
In a food processor grind
1 cup coriander seed
½ cup black peppercorns pre-cracked
½ cup black mustard seed
¼ cup smoked Spanish paprika
½ cup brown sugar
6 clove garlic

This part is a bit tricky because it depends on your smoking method. I used a Bradley smoker with apple briquettes and smoked the brisket for three hours then slow roasted at 180°F for 8 hours. If your using real wood you might be able to smoke it the whole time. The key to me is long and slow. Try to keep the temperate around 200°F. The smoke flavour should enhance the meat not over power it.

If your doing this at home and can't store or smoke a whole brisket. Try to cut down the portions. Remember to keep the ratio of water to salt to sodium nitrate the same though, and be wary of the brining time for a smaller piece. It may vary by days!

Hopefully you will have as much luck as I did

homemade pastrami brisket

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