What does a retired potter, professor, sculptor do with his spare time? I’ve spent much of it getting better at cooking and finding out about foods; their origins, traditions and sources. I’m particularly interested in making common things from scratch – going back to the origins, if you will. Bread was pretty easy because there has been an explosion of artisanal bread making that has been well documented on the interweb and in numerous fancy books. Jim Lahey’s no-knead method was all the rage a few years ago and I still use it to make excellent bread at least once a week. Over the years I’ve tackled sauerkraut and pickles, “sun”-dried tomatoes and even gathered dill pollen. Cured meats, though, have given me pause. Partly because the initial investment in the meat is often pretty spendy and I was always worried about ending up with a hunch of expensive garbage, or worse, toxic “food”. And partly because some of the processes seemed more arcane that I was willing to engage. My uncle Ben (no relation to the rice guy) used to make a Thuringer-style sausage in his basement – a ton at a time – but he had a walk-in cooler and real butchers tools, band saws and sausage stuffers and such (and regular inspections by the Health Department). I didn’t want to get that serious. A few years ago I bought a small off-set smoker that could hold, maybe, 20# of meat. I have used it to smoke pork shoulders, beef briskets, chicken and even tomatoes (yummy). One day I was in the market chatting with a carnivore friend near a meat bunker full of beef and I was jokingly nudging him toward the whole briskets. He resisted but said that he had recently tried making corned beef. He said it was pretty easy and it turned out really well. A light flashed in my head – PASTRAMI. Pastrami is just a smoked spiced corned beef. Good pastrami is so much better than corned beef. I could do that! Well, a little easier said than done. The beef was in the cooler right in front of me but what else went into pastrami? After some research at my local library and several bookstores, I found a book, Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, with a simple enough sounding recipe and process that sounded do-able. It’s pretty much the same as corned beef, up to a point. First, the meat is brined in a mix of salt, sugar, herbs, garlic and spices just like corned beef. But there is an ingredient in the brine that I wasn’t familiar with and which turned out to be difficult to find. Pink Salt, also known as Prague Salt, Curing Salt or Insta-Cure. It is a mix of common salt (sodium chloride) and sodium nitrite. Apparently it is colored pink to avoid confusing it with common salt in commercial kitchens. No store in our area either had it or had heard of it. I finally tracked down a company, My Spice Sage, on the East coast that sold Prague Powder #1 in small enough amounts to make the investment make sense (all other vendors I located sold it in a minimum of 1# containers – probably enough to make a ton of pastrami). And better yet, shipping was free!
Materials finally in hand, I was ready to go. I had to cut my brisket in half in order to easily fit it into the fridge in the brine tub. I didn’t take pictures of the meat in the brine but I’m sure you can imagine what it looked like – meat floating in water. After a three day soak, the brisket looked pinker and the fat seemed firmer – pretty much like any corned beef brisket you might buy from the grocery, which it pretty much was.
Next, the magic. After I dried off the meat, it was rested in the fridge on a rack for an hour to allow a pedicle to develop. A pedicle is a sticky layer on the outside of the meat that is supposed to make the smoke adhere to (penetrate) the meat better. After that it was coated with a mix of cracked black pepper and coriander seed and then on to the smoker. I used a mix of about 2/3 apple wood with 1/3 hickory wood and smoked around 7 hours or to an internal temperature of 150˚ F – cooked, smoked but still not tender. I cooled the meat and cut it into approximately one pound pieces (enough for us to make a meal of with a little leftovers) and froze the pieces in vacuum bags.
To prepare the pastrami for eating, I braised a thawed piece on a rack over a 1/2″ of water in a covered dutch oven for 2 hours at 275˚ F, until fork-tender.
It was delicious. A bit of work but something I will definitely do again.
Pastrami (adapted from Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn)
The Brine 1 gallon water 1-1/2 C. kosher salt 1 C. white sugar 1-1/2 oz. Prague Powder #1 (aka Pink Salt) 1 Tbs. pickling spice 1/2 C. packed dark brown sugar 1/4 C. honey 5 cloves garlic, finely chopped or coarsely minced 1 5-pound beef brisket (heavy surface fat removed) 1 Tbs. coriander seed 1 Tbs. black pepper corns Combine the brine ingredients in a pot large enough to hold the brisket. Bring to a simmer to dissolve the salt and sugar. Remove from heat, let cool to room temp and refrigerate to chill. Put the beef into the brine and place a plate on top to keep the meat submerged. Refrigerate for 3 days. Remove the meat from the brine, rinse it and pat dry. Discard the brine. Place on a rack on a shallow baking sheet and refrigerate, uncovered for 1 hour to allow the meat surface to dry some more and become slightly sticky. Combine the coriander and pepper in a spice mill or coffee grinder and pulse until coarsely ground. Coat the meat evenly on all surfaces with the coriander/pepper mixture. Hot-smoke the brisket until the thickest part reaches a temp of 150˚ F. Smoke heavily and for as long as is reasonably possible. At this point, the pastrami is cooked but probably not very tender. To serve, put 1/2″ water in the bottom of a dutch oven or roaster. Put the meat on a rack in the bottom of the pan (it’s OK if the bottom of the meat touches the water). Bring the water to a simmer, on the stove top then cover and bake in a preheated 275˚ F oven for 2 – 3 hours, until tender. NOTE: my brisket, shown above, was nearly 10# at the start. I doubled the brine and I had to cut it in half to fit it into the brine container. Total yield, after trimming some fat and moisture loss in smoking, left me with a little under 8 pounds total.