In Search Of The Perfect, Grass-Fed Pastrami Experience? Brisket-Palooza!!!

by Jeff Berkowitz on May 1, 2011 · 6 comments

in Beef

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I love NYC! One of the things I love most about NYC is the delicatessen, you know what I’m talking about…bread you can chew with a crust that gives your jaw a run for its money, piled with an absurd amount of perfect deli meats, slathered generously with piquant mustard that adds the right amount of salty, sour condiment goodness to the perfect bread and meat. When I was working in New York I craved Pastrami sandwiches all of the time and I can tell you that all pastrami sandwiches are not created equally. My favorite is Katz’s Delicatessen (click the link to see gorgeous pictures of my favorite pastrami sandwich in NYC {this is an unsolicited, unpaid testimonial}); I love that when you walk up to the counter you are greeted well (as if the counter-man is happy to see you) that when you order your pastrami he reaches into a steaming cabinet with a giant fork pulling forth a large piece of blackened meat, tender and juicy – hand slicing a couple of slices for you to try as though you were being served  a fine wine – waits for your approval and then begins to slice enough meat to feed two – builds the perfect sandwich and gives you pickled cucumbers and green tomatoes – mind blowing! What an Experience!

I don’t live anywhere near NYC anymore – and I like that, but I do miss those sandwiches…I had an idea, let’s make pastrami! In fact, let’s do it one better, let’s make it more healthy, more sustainable and hopefully more delicious. I was DMing an online chef friend of mine, Jenni (whose blog is and can be found on Twitter @onlinepastrychf ) about these ideas and we came up with the idea for brisket-palooza – I believe the initial idea was hers (so check out her blog). We both agreed to get grass-fed brisket, brine them – hers would become a corned beef and I would ultimately smoke mine to become pastrami (pastrami is essentially pepper/coriander crusted, smoked corned beef). There are a lot of reasons to eat grass fed beef many of which I won’t go into here, there is no question that it is better for you and I am happy to report that there is no sacrifice in flavor – in fact, I find the flavor to be an improvement on that of the grain fed brethren. For more information on why grass-fed animal products are better for you read Dr. Mercola’s opinion, it’s clear and well thought out. Finally, I made the decision not to use saltpeter or sodium nitrate in the pastrami just to see what the results would be. I knew that I would be sacrificing the characteristic red color, but I wondered if a good long, slow smoking would replace some of it. Sadly, the color was that of cooked beef, but the aroma was heaven on earth.

Beautiful, Flavorful, Aromatic, Grass-Fed Beef Brisket Pastrami

The recipe and procedure are simple and straightforward, though you should be advised the process does take the better part of a week. Many recipes out there call for curing or brining the meat for up to 3 weeks; I did not find that much time to be necessary. The brisket I bought from my local farmer Edwin Shank, from whom I buy raw milk, was only 1½ pounds. Smaller cuts of meat is normal for jersey cows, but this piece of meat looked beautiful otherwise. The fat had a rich yellow color that comes from a better, more natural diet of grass and the flesh had a hearty red color, not too light and not too dark.

Boiling the aromatics, salt and sugar

The Brine:

¼ cup pickling salt

¼ cup sugar

3 bay leaves

1 cinnamon stick

6 gloves  garlic

8 juniper berries

1 tsp coriander seeds

½ tsp yellow mustard seeds

1 tsp whole black peppercorns

2 pieces star anise

1 quart water

Place all of the ingredients in a sauce pan, bring to a boil. Make sure that the salt and sugar are completely dissolved, allow to cool completely before adding to your meat. For more information about brines, click here.

Brine, Brisket and Spices Vacuum Sealed

The meat will require an amount of brine equal to 10% of its weight. Example: this brisket weighed 1½ pounds which equals 24 ounces. 10% is 2.4 ounces of brine. I know that it does not look like much, but it is enough. More would produce an overly salty, over-cured piece of meat. This was a thin piece of meat…3 or 4 days would have been enough. I did brine mine for 5 days which was not too much, but I do think that a day less would have been better. This part is where artistry and intuition come into play so go by your gut and let the results dictate changes for next time. Meat that is much thicker or well covered with fat will take more time than leaner, thinner cuts of meat. I placed my brine and brisket into a food saver bag and vacuum sealed them in. This also tends to shorten the time required to cure a piece of meat and has the added benefit of guaranteeing that no part of the meat will be exposed to air. The meat was then left in the refrigerator for 5 days until I felt that it had been long enough. The brine took on a reddish pink tinge and the meat looked cured. On to the rub…

The Rub:

The Spice Rubbed Pickled Grass-Fed Brisket

¼ cup black pepper, butchers grind

¼ cup coriander seeds, ground

¼ cup sugar

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 Tbsp paprika

1 Tbsp sea salt

Mix well and store in the refrigerator if holding for more than a day.

When the meat is done in the brine, rub all sides liberally with the “rub” and vacuum seal again overnight in the refrigerator. (I am not sure that the meat needs to be sealed and stored overnight this way, but it was good. Next time I will try it without this step.)


Smoking the Grass-Fed Brisket

Remove the meat from the plastic, blot dry and smoke for 4-6 hours in a slow smoker. I did mine for 5 hours total. 3 hours under nice, gentle smoke and then 2 more hours wrapped in aluminum foil to gently steam in its own juices. I used hickory wood for the smoke, but have often used a mixture of pecan, apple, alder, cherry and hickory…that part is up to you and your artistic expression.

The Pastrami is Finished

You can see that the meat is well cured having soaked in all of those aromatics, salt and sugar. The crust was just spicy enough without being clawing. The meat was still moist and all but a few pieces were tender. This was truly a great way to prepare a good piece of grass-fed beef brisket. I know that I will be doing it again soon, I hope you do too. Enjoy!

Time to Eat

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bethany October 5, 2011 at 10:59 am

That looks… incredible. Where do you get the juniper berries? We don’t have any junipers around here for me to forage. Anyway, my husband who loves loves loves corned beef and pastrami has been asking for a homemade one. I’m glad he has such faith in my abilities! Been looking around and yours just looks so good I am definitely trying this recipe out. Maybe one of my neighbors has a juniper bush…
.-= Bethany´s last blog ..Foodsaver Reviews – The Foodsaver Vacuum Sealer V2840 =-.


2 Jeff Berkowitz October 5, 2011 at 2:46 pm

I have been using dry juniper berries from the supermarket and I have also gotten them from a local produce company that I use for wholesale stuff.


3 Jean | Delightful Repast May 3, 2011 at 11:12 pm

Jeff, this is the best thing I’ve read all week! I make homemade everything, and it’s never occurred to me to make homemade pastrami! And I love that you used grass-fed brisket. I recently wrote about some wonderful organic grass-fed beef from Wyoming. I’ll have to order some brisket and make this.


4 OMG! Yummy May 3, 2011 at 6:31 pm

Hi! saw your sliced pastrami photo on weekendeats yesterday and also Rene’s tweet. It looks, dare i say, as good as Katz’s??!!! I just wrote a post about our recent eating adventures in NYC which included a wonderful visit to Katz’s. My mom, who lived on the Lower East Side, adores that deli and will eat her NY deli only there. Congrats on taking the time to create this fabulous pastrami. Which I could take a bite right now!


5 Franklin from DineDelish May 3, 2011 at 6:28 pm

Wow that looks good! Katz is the first place I will go when I visit NYC. For the mean time, LA has Langer’s so I am lucky :)


6 Jenni May 1, 2011 at 1:46 pm

Just beautiful! I’m off to give a portion of the meat to Miguel from Rare Earth Farms in Zebulon, NC–where I got my brisket. I’ll be posting probably by early evening.

I hope we’ll be able to work something out for the farm tour down here in September–that would be so much fun!

Signed, your partner in Brisket-Palooza, Jenni :)


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