Have you ever been sitting at a deli and thought, “What is the difference between corned beef and pastrami?” Yeah, me too. When I was younger, I feel like I tried to get to the bottom of it. I was familiar with corned beef, but not with pastrami. When I’d ask, “What is pastrami?” I’d get some vague answer, like, “I don’t know, it’s really salty.” Okay, so that person didn’t know either. Let’s get to the bottom of this once and for all!
Both pastrami and corned beef (at least in America) are salt-cured meats that have their origins in lower-cost meat cuts. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Through salt-curing, folks who were worried about preservation had a solution. Additionally, through the salt-curing and slow-cooking, you could turn a tough, fatty piece of meat into something savory, tender, and delicious. Both pastrami and corned beef proved to be friends of the lower-income populations of America’s past. Remember, necessity is the mother of all invention!
For corned beef, the most popular cut to use is beef brisket (which is usually separated into flat and point cuts; read more about the finer points (and flats) of brisket here). Beef round can be used for a leaner, though less juicy, end product, if that’s what you’re into. For pastrami, there seems to be more varied meat options. You could stick with beef brisket, opt for beef round, or select beef navel. You could even use pork or turkey! For most pastrami sandwiches, though, you’ll likely get either brisket or navel. Unless you’re at Manny’s in Chicago. At this venerable establishment, you’ll get turkey pastrami.
When it comes to the other ingredients, both use a healthy (or maybe unhealthy) dose of salt and pickling spices. Where you see the biggest difference in ingredients, it’s the result of pastrami’s dry rub process which uses a combo of peppercorn, coriander, and paprika. Because corned beef doesn’t utilize a dry rub, those ingredients, and, therefore, flavors, are missing. More on the prep process below!
Both corned beef and pastrami undergo a salt-curing process known as brining. Not familiar with how brining works? Well, it’s similar to pickling, actually. You place the meat in a solution of cold water, salt (and other spices, like light brown sugar, mustard seed, and juniper berries), and let it sit. For a while. Like days. To finish off corned beef, you slow cook or braise it in something like a Dutch oven, allowing the fat and proteins in the meat to break down and create something more tender and juicy than the non-slow-cooked version of the meat would be.
As for pastrami, the process in the beginning stages is pretty similar. Like corned beef, it’s typically salt-cured via brining. But from there, things get a bit different. After undergoing the brining process, the meat used for pastrami, whether brisket, round, or navel, gets dry rubbed with a spice mixture, as mentioned above. Typically that dry rub is a combo of black pepper, coriander, and paprika. From there, it gets smoked. After it’s been smoked for several hours, it’s then steamed to create that perfect, fall-apart texture. As you can see, pastrami is a more involved process, but if you enjoy slow-smoked flavors, this is the option for you.
Corned beef is most commonly served in three ways. First, you have the sandwich. A traditional corned beef sandwich involves a generous pile of the salted meat atop rye bread. Served hot or cold. Mustard optional (though I suggest it). An alternative to the traditional sandwich is the Reuben, made with swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and thousand island dressing. Typically served on dark rye. No mustard necessary. Next, you’ll see corned beef served with cabbage and potatoes, especially around St. Patrick’s Day. Finally, you’ll see corned beef in a hash—sliced thin, or ground up, then mixed with potatoes, maybe some onions, and griddle fried.
As for pastrami, I know you could use it in multiple ways, but, most commonly, you’re going to see it on a sandwich at your favorite deli. The simple version comes with a giant stack of pastrami atop rye bread. Mustard optional. Want to get crazy? Try a Rachel. Never heard of it? Well, it’s just a Reuben (see above), but with pastrami instead of corned beef.
Next time you’re at your favorite deli, and someone in your party wonders aloud, “What’s the difference between corned beef and pastrami?” you’ll be able to tell them! And if you want to make your own corned beef, try this Corned Beef Brisket recipe. Prefer pastrami? Check out this Homemade Pastrami recipe.