What’s the difference between pastrami and beef brisket? How do you tell them apart, and which one is the better choice? This guide will tell you everything you always wanted to know about pastrami and brisket, so you’ll know which one you should shop for.
Pastrami vs Brisket
Pastrami is a smoked and fully cooked deli meat that’s been seasoned with a blend of spices. Brisket is a primal cut of beef that can be used to make pastrami, although some chefs opt to use the round or the plate instead. While both have their strong points, brisket is the more versatile choice.
Brisket is one of the eight primal cuts of beef, meaning it’s one of the first major cuts to be separated from the carcass. Once the primal cuts have been obtained, butchers will often divide them into subprimal cuts and portions, but the brisket can also be sold whole.
A whole beef brisket is huge–usually between 12 and 16 pounds. It can also be split into two subprimals: the point and the flat. The point is vaguely triangular and contains a lot of intramuscular fat, while the flat has a rectangular shape and a distinct fat cap on one side.
Since the flat has a more uniform shape and less fat running through it, the meat is usually carved into slices. The point meat, on the other hand, is better for dishes that call for shredded beef.
Brisket comes from the underside of the steer, and the muscles support a lot of the animal’s weight. As a result, the meat can be tough and chewy if it’s not cooked right.
Pastrami is a deli meat that’s traditionally made from beef. The flat cut of the brisket is a popular choice for making pastrami. However, it can also be made from the round or the plate cut.
To make pastrami, chefs brine the meat in a mixture of salt, sugar, garlic, and various other spices. The beef is then dry-cured and smoked before undergoing the final cooking process, which is usually boiling or steaming.
You might also have seen cuts labeled as turkey pastrami. As you likely guessed, this is turkey breast that’s been cured and smoked using a similar method. Turkey pastrami contains less saturated fat than beef pastrami, so it’s considered a good alternative for health-conscious consumers.
Pastrami vs Brisket: Breaking it Down
Now that you know more about both brisket and pastrami, let’s take a closer look at their similarities and differences.
You should be able to tell beef brisket and pastrami apart just by looking at them. Brisket is a raw product, so the meat will be deep red–almost purple in some cases. Even after the brisket is cooked, it resembles most other cuts of well-cooked beef in terms of color.
Since pastrami has been smoked beforehand, it has a pinkish hue when you cut into the meat. The exterior may also retain traces of the spices that were applied before smoking, though this usually isn’t the case if the pastrami was boiled before it was packaged.
Typical brisket prices run from about $2 to $5 per pound, depending on the grade of beef. They’ll be noticeably higher if you’re buying brisket that’s already been prepared, especially if it’s in a restaurant.
Pastrami is a lot more expensive. At the time of this writing, purveyors such as Boar’s Head were charging around $13 per pound, though the prices may fluctuate depending on supply and demand. That’s why you can expect to pay top dollar for a pastrami sandwich when you visit the local deli.
The reason for the price discrepancy is simple: A great deal of time and effort goes into making the pastrami before it can be packaged for sale. The cost of supplies also has to be taken into account. Any prepared food is going to cost more than the raw product.
Which tastes better: pastrami or brisket? That’s a matter of personal opinion. Which one you choose depends mainly on what kind of meal you have in mind.
Pastrami has a smoky, peppery flavor, usually accented by whatever spices were used in the brining process. Coriander is a popular choice, so there may be an underlying citrus-like tang in the flavor as well.
Since brisket is such a fatty cut of meat, it has a rich, beefy taste. When the meat is prepared on a smoker, it will also carry the flavor of whatever wood was used in the process. Hickory and oak are both excellent choices. Mesquite is another solid option, but it can impart a bitter flavor if it’s used in large quantities.
Nutritionally speaking, brisket is just about always a better choice than pastrami. That’s because pastrami has higher levels of sodium, sugar, and saturated fat. The two share roughly the same mineral levels, but even in this category, pastrami is equal to brisket rather than superior.
As we’ve established, pastrami is already prepared when you buy it. You can heat it up if you’d like, but the meat is equally delicious when it’s served cold. No further preparation is necessary.
If you buy a raw brisket, meanwhile, you’re in for a long cooking process. The meat should cook for 1.5 to 2 hours per pound at 225 degrees Fahrenheit in order to break down the connective tissue and tenderize the meat. You can save time by buying the point or the flat separately, but it will still be quite the project.
Can you use your brisket flat to make your own pastrami at home? Certainly, but that will take even longer than it would to prepare the brisket using the aforementioned technique. If you’re looking to save time, buying prepared pastrami is the way to go.
The best way to enjoy a good slice of pastrami is to tuck it into a sandwich. Rye bread and mustard are classic accompaniments, and allow the flavor of the pastrami to shine.
Some chefs like to use pastrami in their version of a Reuben sandwich, which is traditionally made with corned beef (see separate section below). To make a pastrami Reuben, slather two slices of rye bread with Russian dressing, then add the pastrami, sliced Swiss cheese, and sauerkraut. Serve grilled.
Brisket, as you might imagine, is more versatile. While you can certainly use the meat to make an excellent barbecued beef sandwich, it’s also a great option for a main course.
You can use leftover brisket in virtually any recipe that calls for cooked beef. Chop the meat into cubes and use it to make stew or chili, or make your own breakfast hash. Use the slices from the flat end to make fajitas, or tuck the shredded point meat into a casserole or pot pie.
Are Corned Beef and Pastrami The Same Thing?
Brisket might be a popular choice for both corned beef and pastrami, but these two deli favorites aren’t interchangeable.
Both preparation techniques involve curing the beef in a brine solution. However, corned beef goes straight from the brine to the boiling pot. Pastrami, meanwhile, is always smoked beforehand. That’s the primary difference between the two.
The Bottom Line
Most pastrami is made from brisket, but not all brisket is pastrami. That’s the main thing to remember when you’re deciding which one to buy. Even if you opt to purchase cooked brisket, the meat will have a different taste and texture than pastrami would.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!