Cheater Pastrami–How to Make Pastrami at Home

by R.B. Quinn and Min Merrell

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What we’ve all been waiting for…Cheater Pastrami!

Not bad for a pastrami sandwich in Nashville, TN. I’ll slice it thinner next time.


This may sound sappy, but it’s true that one of the most remarkable things about writing a book (and blogging about it) is connecting with people like Joel Moskowitz. Joel found us through our book Cheater BBQ because he’s the perfect cheater–a problem solver and open-minded barbecue lover who lives in a New York apartment with no means to grill or smoke meat the traditional way.  

And I mean he’s really a thinker and problem solver. Check out his website Tools for Working Wood. No wonder he likes smoke. Someday, I hope he gets the chance to put those wood scraps to use and smoke meat the old-fashioned way. If you need any information about Auriou rasps, bow saw designs, a guide to setting hoops on Japanese chisels, or have an interest in mortise and marking gauges, Joel Moskowitz is clearly your man.

He emailed us one day asking us why we didn’t do cheater pastrami? Great idea Joel. Over-simplified, pastrami is the dry rubbed and smoked version of corned beef, a perfect extension for Cheater BBQ. A few months later my interest was further piqued after reading Can the Jewish Deli Be Reformed in the New York Times about the new generation of DIY deli owners brining, smoking, and cooking their own meats. According to the story, “real” pastrami starts with a fatty cut of beef belly called the navel that’s brined for days, rubbed, smoked, steamed, and sliced. Seemed like cheating with already brined corned beef would be pretty easy. I sent a link to Joel thinking we’d get right back on the cheater pastrami project, and then it slipped by me.

But not Joel, he was determined to create cheater pastrami in his own kitchen as good as his New York gold standards–Katz’s Deli and his fond memories of Pastrami King. He did it! Completely putting the cheaters to shame, we immediately worked on our own version, too.

Here are our two recipes for Cheater Pastrami.

Both start with already brined corned beef, a peppery rub crust, and liquid smoke. The big difference between Joel’s and ours is that he’s in New York City and shops at Gramercy Meat Market (2nd Ave between 22nd and 23rd street). His butcher Antero “gets it [the corned beef] from a guy in New Jersey who pickles it old school. So it comes in a label-less plastic bag and you just tell Antero how big you want it.” The corned beef is usually special order so call ahead.

Joel’s corned beef doesn’t come with a seasoning packet so he offers an excellent peppery dry rub in his recipe below. He advises that whatever you do, be sure to be generous with the coriander. We’re in Nashville and we don’t have a cool butcher named Antero (rats!!!), so our choice is limited to industrial corned beef in the regular grocery store. It always comes with a little slimy packet of pickling spices. We made our frugal rub by crushing the seasoning packet seasonings and adding black pepper and garlic powder. We both used all-natural liquid smoke. He tried the slow cooker, we tried the oven. Both methods work great.

To rewarm and steam the cheater pastrami, Joel recommends placing the slices in a colander over a simmering pot of water for that authentic steam table moisture. Fantastic! Or, cheat even further and use the microwave which works pretty well, too. Let us know how you like it.

The corned beef rubbed and ready to transform into pastrami. Now sprinkle on the liquid smoke.

cheater pastrami

Cheater Pastrami after cooked and chilled. It’s really easy to slice when it’s cold. Then, warm up the slices. We agree with Joel and Katz’s, it’s easier to cut the top plate off and slice that separately. The bottom half is much leaner. That’s a piece showing the peppery crust on the left. 

cheater pastrami

Joel’s steamer method for that authentic steam table moisture. Put a colander over simmering water. Add sliced Cheater Pastrami and gently steam until nice and warm and the fat has softened. 

cheater pastrami

Pastrami lovers please also visit this pastrami blog. Now, you’re really hungry.

Here’s the real thing from Pastrami Queen with a smear of chopped liver.

cheater pastrami

the real thing…oh well, we’re doing the best we can.


[yumprint-recipe id=’166′]Here are Joel’s lab notes and recipe for his fabulous version of Cheater Pastrami.

Thanks Joel!

2010-12-18 Cheater Pastrami By Joel Moskowitz Problem: how to make pastrami at home, without a smoker. The pastrami has to be better than what I can buy in New York – otherwise why bother?

This recipe combines what I learned from Cheater BBQ by Mindy Merrell and R. B. Quinn, numerous web sources, primarily’s article by John Mitzewich – where I got the basic rub, and what I know about pastrami. I mostly used Mitzewich recipe – with modifications – but Merrell and Quinn’s methodology. Since I have not made multiple versions of this recipe I don’t know how various tweaks will effect the outcome.

1 – get a 3-4 pound corned beef. (If larger just mix more of the rub). The corned beef I used was from my local butcher and is first cut brisket, pickled by traditional methods – “Old School” he calls it I don’t exactly know what that means. Brisket is a far more luxurious cut that typically used for pastrami but you get great stuff. I don’t know how different methods of corning the beef or less expensive cuts effect the outcome.

2 – I trimmed the corned beef of gross amounts of fat. You still want a decent fat layer but I removed a goodly amount of the big chunks of fat between the layers of brisket. My goal here was not to remove it all but enough to avoid having the finished project swimming in fat.

3 – Rinse meat in cold water and then soak the meat in a large container (1.5 gallons or more) of cold water (in the refrigerator) overnight to get rid of excess salt. I thought it was too salty – so changing the water might be a good idea. Antero (my butcher – Gramercy Meat Market ) thought it needed more salt. Other tasters had no complaints one way or another.

4 – Drain the meat and pat dry.

5 – Mix the rub:

3 tablespoons coarse, freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

1/2 teaspoon hot paprika – might have been a mistake – I need to try it without

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes 2 tablespoons  coarse, freshly ground coriander seeds. ( I also threw in some whole coriander seeds because I remember that most good parstrami I have seen has whole seeds on it.)

1 teaspoon Garlic powder, I thought about using fresh garlic but powder mixes better in a rub.

1 teaspoon Coarse, freshly ground Mustard seeds (and some whole seeds)

Juniper berries are also sometimes added I didn’t have any.

6 – Cover meat with spices well rubbed in. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap refrigerate for 24 hours or more. I refrigerated for 24 hours.

7- Time to cook.  You’ll need: 1 Small onion 1/4 cup Liquid smoke Aluminum foil Roughly slice and scatter the onion on the bottom of a crock pot. The point of the onion is to just keep the corned beef off the bottom so liquid circulates. Put the corned beef in the crock pot on top of the onions and then pour the liquid smoke over the top of the corned beef. I use a really good brand that I can only find at fairway. Since I am out of it now I got a bottle of Wrights – I don’t know if the flavor will be effected when I use it and you will get a fake smoke taste. Hopefully not. Aluminum foil Cover the crock pot with the foil, crimping in over the sides to keep liquid from evaporating. Cover. Set crock pot on low for 8 hours. 8 hours might be too long – you get fall apart pastrami which is great but hard to slice. After cooking, remove the pastrami from the crock pot. Discard any juices in the pot. Scrap off most of the spice rub (tasters found it too spicy) and as much of the fat as you can. I just remove the easy to remove fat. I also separated the top plate which is easier to slice separately (this is what they do at Katz’s).  The reason I remove the fat is to make the pastrami leaner. This is also what they do at Katz’s, they don’t use a leaner cut of meat but just trim a regular piece. If you really trim up the pastrami too much it becomes extra lean and a little dry. I sliced it up. It fell apart as I sliced it and it was hard to get thin slices. That’s not really important because the meat is so tender. To reheat the pastrami I use either a microwave or set some in a strainer over some boiling water. The latter method really gives you the steam table experience.I am really pleased with the outcome. It’s not as good as Katz’s at it’s best but I think better than just about anything else you can buy in NYC. It’s also less work than most briskets or stews because there is no sauce and no browning.

Amen to that Joel!

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