God I suck at the interweb. To compound my general aversion to perform web related tasks, I am apparently emitting some sort of EM field that causes computing devices to keel over and die. Anyway, this week Citypaper ran my pastrami article, of course drastically edited down for space. Here’s a taste (nyuk):
If you live in Baltimore, you eventually resign yourself to the fact that certain food joneses just aren’t going to get resolved. That’s why it pays to have transplant friends, who you can wheedle into being grub mules when they visit home. So thanks, Reuben, for taking the train all the way to New York to get pastrami from Katz’s, and then not eating it on the train ride back here.
The pinnacle of pastrami artistry for me is Katz’s in New York. Theirs is really transcendent â€“ smoky, spicy, tender yet with a compact grain, well-lubricated with rendered fat and hewn by hand into thick slabs. But it’s $24/lb. not including the 8 hours travel time, and the grub mule (my term for friends that bring me food during their travels) system is unreliable. I once considered pastrami too holy, too mystical, too difficult for one as lowly (and lazy) as I to attempt. But emboldened by a string of smoked/cured meat successes last year (due in no small part to acquiring a massive Tiernan â€œSon of Brisketâ€ smoker), I decided to suck it up and give it a go.
Two factors needed to be addressed initially, the cut of beef and the curing process. I searched high and low for the so-called plate cuts, i.e. navel plate or pastrami cut, favored by hardcore enthusiasts for higher fat content. Wasserman’s kosher butcher on Reisterstown could get some special order, but the price I was quoted – $7.99/lb. – convinced me to stick with the more readily available brisket.
Butchers usually carry fresh brisket, with the dependable JA Regan in lexington market on the low price end with $3.79/lb and Whole Foods/Cierello’s/Eddie’s on the high end at 5.99. Yet again, Amish butcher guy was the best solution to my meat quandaries, with his grass-fed local brisket priced at $4.39. Be wary of prepackaged supermarket briskets, since they are almost always pre-brined with a nitrite solution, that typically accounts for a fifth of total weight.
As far as cuts, generally the “first cut” of flat brisket is what is most readily available. This is the typical flat, rectangular cut with a cap of fat on top. Preferable is a whole brisket, which is the flat with the cap or “deckel” attached. This piece of beef is very savory and has great texture – some feel it’s the best cut of the cow outright. Then there is the point cut brisket, which comes from further up (towards the head) of the cow, and generally includes both cap and flat, and is more irregularly shaped. Some pre-packaged briskets use this cut, which has more fat than a flat cut. I also believe grass-fed to be particularly tasty for brisket.
Anyways, here is the full, uncut, overly long pastrami project, with lots of pretty pictures of meat. Enjoy!
Two whole briskets from my trusty Amish butcher:
This is the meat cure available at Bass Pro Shops. It’s actually sodium nitrite, as opposed to nitrate, but really these produce the same result – a brief explanation:
The brine, with kosher salt added until a raw egg floats (about 12 cup for 1 gallon):
Flavoring agents, in this case bay leaves, pepper, coriander, garlic, and thyme:
This is the traditional wet cure, which was injected once a day:
This is the wet cure under vacuum, using a standard home model Foodsaver:
(Note that the vacuum must be in a rigid container, otherwise it’s not a vacuum at all, as far as atmospheric pressure)
Injecting the beef (nudge nudge wink wink):
This is a pre-packaged brisket – you can kinda see how the grain is ‘looser’, perhaps due to the inclusion of papaicin, a fruit-derivied enzyme that breaks down portein, as a tenderizer:
The label – as you can see, much cheaper than fresh brisket, but then about of a 1/4 of the weight is simply added water:
Curing beef array – must be a band’s name somewhere:
After curing, the briskets are purged in fresh water to remove excess salts:
Aromatic spice coating:
Dry cure on the left, wet on the right – big difference in color:
A rather homespun solution for weighing the meat down before cooking:
Into the maw of my Tiernan smoker:
(Note the strips of fat on top of the meat – this is a trick I started using on smoked brisket last year. Instead of leaving a thick cap of fat on the meat, I trim it and then use the fat to self – baste. Since the meat surface is exposed, it gets more smoke and browning, while still retaining the benefit of increased moisture from the rendering fat, which I reposition periodically.)
Hour 3, about the upper limit for smoke ‘absorption’ for beef:
A few river rocks for lift:
Meat in the steamer:
Here is the unsmoked brisket, sitting atop some crumpled foil:
The unsmoked after 3.5 hours:
The smoked after about 4 hours:
A sampling plate of 5 homemade, Katz’s, and Attman’s pastramied beef:
Some pastrami portraits, first the great Katz’s:
And my own Dry/Smoked: