OK, most of it, but consider yourself warned
slices of rye bread
Credit: Katrin Ray Shumakov via Getty Images

I don’t have many regrets in life, but a painful one way up there in the region between my seventh grade perm and the entirety of 2003 is opening my heart to the wonders of moist, fatty pastrami with schmear of Gulden’s brown mustard, sandwiched between two slices of rye bread. I grew up in New York City where this combo seems much more natural than ham and cheese, or any sort of creation containing olive loaf. Even now, when the number of great New York Jewish delis has diminished from well over a thousand to countable on on two hands, you can still grab a pretty decent one from your local luncheonette counter (provided the one in your neighborhood hasn’t been converted into a juice bar or dog spa).

When I packed up and moved away from my hometown 18 long months ago I was prepared to say goodbye to bagels and pizza, but with all the madness of packing and schlepping, I did not once consider my relationship with the pastrami sandwich. The Sisyphean effort required to find one worthy of my admiration is not because of inferior pastrami, because I’ve certainly settled for that at many a greasy spoon and found it’s nothing that a good helping of cole slaw can’t get you through. It’s not the mustard, because even though you expect a certain number of poor decisions the further you get from a dish’s epicenter, no one here is foolish enough to sully pastrami with electric yellow mustard. The problem is the “rye” bread.

Rye must be respected. And some people are not doing that.

There are companies out there peddling a sham of a bread, primarily made of white flour and containing just enough rye flour to be street legal. To add insult to injury, that rye flour isn’t even the good kind. As with most flours, the bran and germ are what give grains their distinctive flavor. Many cheap supermarket brands choose to use highly-refined bleached white rye flour, which has been strippped of all bran and germ making it as inoffensive as possible. They attempt to cover up their trickery by using “natural and artificial flavorings” and caramel color to give it that healthy-looking brown color.

I personally don’t give two craps about any sort of health benefits that come with the whole grains of rye flour, because I’m exclusively using it as a delivery system for beef fat and nitrates. This is about principle. No one needs, or did they ask for, crap-ass “imitation rye bread” to mess up their entire day. Why would Big Bread even bring such an abomination of a product into the world? What sort of monsters are they?

Sadly, I need to offer this piece of advice, the only possible solution in this crazy, messed-up world we live in: When you’re going out for a pastrami sandwich, you need to BYOB.

Here’s what you need to look in the bread aisle:

Shop persistently

The first step should be to find a bakery that makes fresh rye bread. Please know that’s not always possible depending on where in the country you live, but it’s worth a shot. If you live near a supermarket that has an in-house bakery, swing by and check out their rye situation. If you get lucky, ask them to slice it a bit on the thicker side.

Size and shape matter

Rye bread should never be a tidy little square like supermarket white, nor should it feel like it in the bag. Rye should always be in a rectangle or oval shape.

Check the ingredients

White flour will most always be the top ingredient in a deli rye, which is correct. Rye flour should be the second or third ingredient, right after water. If it says “bleached white rye flour,” put it back. You want light rye or higher. If you can find whole grain, even better because it makes a sturdy loaf that can withstand the punishment of ¾ lb of fatty meat.

Give it a squeeze

You can tell a legit rye from the crust, and if you’re getting little to no pushback, it’s not going to hold up under pressure. If it’s soft and squishy, walk away. You have better things to do.

If you own a deli, DO BETTER

Why go through all that work to make a killer pastrami just to let everyone down with shoddy bread? Is this the type of person you really want to be? Demand more from your bread supplier. Squeeze their bread in front of them while making eye contact and saying nothing. Let the “rye” do the talking. Then throw the bag of mushed up bread at them and walk away. Repeat until satisfactory improvements have been made.