What's the Difference Between Pastrami and Corned Beef?
Here in Chicago on the near South Side there is a steam table delicatessen called Manny's. I’ve been going there all my life. My dad used to take me for lunch with my great-grandfather and his brothers, and I would watch them work the room, seeming to know everyone. The matzo balls were the size of my head and the sandwiches towered and were served with a fried potato pancake. I would leave with my belly full of soup and cured meat, and my pocket full of quarters, little gifts from my Papa, the uncles and their pals.
To this day, when I really want great deli, I head South to Manny’s. I grab a soup and head straight to Gino who has been making my sandwiches for me since I was a kid, and then the debate begins: Do I want corned beef or pastrami?
While the two meats often look similar, and many people think they are interchangeable, they are actually very different beasts that start from the same place. Both are made with beef brisket, but corned beef is from the back end of the brisket, and pastrami is from the end closer to the navel, which is a bit fattier.
Both are cured in a pretty similar brine that includes pickling spices and saltpeter, which is the curing salt that makes them both that particular shade of pink. Then things go their separate ways. Corned beef is cooked by boiling, and the only spices are the ones that were in the curing marinade. Pastrami is rubbed after curing with a spice blend that can vary from deli to deli, but is almost always heavy on both ground black pepper and crushed coriander seeds. Then pastrami is then smoked to cook it.
Both meats then merge up again, steamed to reheat, sliced and piled on your sandwich. I love them both, but for different reasons and at different times. For me, corned beef is simple comfort food. Its slightly bland saltiness, sliced thin on the deli slicer and piled high on rye bread is the best possible accompaniment to a bowl of chicken soup, and makes for the kind of lunch that will keep you going until dinner. Gino knows I want a combination of lean and fatty.
Pastrami, on the other hand, is more soul food to me. I want it in cold weather, hand-sliced on the thicker side, piled less high, its unctuousness cut by the spice and smoke, still on a good rye bread. It likes sweet and sour cabbage soup more than it likes chicken. It is a Saturday or Sunday sandwich, rich and luxurious, and the perfect thing to eat before a lazy afternoon of reading or television and napping.
The one thing that has always puzzled me about the corned beef/pastrami connection had less to do with sandwiches and more to do with breakfast. Corned beef hash is a staple breakfast side all over the place. That mash of leftover meat and potatoes is one of my favorite breakfast items when done right, and frankly even sometimes when done sort of badly, as long as there are no green peppers in it, I can usually get behind a corned beef hash situation.
And yet, despite the fact that nearly every establishment that serves corned beef, providing the very leftovers that are the reason for the hash to exist, also serves pastrami, I find it shocking that no one seems to have thought to make pastrami hash. I would posit that pastrami hash makes even more sense than corned beef. It is from a fattier cut, so holds up to recooking without getting dried out. It is a smoked product, much like bacon or ham, both traditional breakfast meats. And it is already well spiced, which means it can naturally season the bland potato part of the hash beautifully.
Whether you are in the mood for the simple straightforward goodness of corned beef, or the punchier more complex indulgence of pastrami, I hope you have a place near you that feels like home, and a chef like Gino ready with the bread and pickles and potato pancakes to serve it up just the way you like it. And if you are a diner or deli, do us all a favor and get a pastrami hash on the breakfast menu. The world will be a more delicious place for your efforts.