By Bryan Gooding
It was more than two years ago when the Posse heard a rumor that Cattleack Barbecue in Far North Dallas was going to be serving smoked pastrami for its Saturday special.
I remember thinking “Wow! This is different!” Pitmaster Todd David would be cooking “outside the box.” Afterward I told Posse co-founder Gary Jacobson that Cattleack had thrown down the gauntlet with its smoked pastrami and that there would be a lot of pitmasters experimenting with recipes over the next year. The times were ripe for some new barbecue.
In the fall of 2015 Gary and I cooked at the Blues, Bandits and BBQ event in Oak Cliff, Texas. We always liked to present something different for the crowd and decided to try the pastrami recipe I had been working on. I was happy with what we served and it definitely impressed the tasters, especially once they learned about how long the process takes to produce a smoked pastrami. It is loooooow and sloooooow.
The smoked pastrami recipe
1 gallon cold water
½ cup salt
1 cup brown sugar
4 tsps Prague salt or pink curing salt
2 tsps cayenne pepper
2 Tbsp coriander seed
2 Tbsp mustard seed
2 Tbsp black peppercorns (whole)
6 cloves garlic (smashed)
2 tsp chipotle powder
1 cup brown sugar
½ cup kosher salt
½ cup black pepper (cracked or coarse ground)
2 Tbsp mustard seed
¼ cup stone ground mustard
I’m used to brining chicken and ribs but doing it to beef was new for me. In the deli culture, brining beef has been done for decades. I usually look for a six to seven pound brisket flat. You can use a whole brisket but remember you are then making eleven pounds of pastrami. So I keep things reasonable and just do the flat. If you are making sandwiches the flat will serve about 15 people.
Thoroughly clean the beef, trimming off any silverskin and leaving ¼-inch thickness of fat and set aside.
Mix the brine ingredients in a large plastic type tub with a lid that seals. Prague salt is available at some grocery stores and I found mine on Amazon.
Combine brine ingredients and add extra water if necessary so that meat is totally submerged. The brine is flexible to your taste, some reduce salt and boost sugar since the Prague salt also adds saltiness. Some boost the heat factor or reduce it.
Once you’ve added the meat to the brine, seal and refrigerate. We have a fridge in the garage. I leave it in there to brine for two weeks (good) or three weeks (mo’ better).
Once the meat is brined thoroughly rinse in cold water and pat dry. At this point, you can freeze the flat until you have an event you want to smoke it for.
When you are ready to cook, and with a thawed flat, rub the meat with stone ground mustard. This acts as an adhesive for the spice rub and the mustard is an excellent base for the flavor.
Next mix the components of your rub, again personalizing to your own taste. Go light on the salt since there was plenty in the brine. In my case I like a sweeter, peppery rub and I enhance the traditional deli taste of the pastrami by using mustard seed and some ground coriander in the rub. Rub both sides of your brisket.
When starting your smoker use a chimney with a little charcoal and a page of newspaper to light. Lighter fluid will flavor your meat so avoid.
Now comes another opportunity to personalize your pastrami in the choice of the wood you use to smoke. Because I live in the Pacific NW, I have to rely on apple or alder whereas in Dallas I loved pecan. Each wood has its own unique character and flavor profile so choose accordingly.
I lay the wood on the charcoal and get the wood burning to the point the charcoal is gone, then I add the flat to the cooking grate.
Add wood or adjust air flow as needed. Try to keep the temperature of the smoker at 200 degrees F. I use a probe thermometer centered in the thickest part of the flat and aim for a target of 185 degrees internal temp. The beef is brined so it is hard to cook it dry.
A general rule of thumb is a hour per pound but there are so many variables this is only a starting point. Some cooks wrap their meat at a certain point in butcher paper. Check out Marshall Cooper’s excellent article here on the Posse site for more info on that.
The key is low and slow.
When your flat reaches the magic number pull and wrap in foil. It is important for the meat to rest as it allows the moisture to move back into the flat and stay juicy. Many pitmasters simply wrap in foil and drop into an empty ice chest until needed, which could be 2 – 3 hours.
When serving, it is important to slice against the grain. In the case of sandwiches, slice thin. Tell your guests that you’ve been working on this pastrami for three weeks. They’ll think you worked even harder than you did on this great smoked pastrami recipe.