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Brisket vs Pastrami: Sophie's Beefy Choice

Alex Ingram
 brisket vs pastrami

There is no shortage of meat cuts and ways to prepare them. Even side-by-side, it can be difficult to tell even brisket vs. pastrami apart. So, it comes as no surprise that most of us can’t keep up with what's new the meat aisle. Fortunately, finding information is much easier than it was a decade ago. Let’s demystify the pastrami so you don’t get your meats confused.

Brisket vs. Pastrami: What is Brisket?

Brisket is a meat cut located in the lower forefront of the cow right where the breast section of the cow is. Check out our definitive guide to beef cuts to better understand the brisket cut. The meat in this area is laden with pectoral and superficial muscles for body weight support. Consequently, the meat is tougher than many other portions of the cow.

top view of the flat portion of a raw brisket

For this reason, brisket cuts are best cooked slowly over low heat for a long time. Prolonged heat exposure tenderizes the meat without completely drying it out. As this is a large chunk of meat, butchers separate it into two popular portions to make them easy for you to prepare. You can prepare a brisket whole, but it can be very difficult. You must be sure to get this dense piece of meat to reach the required internal temperature. If you have the opportunity to buy just part of the brisket, you should know about the two different cuts. 

Flat Cut

This is a large, uniformly-shaped piece with a thin layer of fat left on one side. It has no shortage of connective tissue. Therefore, it's the optimal choice for you to cook in the oven or the slow cooker.

Deckle Point

This is a much larger piece. It comes with a thick layer of fat and is a smoker’s best pick.

Brisket vs. Pastrami: What is Pastrami?

Pastrami is one of the most popular deli meats to date! You gotta admit there’s nothing like the New York pastrami. When it comes to brisket vs. Pastrami, you'll find many differences. Pastrami is meat that has been brined, seasoned, smoked, and steamed.

A chef can make it with meat from the brisket cut, the round of the cow, or the navel area of the cow. Regardless of which cut is used to make pastrami, it doesn’t take away from the convenience of having a good cut of meat ready to be slapped onto a sandwich for a quick bite. See the complete guide to beef cuts here.

How is Pastrami Made?

Making pastrami is no walk in the park. It’s a long and tedious process and that explains why most home cooks prefer to grab it from the grocery store instead of breaking a sweat for it.

cooked pastrami sliced on top of a round wooden cutting board

Here is a walkthrough of how to make pastrami:

Brining

Brining is the process of submerging meat in a brining solution to infuse it with flavor while also curing the meat. This is one of the most important differences between brisket vs. pastrami. The pastrami brine solution usually includes water, kosher salt, pink salt, pickling spice, brown sugar, coriander seeds, garlic, and mustard seeds. The chef brings the solution to a boil and allows it to cool before adding the trimmed meat. Then, the meat must sit in the fridge for 10-12 days.

Seasoning

After the brining period is over, the chef pats the meat dry and seasons it with choice spices. Of course, the most popular spices are coriander, pepper, and smoked paprika.

Smoking

Next, the chef places the pastrami in a smoker and allows it to cook slowly. Home cooks may opt to cook it in the oven to avoid firing up the smoker.

Steaming

Steaming finishes off the process and adds some moisture to the meat. This final step further breaks down the connective tissue, making it tender. If you prepare it in the oven, you can achieve the same result by leaving a water bath in the oven as your meat cooks.

Preparing the brisket

While the brisket has its fair share of work, it gets nowhere close to the workload of the pastrami. When it comes to brisket vs. pastrami, you'll probably have a much easier and shorter time making brisket.

If your brisket comes untrimmed, be sure to trim your brisket before you begin. Making brisket simply requires you to season it with choice spices and throw it in the smoker for 10-12 hours. Most of the work from this point onward is to man the smoker, check the internal temperature, and ensure you don’t start a grease fire in the process. Once it’s ready, let the brisket rest before you cut into your meat.

8lb brisket on a large 18x24 cutting board

Be sure to use a good cutting board for this step. We always recommend a wooden one. For trimming or slicing brisket, you'll need to use the best brisket knives available. If you’re not looking to fire up your smoker, you can always opt for braising or slow-cooking the meat until it falls right off your fork.

Differences Between Brisket vs. Pastrami

Brisket vs. Pastrami Appearance

This is perhaps the most obvious difference, but here we go. The brisket is bought raw to be prepared at home. Moreover, it looks like your typical raw cut of meat. The pastrami, on the other hand, appears pinkish when cut. Plus, the exterior may have a little bit of the spices used to coat it.

Cost

For the luxury of having ready meat on hand, the pastrami costs significantly more than the brisket. If spending more time is within your budget, you can make pastrami at home. It’s surprisingly easy if you're alright with the the long brining time.

Serving Brisket vs. Pastrami

Despite how good it looks and tastes, the pastrami is limited to being just sandwich meat. It’s a good sandwich, but not versatile enough to get you through the day. On the other hand, you can use brisket for all sorts of things. Once you've prepared it, you can make sandwiches or prepare it as a main course with sides.

cross-section view of cut, cooked brisket

Final Thoughts

The brisket and pastrami are more often the same cut of meat prepared differently. The main difference is that pastrami often comes sandwich-ready, while brisket requires some work to get it ready. All in all, we hope we were able to clear the fog for you.

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