A Pastrami Shortcut for Everyday Grilling
By Christie Vanover, Pitmaster, GirlsCanGrill.com
Every year around March, we all seem to remember how much we love pastrami – the pink cured smoked brisket that has become synonymous with St. Patrick’s Day. But why do we limit this delicacy to one time of year? Probably because the process takes several days.
Well not anymore.
The art of making pastrami comes down to two steps – curing and smoking.
What if I told you that you could speed this technique up and use virtually any type of meat or veg? I did a little scientific experiment and found out you can.
What is curing?
Let’s start with the first step in pastrami making – the cure.
Curing is the art of preserving food (usually meat) with salt. It’s a practice that’s been around for thousands of years to store harvests through rough winters and to facilitate trade.
Over time, other additives, such as sugar, nitrites and nitrates were introduced to aid in the curing process.
The difference between nitrites and nitrates
I’m a griller, not a scientist, but I’ll do my best to explain the difference between nitrites and nitrates. Both are essentially a combination of nitrogen and oxygen. Nitrite is NO2 and nitrate is NO3. Both are found naturally in vegetables like spinach, beets and celery.
When you combine either with sodium, you create an ideal chemical environment for food preservation, because both help kill bacteria. Sodium nitrite is commonly called Prague powder #1 or pink salt #1, and sodium nitrate is called Prague powder #2 or pink salt #2.
What’s important to know is when to use which and how to use them.
Nitrites are used for meats that are cooked, such as corned beef and bacon.
Nitrates are used for meats that are not cooked, such as sausages and salamis that are air dried.
With nitrites (pink salt #1), you can either use a wet or dry brining process. Bacon is usually dry brined; whereas corned beef is usually cured in a wet brine. Which method you use is very important in your measurements, because too much nitrite can be toxic.
I have always followed Steven Raichlen’s guidance:
Dry brine: use 1 teaspoon pink salt #1 for every 5 pounds of meat
Wet brine: use 1 tablespoon pink salt #1 for every 1 gallon of water
The Importance of Smoking
In addition to the curing process, smoking plays a valuable role in food preservation. As meat smokes at a low temperature, the inside of the meat cooks through while the outside creates a bacteria barrier.
Smoked meat still needs to be refrigerated, but its chilled shelf life is prolonged compared to unsmoked meat, especially when combined with a sodium-based cure.
Let’s Get to the Pastrami Shortcut
First, I should explain that pastrami is its own thing. Beef cured in a wet brine that’s boiled or cooked in an oven is called corned beef. But when you cook it on a smoker, it becomes pastrami.
With that knowledge under your hat, I’m throwing around the term pastrami loosely here to mean food that is cured in a wet brine and then hit with some smoke.
Here’s where the shortcut comes in. Corned beef brisket is a huge, tough cut of meat. To get a solid cure on it, you need to brine it for 5-7 days. And then, there is no just throwing it over a fire. It’s got to cook or smoke for several hours after that.
But if you take smaller, more tender pieces of meat like flank steak or pork loin or even chicken wings, they only take 1-2 days to cure and can be cooked hot and fast on the Breeo® fire pit.
Do you see where I’m going here? I bet your wheels are spinning now.
Pastrami Wet Brine Recipe
Below is my basic pastrami wet brine recipe. It’s important that you keep the water-to-pink curing salt #1 proportions the same, but when it comes to spices and flavors, you’re welcome to mix things up.
You can play with different sugar profiles like honey, syrup or molasses. And you can add different spices like herbs, citrus, etc.
1 gallon water
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup pickling spice
1 Tbsp. pink curing salt #1
Heat the brine in a pot so everything dissolves, and then let it cool completely before adding raw meat or veg. The goal is to brine the food, not cook it.
How much brine do I need?
This question obviously depends on what you’re cooking. The above recipe makes about 10 cups of brine. Here is a general guide on how much you’ll need.
Flat iron or skirt steak – 4-6 cups
2 pork loins - 6 cups
12 wing parts – 4 cups
Cauliflower – 4 cups
Wait! Does that really say cauliflower?
Yes. Why yes it does. We can’t let our vegetarian friends go without pastrami, so I had to test this process on some cauliflower steaks, too.
How long is the curing process?
The best part about the cuts mentioned above is that they’re super quick, because they’re smaller and thinner.
I found the cauliflower and wings were ready in 12-24 hours. The steak and pork loins took 24-48 hours. You can go a little longer if you’d like, but the longer you go, the saltier the food will become.
Also, I found if I soaked the cauliflower too long, it started to break down and lose bite.
After the quick cure, I recommend placing the cuts in the fridge uncovered on a rack on a sheet pan for one more day.
This step isn’t totally necessary, but it helps the food form a pellicle, which is a thin natural crust. For chicken wings, it helps the skins crisp up nicely.
Let’s get grilling
All right. So much science. Not enough eating. Let’s get grilling.
We’re not smoking slow and low here like regular pastrami, and we don’t need to. You can grill all of these cuts just like you would if they weren’t brined.
Build a fire in your fire pit using hardwood like hickory. This will add to the legit pastrami flavor factor. If you prefer to use charcoal, that’s cool, too. Just toss on a couple wood chunks.
You can add more seasoning to the meat, if you’d like, but don’t add salt. It’s been in a salt bath. You don’t need it. Instead, I recommend a combo of black pepper, coriander, mustard, garlic, sugar and paprika.
Once your fire is at medium-high heat, toss on your meat or veg on the Outpost™ grill grate and get to cooking. The cauliflower pastrami is done when you like the char. The flank steak pastrami is done at 130F+. Pork should be cooked to 145F and chicken to 165F. I tend to cook my chicken longer than that, just to ensure those skins are crispy.
When you slice into the meat, you won’t get that bright pink pastrami color, because this was a quick brine, but the flavor of pastrami will absolutely be recognizable.
Pop open a beer – a green beer or Irish stout if you’re feeling lucky and celebrate, because now you can enjoy shortcut pastrami any time of year.