Pastrami vs. Corned Beef: What’s the Difference and Which Reigns Supreme?

These classic Jewish deli meats have important, though subtle, differences.

Many people use corned beef and pastrami almost interchangeably. After all, they come on a sandwich, they kind of look the same and you can find both at Jewish-style delis, right?

Historically, corned beef was made from brisket, and pastrami was made with a cut of meat called naval, which is also beef, but is not the same as the brisket cut. Today it is very common to find pastrami also made from brisket. And so while these two deli meats are made from the same cut of beef, the preparation for each is different.

Many believe corned beef to be an Irish dish, since corned beef and cabbage has become a staple for St. Patrick’s Day in America. But actually, the Irish community in America learned about corned beef from the Jews when they were neighboring immigrant communities in various New York City neighborhoods. The original Irish dish was bacon and cabbage, not corned beef and cabbage. But brisket was a cheaper alternative to bacon at the time and so it was replaced. Pastrami is a dish very clearly originating in Romania, also brought over by Jewish immigrants.

Both meats are brined, often for several days or up to a week. But afterwards corned beef is boiled or steamed, and pastrami is seasoned with a dry spice mix, smoked and then often steamed again before serving.

Aside from corned beef and pastrami there is also Montreal-style smoked meat, which differs from pastrami in that it is more akin to a Texas-style smoked brisket. It is dry cured with spices, sits for at least a week and then is cooked in a smoker.

So what does it mean if you see turkey pastrami or lox pastrami? This refers more to the spices used to flavor the meat or fish, which often includes coriander, black pepper, mustard seed, salt, sugar, garlic and fennel. You can make your own pastrami spice rub using this recipe from Tasting Table, and then put it on everything from chicken to veggies.

So, the most important question remains: Which meat reigns supreme? I have always favored the slight spice of pastrami, so pastrami definitely gets my vote. But when you all voted on Facebook this week, it seemed to be a bit of a split; in fact, many people shared that they love both. After all, it is common to find corned beef and pastrami on the same sandwich, so we are just going to have say this one is a tie.

If all this talk about corned beef and pastrami has gotten you hungry, try one of my favorite pastrami recipes:

Pastrami Puff Pastry Braid

Pastrami Tater Tots

Pastrami-Filled Pierogies

Reuben French Fries

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