Pastrami vs. Corned Beef: What’s the Difference?

Pastrami and corned beef are both delicious cured meats, but the two are slightly different. When should you use each one? Read on to learn more about pastrami vs. corned beef.

When you think of pastrami or corned beef, you likely envision colossal Reuben sandwiches from your favorite deli, savory brunch dishes and heirloom family meals like corned beef and cabbage. But is there a difference between pastrami vs. corned beef?

Both are cured with salt and spices, though there are some subtle differences between pastrami and corned beef that make each one ideal for certain meals.

What Is Pastrami?

Traditional pastrami is made with the naval end of the beef brisket. This portion has a high fat content, which adds a ton of flavor and keeps the beef juicy and moist during its long cooking time.

Making pastrami is a lengthy process, but it’s worth the effort. First, a curing brine is made with salt, sugar, pink salt (a salt containing sodium nitrite to keep the meat pink as it cooks) and other spices. After three to five days (depending on the thickness), the meat is removed from the brine, rinsed well under cold water and patted dry. It’s best to let the cured meat rest, uncovered, in the refrigerator overnight to help the smoke adhere to the surface.

Finally, the pastrami is coated with coarsely ground black peppercorns and coriander before it’s smoked at 225°F. Then it’s transferred to a roasting pan with a rack, where water is added to the pan to create steam and the pan is wrapped tightly in foil. The pastrami will cook until it’s heated through and ready to serve.

This process isn’t something that most home cooks will tackle; fortunately, famous New York institutions like Katz’s Deli will ship pastrami anywhere in the United States.

Where Did Pastrami Come From?

It’s easy to think that pastrami comes from New York, where Jewish delis have been serving it up since the 1900s. However, pastrami’s roots extend far past America. Pastrami has two possible points of origin: It’s either Romanian (where its predecessor, pastrama, was made with pork or mutton) or Turkish (where it’d be a descendant of pastirma, made with beef).

The recipes migrated to New York, where immigrants started using beef brisket because it was an inexpensive and readily available cut.

How to Serve Pastrami

Pastrami is typically sliced thick and piled high on sandwiches, like those at Katz’s Deli. We also love using it in nontraditional recipes, like rolling it in puff pastry to make Reuben stromboli, folding it in tortillas for tacos or tossing it with potatoes for breakfast hash. Pastrami works well in most recipes that call for bacon because of its salty, smoky flavor.

Because pastrami is fattier than corned beef, we don’t recommend serving it cold. You really need heat to melt fat and add to the overall flavor!

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What Is Corned Beef?

corned beef sandwich LauriPatterson/Getty Images

Corned beef is made by curing brisket, usually the leaner flat cut. It has just enough fat to keep it moist while cooking, but the end result is a little drier than pastrami. To help break down the tough muscle proteins in the brisket, corned beef is brined with the same cure as pastrami (salt, sugar, pink salt and spices). Unlike pastrami, corned beef is boiled or steamed instead of smoked, which pulls out some of the salt from the brine.

It’s easy to make Homemade Corned Beef, which allows you to control the ingredients as well as the sodium content. That said, you’ll find premade corned beef at almost every grocery store around St. Patrick’s Day. If you’re planning to boil it yourself, make sure you don’t accidentally purchase ready-to-eat corned beef, which is cured, cooked and sometimes sliced.

Where Did Corned Beef Come From?

Ireland was a major producer of salted meat going back to the Middle Ages, but it’s said that the English coined the term “corned beef” in the 1700s to describe the size of the salt crystals used to cure the meat (they were as big as corn kernels). It’s associated with St. Patrick’s Day, but not for the reason you’d think.

When Irish immigrants arrived in America, the salt pork and bacon they were accustomed to eating were expensive luxury items, so they adopted its nearest relative: corned beef. That’s why people eat corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day.

How to Serve Corned Beef

It’s most commonly enjoyed as corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day when it’s served with simmered carrots and potatoes. It’s also delightful when thinly sliced, topped with Thousand Island dressing and sauerkraut and sandwiched between slices of rye bread to make a Reuben sandwich. Because it’s made with a leaner cut of brisket, leftover corned beef is tasty whether it’s served cold or hot.

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Pastrami vs. Corned Beef

Both pastrami and corned beef are made with beef, although pastrami uses the fattier end side of brisket while corned beef is made from the leaner flat cut. Pastrami is smoked while corned beef is typically steamed or boiled. They have a similar flavor profile, but pastrami is a little richer with a smoke-forward flavor while corned beef is leaner and drier (but not in a bad way). You can use them interchangeably in most recipes—however, we prefer pastrami when it’s served warm.

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Lindsay D. Mattison
After years of working in professional kitchens, Lindsay traded her knives in for the pen. While she spends most of her time writing these days, she still exercises her culinary muscles on the regular, taking any opportunity to turn local, seasonal ingredients into beautiful meals for her family.