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What is Pastrami?

By A. B. Kelsey
Updated May 16, 2024
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Pastrami is a deli meat made from a highly seasoned cut of smoked or steamed meat that's generally made from corned beef. There are a few variations on the process for making it, though almost all of them involve brining the meat, then boiling or steaming it. It's used throughout the world on sandwiches and pitas, notably in a Rachel sandwich, which is a variation of a corned-beef Reuben sandwich. It is one of the oldest types of preserved meat, and is thought to date back to the Ottoman Empire.

Nutritional Information

One slice of pastrami (28 g) contains about 40 calories, about 65% of which come from protein and about 35% of which come from fats. It has about 2g of fat in general about half of which is saturated, and about 19 mg of cholesterol, which is fairly high. Additionally, eating one slice can make up about 10% of a person's daily sodium intake on a 2000 calorie diet. Despite this, it's a good source of protein, vitamin B12, and zinc.

Methods of Preparation

The pickling or brine solution for making pastrami includes salt, pickling spices, and nitrates, which add flavor and create the red color that many cured meats are known for. The meat is first corned, which involves letting it sit in a brine solution for several days, which turns it into corned beef. After it's brined, the meat is boiled and then seasoned and encrusted with herbs and spices, such as black peppercorns, seasoned salt, garlic, basil, and allspice. Finally, the meat is smoked or steamed for hours to infuse it with flavor, tenderize it, and preserve it. Smoking gives it a dark crust and smoky flavor, while steaming creates a cleaner taste and fall-apart texture.

In some cases this variety of meat is not marinated in a brine solution, but is instead dry-cured in a salt paste for several weeks. The cure eventually soaks into the meat and creates the same type of color and flavor that a brine accomplishes, even though it takes longer. Meats were often dry-cured before refrigeration was widely available, as the process can take place in a variety of climates without the meat becoming spoiled.

This meat can be made at home, though it does take some diligence to ensure that it doesn't spoil. The brining process usually takes between 1 to 3 weeks, during which time the meat needs to be stored in a cool, dark place and turned regularly to prevent spoiling. After brining, cooks rinse the meat or soak it in water overnight to reduce some of the salt taste, then apply the herbs and spices to the outside. The meat is then placed in a smoker for about an hour per pound (0.45 kg), until it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F (about 73°C).


Although beef remains the most popular base for this meat, turkey-based versions are also available, as are pastramis made of duck, venison, tuna, goat, and salmon. There is even a vegetarian version, which is made with out of wheat flour and a variety of vegetables pressed into seitan, a substitute for meat. All forms are commonly served as a cold cut on a sandwich, but they can also be heated and served with a side dish such as coleslaw or potato salad.


Pastrami is used throughout the world in sandwiches, salads, and entrees. It is most commonly found in delis, sandwich shops, or in personal kitchens, where it is thinly sliced and layered with items such as mustard, pickles and sauerkraut, often on rye bread or a French-style roll. The Rachel sandwich is pastrami-based variation on the Reuben sandwich, which is made with corned beef. In the Middle East, this meat is layered in pita bread with spicy harissa and roasted peppers.


The method for making pastrami was used for preserving large amounts of meat to keep it from spoiling in a time before contemporary refrigeration methods. It's thought that the first versions of this meat date back to the Ottoman Empire, where Turkish people salted and dried beef and called it "basdirma," which later became "pastrami."

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Discussion Comments

By anon177405 — On May 18, 2011

Brisket is the usual cut used to make pastrami.

By anon70950 — On Mar 16, 2010

what cut of meats are usually used for pastrami?

By anon51222 — On Nov 04, 2009

Yes, in Sweden it is.

By malena — On Feb 02, 2008

Is pork ever used to make pastrami?

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