We've peeked behind the scenes at many a celebrated foodstuff over the years, but none have quite the gravitas of what may be New York's most iconic dish: the pastrami sandwich at 125-year-old Katz's Deli.
Katz's is nothing less than a keeper of the Jewish culinary flame, thanks in no small part to their homemade pastrami, which transforms tough, stringy beef belly into one of the most delicious sandwiches on earth. Ever wonder just how they do it? So have we, which is why we set out to find out.
Meet Jake Dell, the third generation owner of Katz's, who's about to walk us through the process in eight [not so] easy steps.
Step One: The Beef
Like other cured meat, pastrami began as a way for poor folk (in this case Jewish immigrants) to preserve and improve the flavor and texture of cheap cuts of meat. While plenty of pastrami is made with any cut of beef brisket, aficionados will tell you that the real deal comes specifically from the navel end. Navel is particularly fatty and stands up well to the long cooking to come; save the rest of the brisket for corned beef.
Step Two: The Cure
Curing the meat with salt keeps spoilage at bay, but these days its main advantage is the flavor and texture effect it has on the meat. Salted meat is denser and slices cleaner than unsalted meat, and the pink curing salt Katz's uses brings a familiar cured twang to the beef. The salt, which is enriched with sodium nitrite, also keeps the meat rosy pink as it cooks; with plain salt your pastrami would turn grey.
Katz's corned beef (which doesn't get smoked) is cured for a full four weeks, but the pastrami cures for less time—two to four weeks depending on the batch.
Step Three: The Rub
Before the pastrami's smoked it gets a spice rub. The full blend is a company secret, but onion, garlic, pepper, and coriander all make their way in. This rub helps form the black crusty bark on the meat once it's smoked.
Step Four: The Smoke
Of all the delis in New York that make their own pastrami from scratch, almost none smoke their own meat. The reason? Space: the smoker for Katz's pastrami is the size of a studio apartment. So once they apply the spice rub, the Katz's team sends their pastrami to a subcontractor facility that handles thousands of pounds of meat at once.
Smoke brings smoky flavor (no surprise there) but also starts to cook the meat. It takes two to three days of low-temperature smoking to finish the job—are you getting the idea yet that this is a labor of love?
With such a long smoking time, the wood used for fuel has a subtle impact on the pastrami's flavor. Katz's has a secret blend of wood chips that falls strictly into they-could-tell-you-but-then-they'd-have-to-kill-you territory.
Step Five: The Boil
Now that the meat's been cured, rubbed, and smoked, it's time return home....to jump into a vat of boiling water. This step is just about cooking the meat until it's done. While you can use a thermometer to track your progress (and Katz's does), a real pastrami whisperer from Katz's can tell you when the meat is done by touch alone. What do they look for? Meat that's cooked but still soft and jiggly.
A Katz's employee careens through the deli with a battered old shopping cart filled with freshly boiled brisket. "Lady with a baby coming through!," someone shouts.
That shopping cart has been in service for years, patched up with twine as needed, and it's as good a symbol for Katz's as any: getting the job done the right away, and the same way, for years. As for the "baby" part, Dell says it nicely: "the pastrami is our baby and we treat it that way."
Step Six: The Steam
The "baby" is unloaded from the cart into large steamers behind the deli counter. At this point the meat is fully cooked and seasoned—steaming simply adds tenderness, loosening up the meat so it slices cleanly and melts in your mouth. After 15 to 30 minutes the meat is (finally) ready to slice.
Step Seven: The Slice
You'd think the hard part was over, but slicing and and assembling a pastrami sandwich is an art in itself. Dell tells us that "every busboy here aspires to be a cutter." Skilled cutters know how to remove the pastrami's inedible membrane of silver skin and slice the meat thinly against the grain—all with as few knifestrokes as possible (for clean slices) and at a blink-and-you'll-miss-it speed.
Step Eight: The Sandwich
And then there's the assembly. A well-made pastrami sandwich has a balance of fat and lean, is piled high but not too bulgy, and is layered so the meat bites away cleanly. Rocket science? No, but it's one more way that care and know-how makes a difference in this sandwich to end all sandwiches.
Make Your Own
Can't make it out to Katz's for a taste? Try our very own recipe right this way »
This post may contain links to Amazon or other partners; your purchases via these links can benefit Serious Eats. Read more about our affiliate linking policy.