Pastrami vs Corned Beef

Understanding the differences between pastrami and corned beef can enhance your culinary experience, whether you’re ordering at a deli or cooking at home. Both meats have their roots in traditional preservation methods, where brining was essential for extending the shelf life of meat. Pastrami and corned beef are often mentioned in the same breath due to their brined beginnings, yet they diverge in preparation and flavor profile.

While you may find both pastrami and corned beef nestled between slices of rye or starring in culturally significant meals, it is the subtleties of their making that set them apart. Corned beef, associated with Irish-American cuisine, particularly St. Patrick’s Day, is typically made from the brisket cut and brings a salt-cured savoriness that is often complemented by a hint of spice. Its taste profile can be attributed to the brine solution in which it cures, which usually includes a mix of salts, sugar, and pickling spices.

Conversely, pastrami, with its roots in Eastern European Jewish cuisine, also starts with a similar brining process but takes a detour with an additional step of coating the meat in a robust blend of spices, like coriander and black pepper, before being smoked. This results in a distinctively rich, smoky, and spicy flavor that easily distinguishes it from the more mellow corned beef. Fit for a hot sandwich or a hearty meal, pastrami provides a taste that is both complex and unmistakably bold.

Origins and Historical Significance

Understanding the roots and historical journey of pastrami and corned beef highlights their cultural significance and how they’ve become staples in delis across America.

Pastrami Origins

Pastrami has origins as diverse as the Ottoman Empire and Romania. The Ottoman Turks are credited with the creation of pastirma, a preparation of dried meat that is the ancestor of modern pastrami. Romanian Jews brought their own version of pastrami, or pastrama, typically made from pork or mutton, to America. In the bustling cities of America, such as New York, immigrants adapted the recipe using beef brisket, which was more affordable and readily available.

Corned Beef Origins

As for corned beef, the name is derived from the ‘corns’ of salt historically used to cure and preserve the meat; “corn” referring to the large grains of salt used in the process. Contrary to popular belief, corned beef is not originally an Irish dish but rather has roots as a British culinary practice. However, it gained popularity among Irish immigrants in America who found that the Jewish brined beef was similar to the Irish bacon they were accustomed to. Over time, corned beef became synonymous with Irish-American culture, especially as a dish traditionally served on St. Patrick’s Day.

Meat and Cuts Used

What cut of meat is corned beef made from?

When you select deli meats like pastrami and corned beef, it’s essential to understand the specific cuts of meat involved. These cuts are distinct and contribute to the unique flavor and texture of each meat.

Pastrami Meat Cuts

For pastrami, the traditional cut of meat is the beef navel, which is a section from the cow’s belly. It’s a fatty, flavorful part that stands up well to the long smoking process that defines pastrami. Some modern recipes use the beef brisket or the deckle, which is the fattier part of the brisket, to create a different texture and a slightly varied flavor profile.

Corned Beef Meat Cuts

Corned beef is traditionally made from beef brisket, a cut taken from the lower chest of the cow. This cut is known for its strong muscle fibers and requires the brining process to tenderize and infuse flavor. Occasionally, other cuts such as the shoulder or ribs may be used, but these are less common and will alter the traditional taste and texture you expect from corned beef.

Ingredients and Flavorings

The distinct flavors of pastrami and corned beef are a result of their unique seasoning blends and curing processes. Understanding these ingredients and their roles will reveal why each meat has its characteristic taste.

Pastrami Seasoning

Pastrami is known for its bold, smoky flavor. After curing in a brine similar to corned beef, your pastrami undergoes a transformation with a robust spice rub. This rub typically includes a mix of black pepper, coriander, and garlic. These spices form a crust on the meat’s surface during smoking, contributing to pastrami’s intense flavor profile.

  • Spice Mix for Pastrami:
    • Black pepper: Provides a sharp, piquant taste.
    • Coriander: Adds a warm, citrusy undertone.
    • Garlic: Offers a strong, aromatic element.
    • Additional spices may include mustard seeds or brown sugar, amplifying the complexity of flavors.

Corned Beef Brine

Corned beef, on the other hand, is known for its tender texture and a balanced mix of saltiness with a touch of sourness. Your corned beef achieves its flavor primarily through the brine solution. This brine is a liquid mixture usually containing salt, sugar, bay leaves, and peppercorns, along with a specific type of curing salt that helps preserve the meat and keep it pink.

  • Components of Corned Beef Brine:
    • Salt and sugar: Foundation of the brine that cures the beef.
    • Garlic: Infuses the meat with a subtle, deep flavor.
    • Spices: Often include allspice, cloves, and coriander seeds.
    • Curing salt: Contains sodium nitrite, which ensures the meat’s appealing color and flavor.

Preparation and Cooking Methods

Pastrami vs. Corned Beef

The distinct flavors of pastrami and corned beef are a direct result of their unique preparation and cooking methods. You’ll find that pastrami involves a smoking process, whereas corned beef is typically brined and then boiled.

Preparing and Smoking Pastrami

To prepare pastrami, the meat—usually beef brisket—is first brined. The brine is a solution often made with water, salt, and a variety of seasonings, which can include garlic, coriander, black pepper, and more. After the meat has absorbed the flavors of the brine, it is then rubbed with additional seasonings, typically emphasizing coriander and black pepper for that signature pastrami crust.

The next step is smoking. Pastrami is smoked over hardwood, imparting a rich, complex flavor profile characterized by a subtle sweetness and deep smokiness. Once the meat achieves a dark, appealing crust, you might choose to steam the pastrami before serving to enhance its tenderness and moisture.

Corned Beef Brining and Boiling

Corned beef starts with a similar brining process. Your beef brisket will soak in a seasoned brine that usually combines salt, sugar, and a mix of spices like cloves, allspice, mustard seeds, and bay leaves. This brine not only flavors the beef but also helps to preserve it.

After brining, instead of being smoked, corned beef is traditionally boiled. You’ll simmer the meat in water for several hours until it’s deliciously fork-tender. Some variations might include additional vegetables or spices in the boiling water to infuse even more flavor into the meat. Boiling is a gentle cooking method that ensures the corned beef maintains its delicate texture while absorbing the seasoning’s nuances from the brine.

Taste and Texture Profiles

This is the difference between pastrami and corned beef! #bbq #pastrami #cornedbeef #smokedbrisket

Your experience with deli meats is largely defined by their taste and texture. Understanding these characteristics is key to appreciating the nuances of pastrami and corned beef.

Pastrami Taste and Texture

Pastrami’s flavor is robust, characterized by a harmonious blend of spices like black pepper, coriander, and garlic, which form a crust on the meat’s surface. This seasoned exterior gives way to a smoky and rich taste due to the smoking process it undergoes. Texture-wise, pastrami is often fatty and meaty, offering a tender chew when sliced thinly. The fat content, particularly when pastrami is made from the point brisket or other marbled cuts of beef, provides a moist and succulent mouthfeel.

Corned Beef Flavor Profile

Corned beef presents a distinctive saltiness balanced with a subtle sour note, which comes from the brine solution used in its preparation. The brine typically includes salt, water, and a mix of pickling spices such as cloves, allspice, mustard seeds, and bay leaves. In terms of texture, corned beef is generally leaner than pastrami, particularly when it is cut from the flat brisket. The result is a less fatty, yet still tender texture that is slightly less moist compared to its smoked counterpart.

Culinary Uses and Popular Dishes

Pastrami and corned beef, while similar, are featured in distinct dishes that highlight their unique flavors and textures. Understanding their culinary applications will help you appreciate the subtleties of each.

Pastrami in Deli Sandwiches

You’ll often find pastrami served as the star in deli sandwiches. Pastrami on rye is a classic example, often accompanied by spicy brown mustard and occasionally pickles. The pastrami is typically cut into thin slices, stacked high, and complemented by the rye bread‘s distinctive flavor. Another beloved variety is the Reuben sandwich, where pastrami is paired with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing, all grilled between slices of rye bread.

Corned Beef in Cuisine

Corned beef, on the other hand, has a revered place in Irish-American culture, especially as a staple during St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. The quintessential corned beef and cabbage meal features slowly cooked corned beef, which becomes tender and flavorful, served alongside cabbage and other vegetables. In the realm of sandwiches, corned beef is a crucial ingredient in a Reuben. This sandwich mirrors the pastrami Reuben’s composition but with corned beef as the main ingredient, offering a milder taste profile in contrast to pastrami’s smokiness.

Health Considerations

When choosing between pastrami and corned beef as part of your diet, consider the sodium and fat content. Both can affect your nutritional goals and dietary restrictions.

Sodium Content and Dietary Impact


  • Sodium: Higher in sodium compared to corned beef. This is due to the additional salt and spices applied after brining.
  • Impact: High sodium intake can lead to increased blood pressure and a risk of heart disease. It’s important for you to consume pastrami in moderation, especially if you’re monitoring your sodium intake.

Corned Beef:

  • Sodium: Generally lower in sodium than pastrami, though still significant due to the curing process.
  • Impact: While the sodium content is less, it’s still important to watch your portion sizes to maintain a balanced diet.

Fat Content and Calorific Value


  • Fat Content: Pastrami typically contains more Vitamin B3 and B12 which suggests leaner cuts of meat.
  • Calories: Due to potentially leaner cuts, pastrami could offer a slightly lower calorific value, beneficial for calorie-controlled diets.

Corned Beef:

  • Fat Content: Contains more saturated fat which can contribute to higher cholesterol and calories.
  • Calories: Generally higher due to its fat content. If you’re aiming for a diet lower in saturated fats, limiting corned beef consumption might be advisable.

Frequently Asked Questions

Pastrami and corned beef are both popular deli meats with distinct flavors and preparation methods. These FAQs will clarify the differences and provide insights for your better understanding.

What distinguishes the taste of pastrami from corned beef?

Pastrami is known for its smoky flavor and the complexity of spices used in its coating, typically including coriander, garlic, black pepper, and other seasonings. In contrast, corned beef offers a subtle sour note paired with its inherent saltiness and lacks the smokiness of pastrami.

In terms of fat content, how do pastrami and corned beef compare?

The fat content in both pastrami and corned beef can vary, but traditionally, pastrami might be leaner as it comes from the navel end of the brisket, a slightly leaner cut. However, the amount of fat also depends on the specific cut and the way it is trimmed and prepared by the butcher.

Can you explain the difference between pastrami, corned beef, and brisket?

Brisket is a cut of beef from the breast section of the cow. Pastrami and corned beef are both made from brisket, but pastrami is typically made from the navel end, while corned beef is generally made from the flat cut. The cooking methods also differ, as pastrami is smoked while corned beef is boiled or slow-cooked.

What meat is traditionally used in making pastrami?

Pastrami is traditionally made from beef, particularly the navel end of the brisket. However, other meats such as turkey can also be used to make pastrami, though beef is the classic choice.

How does the preparation of pastrami differ from that of corned beef?

Pastrami preparation starts similarly to corned beef with a brining process; however, it then involves a rub with spices and is typically smoked. Corned beef, on the other hand, is also brined but is generally boiled or slow-cooked without the spice rub or smoking process.

What kind of meat is typically used in a Reuben sandwich?

A Reuben sandwich typically features corned beef. This deli meat provides the traditional taste profile that complements the other ingredients such as Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing on rye bread.

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Cassie brings decades of experience to the Kitchen Community. She is a noted chef and avid gardener. Her new book "Healthy Eating Through the Garden" will be released shortly. When not writing or speaking about food and gardens Cassie can be found puttering around farmer's markets and greenhouses looking for the next great idea.
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