Brisket vs Corned Beef vs Pastrami

Smoked Brisket Flat

Brisket vs Corned Beef vs Pastrami

When it comes to familiar deli meats, everyone has their favorite. Still, a few names always come up: brisket, corn beef and pastrami. These are the contenders for the most prominent deli meats, and they have fans globally. The question is, are they really all that different? Can you substitute them? Which one is best?

Here’s all you need about brisket, corned beef and pastrami. You’ll surely find in this meaty information an opportunity to get to know your meat a little better, making you a better buyer and cook. Before we even get started, let us say we don’t have a favorite deli meat — we love them all, and so should you! Still, not all meat is created equal. Here are the differences and similarities between brisket, corned beef and pastrami.

Smoked Brisket Flat

What is Brisket?

Beef brisket is a cut from the cow’s lower chest or breast under the chuck and above the frontal shank. The brisket is so large and significant it’s considered its own primal cut. The brisket muscles support the animal’s head movement, meaning they comprise significant connective tissue — the brisket is like a chuck roast as it is a very tough cut.

The word brisket might come from the Old Norse “brjósk,” which means cartilage, probably called that way for the large amounts of collagen in brisket. And yes, the cut is tough. This doesn’t mean you can’t cook the brisket until fork-tender; this only means that brisket benefits from slow cooking at low temperatures.

Brisket is the source of some of the most favored barbecued meats. It’s a staple in Texas, and it’s the source of the remarkable Kansas City burnt ends, but it’s consumed worldwide. Brisket is relatively inexpensive and large enough to feed a crowd.

After slow-cooked or smoked to tender perfection, brisket is also one of the most flavorful types of meat. Butchers often divide the brisket into two sections, the flat and point.  The flat is a leaner cut that makes most of the brisket and the point, which is smaller and fattier.

Interestingly, brisket is also used to make salt-cured meat, including corned beef and pastrami. Let’s explore these two deli meats and learn their differences and similarities.

Brisket on Cutting Board

What is Corned Beef?

Concisely, corned beef is salt-cured brisket, although other cuts, such as round, can also be used. The cut is cured with rock salt or “large corns” of salt. Other spices, including sugar, can also be used to preserve, aromatize, flavor and tenderize the meat. After the meat is cured, the cooks boil it until tender, and it’s the cooking process that makes it unique in the world of cured meats.

Salt has been a means to preserve meat since the Middle Ages, but we believe corned beef originates in Ireland. Corned beef is immensely attractive in Britain as well, and it eventually became a staple in Jewish delicatessen shops in the United States in the 19th century.

Corned beef is a comforting meal, but it’s luxurious and makes the meanest sandwiches, including the notorious Rueben. Today, corned beef has a place in people’s kitchens worldwide, from South America to Israel, from the Philippines to New Zealand. Still, most commonly, you’ll see people enjoying the tender meat on St. Patrick’s Day, when the meat is the main feature.

Corned beef is not alone. There are other ways of turning brisket into delightful sandwich fillings, and one of them is the pastrami.

What is Pastrami?

Pastrami is a salt-cured beef cut, usually made of brisket, although butchers can use other beef cuts and even lamb and turkey. What’s interesting about pastrami is that the meat is not boiled like corned beef but smoked. Of course, after being rubbed with salt, herbs and spices that tenderize the meat. Garlic, salt, pepper, cloves, coriander and mustard seeds are all common spices, giving pastrami its unique personality.

Like corned beef, pastrami provided a way to preserve meat before refrigeration, and although the technique is nothing new, and goes back for ages, the pastrami is attributed to Romania and Eastern Europe. The term pastramă means to keep food for a long time. Pastrami arrived in the US with Jewish immigrants, some native to Romania and neighboring countries.

Interestingly, the first pastrami sandwich might have originated in the late 1800s in New York, meaning the prominent sub has over 100 years of history! Interesting as well is that the first pastrami recipes might have called for goose breast instead of beef!

Unlike corned beef, the pastrami is not boiled after brine-cured but steamed and smoked. This gives pastrami a unique flavor, making it a completely different deli meat. Enjoying pastrami on rye bread is traditional, but there are many ways of making the most out of such rich and tender meat.

Differences and Similarities

  • Brisket is the source of both corned beef and pastrami.
  • Brisket is the term used for raw meat. It comes from the breast or lower chest area of a cow.
  • Corned beef is always made with brisket, but you can find pastrami made with turkey, lamb or other beef cuts.
  • Corned beef comes from the large “corns” of salt used to cure the meat. Pastrami gets its name from the Romanian pastramă, which means to preserve food.
  • Corned beef is brine-cured and boiled brisket. Pastrami is salt-cured, seasoned, smoked and rubbed with herbs, spices and aromatics.
  • Corned beef has Irish origins; pastrami has Romanian roots! Both arrived in the US with European immigrants, mostly of Jewish descent.
  • Butchers usually make corned beef with the brisket’s “point,” which is fattier. Pastrami is often made with the brisket’s “flat,” which is leaner.
  • We traditionally make the famous Ruben sandwich with corned beef. Technically, one must call the pastrami version a Rachel sandwich.
  • Corned beef contains more salt than pastrami, it has more fat and calories than pastrami, and pastrami contains more protein. Consuming corned beef and pastrami in moderation is advised.
  • Both corned beef and pastrami make excellent sandwiches, and they’re compatible with rye bread, sauerkraut, pickles, mustard and Swiss cheese.
  • Not all corned beef or pastrami are made with brisket, but most of the are.

Why Choose? Every Meat Has Its Uses.

There’s no doubt corned beef and pastrami have fans worldwide, and they’re both popular deli items. Corned beef is perhaps most famous than pastrami, especially for being the main ingredient in the popular Reuben sandwich. Still, pastrami offers a smokier alternative to sandwiches, and we’re thankful for it.

What about Brisket? Corned beef and pastrami wouldn’t exist without brisket. The tough cut is more than preserved deli meats — you can cook brisket in many ways — barbecue it, smoke, or slow-cook it, the sky’s the limit!

Corned beef and pastrami are only two expressions of the mighty brisket, a star in its own right. Sure, tough cuts have lost ground against more expensive steak cuts from the ribs and loin, but brisket will always have a place on our table.

The best part? Brisket is inexpensive and readily available. You can also find corned beef and pastrami in any local deli. And do you know what? You can make corned beef and pastrami at home as well, and it’s not as hard as it seems.

Make brisket and its derivate cured meats part of your meat repertoire; they’re great aces to have up your sleeve. Who’s up for a meaty sandwich? Or perhaps a smoky BBQ brisket?


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