One of the things I’ve been really wanting to make ever since I read through Michael Ruhlman’s book Charcuterie has been pastrami. I feel like it’s my duty as a Jewish individual to attempt pastrami sometime in my life. Just to clarify – pastrami is the brisket cut of the cow (more on that in a second), which is cured in a brine (aka – “pickled”), then smoked, and then steamed.
The brisket, as you can see from this fancy picture, is just under the chuck, and on top of the leg. It’s technically around where your collarbones are (ie it’s the cows “pecs”). Let’s take a break for a second, and talk about meat/muscle.
Meat is muscle, and is made up of mainly water, protein, fat, and connective tissue. When you cook any type of meat, the chemical experiment that you are actually doing is applying heat to the proteins, which causes them to “denature” (which is science talk for – “unwinding the jumble of stuff”), and further heating then causes these proteins to set in a rigid structure which pretty much holds the water in (that’s why raw meat is squishy, and cooked meat isn’t as squishy). The heat also melts the fat which can lubricate the proteins. Meat is “done” starting at 125 (for rare) and is considered
burnt well done at 160. You know how when you bite into a burnt piece of protein it feels dry and chewy? Well that’s because all of the proteins are so rigidly attached that it squeezed out all of the water (for example – did you ever make scrambled eggs, and there’s water in the pan or on your plate? that means you over cooked it…same thing, because eggs are also a whole bunch of proteins).
When it comes to muscles, the more the muscle is used, the more flavorful the actual meat (ie the protein in it) will be, but the tougher it will be. That’s because the more the muscle is used, the more connective tissue it will develop. Connective tissue is great, because when it melts, it “gelatinizes,” i.e. – it turns into gelatin. (Well, really only the collagen that’s found in the connective tissue turns into gelatin, but I’m assuming that’s more than you bargained for). Now since a cow stands on all four legs for pretty much all of it’s life and is constantly bending it’s head down to eat, the farther from “hoof and horn” the more tender the meat will be, because those muscles are used less and therefore less connective tissue. And the closer to hoof and horn, the more connective tissue it will develop, and the tougher it will be. Now there’s a caveat – remember how at 160 the proteins are for all intents and purposes, dog food? Well, the connective tissue only starts to break down at about 154 and all the way up to 175ish, so you would have to over cook your meat, and then cook it some more in order to get that luscious, unctuous gelatin. Hey science, what gives??
Turns out, when we eat, what we taste is really how our brains perceive it. Lets say for example you eat a piece of meat that’s so over done, it most likely will taste like pencil shavings on its own, but if there was a way to coat each of those dried out muscle proteins with some, say, gelatin, well your brain will think it’s eating something super delicious, and really you’ll be none the wiser. Well that’s kind of what’s happening here. Even though technically speaking the meat is overcooked, the gelatin that was extracted from the connective tissue coats the dried out meat, and tricks your brain into thinking that it’s super moist and delicious.
Another thing to note is, when they say “at 154 degrees the collagen will convert into gelatin,” that doesn’t mean that the second the temperature reads 154 on the thermometer a switch goes off, and boom – gelatin. Like with any reaction, it takes time. How much time is hard to say, but the name of the game is gentle heat, so you can cook it for a long time, but not over cook it too much.
In a nut shell – the farther from “hoof to horn” the more likely you can cook your meat to 125 and enjoy masticating on some muscle, and not have to worry about it being “chewy” because of the connective tissue in it, however, the closer to hoof and horn (I think I officially reached the limit I can say the words hoof and horn in this article), the more likely you will need to slowly cook the meat to at least 154, and probably more, so you can gelatinize your meat, and stuff your face.
Obviously there’s more to talk about on the science of meat cookery, but that’s all the jibber jabber I got for now let’s get a cookin’.
It all starts with a piece of brisket, and one of the classical cuts for pastrami is from the navel section (which probably comes more from the plate or flank primal, but I ain’t no butcher).
Anyway, like I said the first stop for the delicious pastrami-to-be is a nice soak in some salty water, with some other spices. Because I like to take things to the next level, I decided to make my own pickling spice, which I got from the book, and as always, toasting your spices before using them, always brings more flavor to the party. So into the pan goes peppercors, mustard seed, and the coriander seeds, and toast them just until they’re fragrant (we don’t want them to burn), and when they’re done I lightly cracked them in a mortar and pestle. Add to that red pepper flakes, allspice, mace, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, cloves, and some ground ginger, and there you have it, your own pickling spice, for all your pickling needs. Now you only need 1 tablespoon of the pickling spice, and this makes a heck of a lot more than that, so for of you normalites out there, you can actually buy pickling spice, but like I said, I take it to the next level.
For phase 1, ie the brine, combine the 1 tablespoon of pickling spice, with salt, sugar, pink salt (more on that in a second), dark brown sugar, honey, garlic, and water, in a pot large enough to hold the meat, and bring the water to a simmer until the salt and suger are dissolved. Allow to cool completely, and place the meat in the brine with something on top of it, to make sure it stays submerged, and keep it in there for 3 days in the fridge.
About the pink salt. There are really two types of “salts” that are pink. One is “Himalayan pink salt” which is good ole’ NaCl (sodium chloride), which comes naturally pink, and has a distinct taste to it, but is still just NaCl. The pink salt we used today is a mixture of regular table salt (NaCl), and about 6% NaNO2, aka Sodium Nitrite, plus a pink dye, so you know that this here stuff isn’t just plain old regular table salt, and then proceed to eat too much of it, and die. Wait…you can eat too much of this stuff and die? Um, I’m not really sure, if that’s something I want to be eating…is something you might say, right? Well, that’s true, but guess what, eat too much of anything and you’ll die, so just be careful with this stuff, and don’t pour it on everything you eat (plus, you’re already eating it if you’ve ever eaten corned beef, pastrami, salami, etc…). As you can see, this NaNO2 goes by the name “Insta cure #1,” and you don’t need that much of it (only 8 teaspoons in this application) because a lot goes a long way.
The purpose of the pink salt is really three fold. One – as a preservative, two – for color, and three – to prevent the fats in the meat from going rancid. Back in the good old days, they didn’t have that luxury of putting meat in the fridge, so in order to preserve meat, they would add saltpeter (which is potassium nitrate), and they discovered that it would keep the meat longer. The way it did this was – the nitrite part would prevent the potentially deadly botulism spore from thriving in the oxygen-less environment of the brine. Since potassium nitrate has inconsistent results, nowadays we use sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate (NaNO3). In general sodium nitrIte, which is Insta-cure #1, is used for quicker preserved meats, and sodium nitrAte, aka Insta cure #2, is used for longer applications (such as making salami, and that sort of stuff).
Truth be told, since we do have refrigeration, to make pastrami or corned beef, this stuff isn’t really necessary, but then again, it wouldn’t be an authentic pastrami, but yeah, if you’re afraid of it (which you shouldn’t be), you can make it without it (but I wouldn’t).
Ok, so since, you’re probably at the point where you want to kill me for going to much in depth in chemistry talk, I’m going to leave it at here, and pick up the next time I decide to un-lazify myself, and post something…probably another 3 months or so. If you are interested in hearing more about any of this stuff, just go ahead and comment either here or on facebook, or you can just shoot me an email.