What is Corned Beef vs Pastrami? A Detailed Comparison

Corned beef and pastrami – two classic deli meats that you’ve likely seen stacked high behind those glass cases. At first glance, they may look pretty similar. But when it comes to their origins, preparation, flavors and best uses, corned beef and pastrami have some distinct differences that set them apart.

In this article, we’ll explore exactly what corned beef and pastrami are, where they came from, how they’re made, and how to enjoy them in all their delicious glory. Whether you’re a deli aficionado or just looking to impress at your next St. Paddy’s day party, read on for a thorough corned beef vs. pastrami showdown.

A Brief History

First, a quick history lesson so we can understand the ancestry of these two deli darlings.

Corned beef originated in Irish communities in the 19th century. Irish immigrants to America brought their tradition of brine-curing beef with them. It became a staple dish to be eaten on St. Patrick’s Day, often served with cabbage.

Pastrami has less clear origins, with possible ancestries in Romania, Turkey or even Mongolia. Pastrama or pastirma were earlier versions made of pork or mutton, before the beef pastrami we know today was likely invented by Jewish immigrants in America in the late 19th century.

So while corned beef has Celtic roots and pastrami has Middle Eastern/Eastern European origins, both found their way into American cuisine and became icons of the Jewish deli tradition.

Cuts of Meat

One of the main differences between corned beef and pastrami is the cut of meat used.

  • Corned beef is made from the leaner flat cut brisket. This rectangular cut of brisket contains less fat and is easier to slice uniformly after cooking.

  • Pastrami can be made from several different cuts, most commonly the point cut brisket, deckle or navel.

    • Point cut brisket comes from the fattier end of the brisket with more marbling.
    • Deckle is a lean shoulder cut.
    • Navel is a small juicy section from under the ribs.

So while corned beef keeps it lean with flat brisket, pastrami embraces juicy fat from point brisket or belly sections.

The Curing Process

Both meats go through a dry curing process before cooking. This involves rubbing the meat with large grained rock salt, plus spices and other ingredients.

The brine for corned beef and pastrami contains similar ingredients:

  • Salt
  • Sugar
  • Spices (peppercorn, bay leaves, cloves, coriander, mustard seed)
  • Curing salts

Curing salts like Prague Powder or pink salt help preserve and color the meat, while also giving it that distinctive savory flavor.

The main difference is pastrami gets an extra layer of spices pressed onto the exterior after curing and before cooking. This spice rub or coating typically contains coarsely ground black pepper, coriander, garlic, mustard seeds and sometimes fennel.

Cooking Methods

Cooking turns these two cured and seasoned meats into the sandwich-ready slices we all know and love. But again, corned beef and pastrami take different paths:

  • Corned beef is boiled, braised or simmered in liquid until tender. This slow wet cooking method keeps it moist and evenly cooked through.

  • Pastrami is first cold smoked, where it absorbs smoky flavor for hours or days. Then it is steamed until heated through and tenderized. The two cooking stages accentuate the spices and intensify the pastrami’s texture.

Flavor and Texture

With different cuts, seasonings and cooking styles, pastrami and corned beef end up with distinct flavors and textures:

  • Corned beef has a firm, sliceable texture thanks to its lean nature. The flavor is briny, beefy and moderately salty from the basic salt and spice cure.

  • Pastrami turns out juicy and tender, with ample intramuscular fat. The flavor is intensely smoky, salty, spicy and garlicky from the heavy spice coating and low-slow smoking.

So corned beef is pleasantly chewy while pastrami is meltingly soft. Pastrami has a more aggressive seasoning and pronounced smokiness compared to corned beef’s straightforward salt-cured beefiness.

How to Use Them

Knowing what makes corned beef and pastrami unique helps determine how best to use them:

  • Corned beef is perfect in hearty boiled dinners with cabbage and potatoes. It’s the key ingredient in New England boiled dinner or Irish corned beef and cabbage. Sliced corned beef between rye bread makes an iconic Reuben sandwich. Leftover corned beef also shines in next-day corned beef hash.

  • Pastrami really excels piled high on a sandwich. It’s the quintessential filling for hot pastrami on rye, either from your favorite Jewish deli or homemade. You’ll also see pastrami in creative recipes like pastrami burger patties, eggs pastrami benedict or pastrami potato latkes.

Buying and Preparing at Home

When shopping for corned beef and pastrami, you can choose from:

  • Pre-made packaged deli meat – Vacuum sealed packaged corned beef or pastrami from the refrigerated section is fully cooked and ready to heat and eat. Boar’s Head and Kahn’s are popular nationwide brands.

  • Raw corned beef brisket – Look for flat cut brisket that’s been brined and cured but not yet cooked. You’ll have to simmer it for a couple hours at home.

  • Make your own – Start from scratch with a fresh brisket, curing salt and your own spice mix. It’s an advanced DIY project but lets you customize flavors.

For home preparation, corned beef just needs simmering while pastrami requires both smoking and steaming. Smoking can be done in a regular charcoal grill with wood chips. An hour of steam finishes pastrami after smoking.

Pre-cooked deli corned beef and pastrami offer convenience, but making them yourself lets you tweak spices to your taste. Either way, slice them thin against the grain before piling onto sandwiches or plating with sides.

Corned Beef vs Pastrami: Key Differences

To recap the main differences:

| Corned Beef | Pastrami |
| Origin | Ireland | Eastern Europe / Romania |
| Cut | Flat brisket | Point brisket, deckle, navel |
| Spice rub | No | Yes |
| Cooking | Simmered | Smoked, steamed |
| Texture | Firm, sliceable | Tender, juicy |
| Flavor | Briny, beefy | Smoky, spicy, garlicy |
| Best uses | Boiled dinner, Reuben sandwich | Hot pastrami sandwich, eggs pastrami benedict |

  • Corned beef cures in a brine, then simmers low and slow to tender perfection. Sliced corned beef is the star of Irish boiled dinners or Reuben sandwiches.

  • Pastrami gets double seasoning from a brine and bold spice rub, then slowly smoked for intense flavor. Steaming makes it fork-tender for your favorite hot pastrami on rye.

Now that you know exactly what sets corned beef and pastrami apart, you can devour them with even more deli-counter wisdom. Impress your friends with origins, mechanics and uses of two icons of cured meat cuisine.

Pastrami vs. Corned Beef


Which is better pastrami or corned beef?

Though pastrami and corned beef have the same nutritional elements, like protein and fat content, they have different quantities of salt. The sodium content in corned beef is higher compared to pastrami. Because of this, many people consider pastrami healthier and more flavorful than corned beef.

Is a Reuben sandwich made with corned beef or pastrami?

A Reuben sandwich is typically made with corned beef. It would taste great with pastrami too, it just wouldn’t be a classic Reuben! Bottom line: You can’t go wrong with either of these flavor-packed deli meats.

Does corned beef turn into pastrami?

Continue cooking the corned beef until it reaches an internal temperature of 200°F and is probe tender. Remove from the smoker and allow the corned beef to rest for at least an hour before slicing thinly to serve. You now have smoked pastrami made from corned beef!

What part of the cow is corned beef?

In North America, corned beef is brisket, taken from the lower chest of a cow or steer, that has been brined in salt and spices.

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