Caution: Meat sweats ahead.
Take a visit to any proper American deli and there is one meat that almost always reigns supreme, pastrami. However, is it really all that different from corned beef? Similarly, how do these two compare to their Canadian counterpart, smoked meat? It’s time to clear this up once and for all. Here are the differences between corned beef, pastrami and Montreal smoked meat.
Originating in Ireland, corned beef made its way to the United States during the 1800s as an increasing number of Irish immigrants fled the potato famine. Corned beef is made from brisket, which comes from the lower chest of a cow. The meat is first brined in a liquid that traditionally includes salt, sugar, black pepper, cloves, bay leaves, dill and juniper berries. After the meat brines, it is then boiled and the finished corned beef relies heavily on the initial seasoning as the source of most of its flavor. Corned beef is most commonly served as part of a Reuben sandwich or with cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day.
Modern day pastrami is a descendent of both Romanian pastramă, which is made with pork or mutton, and Turkish pastırma, which is made with beef. Both of these products are cold smoked, cured meats that are rubbed with spices, including coriander, black pepper and paprika. Around the turn of the Twentieth Century, as millions of immigrants poured into the United States, these recipes arrived on American soil and mixed with other smoked meat traditions in cities across the eastern seaboard. Soon enough, kosher pastrami became one of New York City's most beloved local foods, a tradition that continues to this day.
Pastrami is made from beef navel, which comes from the larger cut known as the plate. Compared to the neighboring brisket, the navel is a denser and more fatty cut, while also being less stringy, all of which produces a more luxurious final product. Today pastrami is made from brisket as well, along with turkey and salmon, but navel is still the most traditional cut to use.
Pastrami undergoes a similar brining process to corned beef, but rather than then boiling it, pastrami is re-seasoned with a spice mixture that is similar to what is used in the brine and then smoked. Once it’s done smoking, pastrami is most often served in a sandwich on rye and with ample mustard to go around.
Montreal Smoked Meat
In many ways, Montreal smoked meat is a hybrid of corned beef and pastrami. Much like the two American (or, at least, adopted American) styles, smoked meat, which is made from brisket, is first brined before being smoked. One key difference, though, is the flavoring in the seasoning itself. While both pastrami and smoked meat utilize black pepper, coriander, garlic and mustard seed as key seasonings, smoked meat uses much less sugar during the curing process than pastrami does. But like pastrami, smoked meat is traditionally served in a sandwich on rye with plenty of mustard. To learn about the best place to try Montreal smoked meat, check out our guide to Quebec's largest city here.