(Ed. - I started this project while GoBlueBBQ was on hiatus. Thank Lantana he's back, but I couldn't deprive you of this amazingness...)
The quintessential old man sandwich. When I was a kid I would see them on menus and wonder “WTF? You know there are OTHER things to eat, right? Other, less disgusting things???”
My dad would eat them and I would wretch. Then again he also ate creamed herring regularly, so maybe it was just his disgusting dog-like palette.
Then I grew up and learned the truth. Bold. Salty. Tangy. Complex. The exact recipe is open to interpretation, which only helps to increase its legend, but the Reuben’s Special is sandwich royalty.
THE REUBEN BASIC STRUCTURE
Bread – The foundation.
Gotta be rye. Don’t come at me with your sourdough. Baguette? GTFO. The more aromatic and bitter, the better.
Cheese – The mortar.
Swiss is the standard, but there’s nothing like experimentin’. Creamy cheeses like Havarti and Gouda are great on rye and even out the saltiness of the meat. Even a little cheddar never hurt anybody.
Sauerkraut – The wildcard.
Some are sharp and spicy. Some are sweet and tangy. (This is the one area we’re going to stray from tradition a bit, but stick with me; it’ll be worth it)
Meat – The Star of the Show.
Corned Beef is the original, but some smoky, peppery pastrami makes the real magic. (Yes, I know that some people call a pastrami reuben a "Rachel", but telling people that you had "a delicious Rachel for lunch" can get you in some trouble in 2018.)
Pastrami starts with Corned Beef. Corned Beef starts with Brisket.
For the uninitiated, brisket is a tough ass cut of beef; two overlapped muscles, the superficial and the deep pectorals of the cow. The deep pectoral is what they call the “flat”, which is the …uh, flatter piece of meat, and the superficial pectoral is what they call the “point”. The two muscles are covered by a heavy layer of fat called the cap, and separated by another layer of fat called the “deckle”, which is quite possibly the most magical piece of the majestic bovine. When cooked properly, the deckle renders into juicy heaven, and a slice of the intersection of the flat with the point, flowing with that juicy goodness is probably the best chunk o’ cattle you’ll ever find.
(Careful Honey, your deckle is showing)
But let’s stay on target. What were we doing? OH PASTRAMI, that’s right.
Pastrami is smoked corned beef. What is corned beef you ask? Pickled beef. Yup. We’re pickling this sucker.
Well, you might call it “curing”, but it’s basically the same thing. Seriously now; don’t get hung up on the picklemeat thing, it’s gonna be worth it.
STEP 1 – Buy the brisket.
Typically when I buy brisket for brisket, I ask for a full “packer”, which is the full flat and point, untrimmed. I usually don’t buy by weight; an average brisket from an average cow is going to weigh between 12-14 lbs. If you find one significantly smaller or larger, it’s an anomaly and it’s probably going to be weird, just saying. I try to find one without a huge amount of fat, with a flat as thick as possible, so it’ll hold up to heat on the smoker for hours and hours and hours. For pastrami though, you’re going to be trimming as much fat as possible, so you really only want the flat. So you can go to Costco and just get a flat if you don’t want to find a purpose for the point. (I’ve got plans for the point, which might show up in a later installment *wink-wink*)
STEP 2 – Trim
I need to warn you- prepare yourself mentally, emotionally and spiritually; your big bouncing baby you brought home from the store or the butcher is going to get a lot smaller.
Here's a tip: fat is weird. It’s really hard to cut. It’s slightly less hard to cut when it’s cold, so don’t pull your brisket out of the fridge until you’re ready to work on it. If you run into trouble, you can shove it in the freezer for a bit and get it to tighten back up if necessary.
Cut the flat from the point side- we’re looking for about a 4 lb lean piece of meat here. For a regular brisket, I leave about a ¼” layer of fat cap, but for pastrami, cut it all off. It can be hard to separate the fat without losing some of the meat, but what fat is left when we’re curing is going to turn into gross jelly, so it’s worth getting rid of all that you can.
STEP 3 – Cure
Once the flat is trimmed, give it a good rinse, and prepare a container for your wet cure. I used a 2 ½ gallon bucket. Just remember whatever you use is going to have to hold your meat and about 1 to 1 ½ gallons of brine, but it also has to fit in your refrigerator (and stay there for up to a week).
A lot of this recipe is up to interpretation, but this step is pretty important. To safely cure your meat, you’re going to want to follow the recipe closely. If you use a significantly larger or smaller piece of meat, don’t just guess; use this curing calculator from Amazingribs.com, found here:
My recipe for a 4 lb brisket:
1 gallon water
8 ounces kosher salt (a little less than a cup)
2 teaspoons Prague Powder #1
Prague Powder is not optional, but you can find it on Amazon for pretty cheap. You need the sodium nitrite to permeate the meat and standard salt isn’t going to cut it. Other commercially available brines are good for flavor, but aren’t going to sufficiently cure your meat.
While we’re brining, you can add your own concoction of spices; there really is no wrong way to do it at this point. I added a tablespoon or two of each of:
Whole peppercorns, dill seeds, cinnamon, mustard seeds, red pepper flakes, coriander, thyme, cloves, allspice, ginger, celery seeds, and a few bay leaves.
STEP 4 – Wait.
Depending on the size of your cut, you’re going to be waiting a few days. I let mine go for 4 days, stirring once or twice a day.
Now is a good time to cook off the other half of that brisket, or PICKLE ALL THE THINGS!!!!
SIDE ADVENTURE - PICKLED CABBAGE
This is where the Reuben purists are going to pitch a fit. I don’t much like sauerkraut from a can, and I can’t forcefeed it to my wife and kids, so I’m not going to go through the trouble of making my own. Quick pickled red cabbage is a daggum fine substitute.
Shred half of a head (about 3 cups) of red cabbage and set aside. In a medium sauce pan, add 1 cup of water, 1 cup white vinegar, 2 tbsp sugar, 1 tbsp salt, and 2-3 minced garlic cloves.
Bring the mix to a boil, then add the cabbage and remove from heat. Make sure all the cabbage is submerged in liquid, then set aside until it cools.
(Hot dang that's pretty)
I transfer the pot into a large Mason (NTM) jar and it will keep in the fridge for multiple weeks (it’s pickled!).
SIDE ADVENTURE – RUSSIAN DRESSING
Please, whatever you do, don’t sully your sandwich’s honor with Thousand Island. I know they kinda look the same, and you might even think it tastes good, but you are WRONG.
Russian dressing is a whole different animal and it’s AWESOME. If you want to skip this step, some sharp horseradish and a spicy-ass brown, or even plain yellow mustard is acceptable, but don’t come in here with your thousand island garbage. Please.
(Fun Fact: While I was chopping those shallots Ben Mason was hurdling a dude)
1 tablespoon finely minced shallot
1 cup mayonnaise
¼ cup chili sauce
1 tablespoon horseradish
½ tablespoon (or to taste) red hot sauce- (Tabasco, Cholula, Frank’s, etc.)
1-2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon ground mustard
(It looks like thousand island but it ain't, y'all)
BACK TO THE BRISKET
STEP 5 – DESALINATE
It might sound counterintuitive to try and pull all the salt out of the meat that we just spent days soaking it in, but trust me; you can oversalt these things and it’s not pretty if you do. Not the end of the world, either, but it leaves you with fewer options for later.
Empty your brine bucket, rinse it and your meat and refill the bucket with clean water. Let the pastrami soak for a minimum of 6-8 hours and up to 12, changing the water once or twice throughout the process.
After desalinating, pat yourself on the back because you’ve got yourself a Corned Beef. Where does the corn come in, you ask? Ok, sorry Hawkeye fans, there’s no actual corn involved. The term “Corned” is referring to the salt “corns” that sometimes appear on salt-cured meats.
STEP 6 – SMOKE THAT BABY
BUT FIRST, rub that baby.
Ok, phrasing and all, but get some spice on that pastrami. Use your favorite rub as long as it's not too sweet; it’s really hard to make a mistake as long as you get some good pepper flavor to compliment that nice salty meat. I used a Coffee BBQ rub that I got from Gordon Foods, because it’s what I had in the house. No need to be too picky. You should have plenty of moisture in the meat to hold your rub, so use a paper towel to pat the meat as dry as possible and massage your meat- (phrasing;) get a good cover of seasoning and get her on the smoker.
Set yourself up for some good, heavy smoke, at about 225 degrees. Plan on about a 5-6 hour cook.
I use a pellet grill and have several wood varieties to choose from, but I really don’t think you’re going to tell the difference. Camp Chef’s competition blend is good for everything.
Set your temp probe and crack a Two Hearted, because you’re done working for a while.
We’re not going for a super tender cook here- we want to pull the meat about the time it stalls; about 150-160 degrees. No need to cook it down to a roast.
Now we’re cured, we’re smoked and it's not just undercooked; That beautiful pink color is here to stay. you can wrap it up and put it in the fridge for a week- week & a half until you’re ready for a Reuben.
Slice your pastrami nice and thin and reheat it. If your pastrami is a little oversalted, you’re probably going to want to do that with a gentle boil. Slower is better; too much heat too fast will turn it to rubber, and no one likes a rubbery reuben. You can also steam it or even microwave it if you’re into the whole brevity thing.
Reuben purists will say your bread should be fresh, soft and untoasted, but I like to hit mine with the griddle for a little crunch. A couple slices of cheese, a heavy dose of cabbage, and a healthy drizzle of Russian dressing tops it off. This is no time for being conservative; pour it on, brothers and sisters.
Ok, that was a lot of work. Was it worth it? I don't know, but I bet even Don Brown would be proud of the effort.
Reuben, Rachel; I don't care what you call it, just make sure you call ME when you've got a spare one laying around. I mean maybe we're not putting Katz's or Zingerman's out of business, but dang y'all...
I love me some sauerkraut too, but this pickled cabbage is awesome on pastrami. And don't be afraid of having leftovers; it's great on burgers, tacos and brats too.
That piece of pastrami should make about 8 reasonable sandwiches, but let's be honest; probably closer to 4. And I'm sorry this isn't one you're going to read a recipe and slap together that day, but good 'stram takes time.
I don't want to step on Joe's toes, so I won't make this a regular thing, but later I might show you what happened to the rest of this brisket.
Thanks for reading and GO BLUE!