Corned Beef – Pastrami – Montreal Smoked Meat

I have been asked, various times over the years, “What’s the difference between Corned Beef, Pastrami and Montreal Smoked Meat?” I have often, playfully, replied, “Just taste them!” But there’s  actually much more to it than that, as any aficionado will gladly tell you!

Corned Beef Sandwich - © beefitswhatsfordinner.comClassic Reuben Sandwich: Corned Beef on ‘Rainbow’ Rye. With Sauerkraut and Swiss cheese.

We’re not going to enter the eternal debate about which is better. Though I, like all cured beef lovers, have my own definite preference. What I want to do is clarify the difference between the three classic favourites.

One’s preference in cured beef almost certainly depends on where they come from, or in which cured beef ‘region’ they had their first bite. I’ve never heard a devotée succesfully describe to someone who’s never tasted it, the flavour of any of the foods under consideration here today. I believe it’s more of an all-encompassing experience than a simple blend of sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami. Though there is a tremendous amount of umami involved!

Place/Culture of origin

Corned Beef is Irish, through and through. It’s considered a national dish. But it’s also an iconic dish in New York City, where it’s been adopted universally by the Deli culture. It’s made from the Brisket.

Pastrami is descended from Romanian pastramă, which is pork or mutton, and Turkish pastırma, which is beef. It’s made from the plate, or navel cut.

Montrèal Smoked Meat is a more modern conception, apparently invented in Montrèal, Quebec, Canada in the late 19th or early 20th. century. It’s universally accepted to be of Jewish origin. It’s roots may lie in Pastrami, but don’t try to tell a Smoked Meat fan – or any Montrèaler – that. It’s made from the brisket.

Pastrami Sandwich - © myjewishlearning.comPastrami on Rye: No fancy trimmings; the way it’s supposed to be…

Flavour differences

Flavour is one dimension in which Corned Beef, Pastrami, and Smoked Meat truly differentiate themselves.

Corned Beef is generally brined in a water-based liquid containing salt, sugar, black pepper, cloves, bay leaves, dill and juniper berries. These spices provide all the flavour the Corned Beef will acquire during during and cooking.

Pastrami is usually brined with salt, sugar, black pepper, coriander, garlic , mustard seed and lesser amounts of other herbs and spices.

Montrèal Smoked Meat is also brined like Pastrami, but may also be dry-cured. The seasonings and spices used are similar, but Smoked Meat uses a lot less sugar.

Cooking techniques(s)

Corned Beef is always boiled after curing.

Pastrami is brined, then dry-rubbed with the same spice blend and cold-smoked.

Montrèal Smoked Meat is cured and then goes directly to the hot smoker.

Smoked Meat Sandwich - © eater.montreal.comA classic, piled-sky-high Montreal Smoked Meat sandwich. Nothing else quite like it.

Appearance and service

Corned Beef is widely served fresh and hot from the boiler, sliced thick and chunky, with boiled cabbage, potatoes and carrots (see photo, top of page). It’s served hot or cold, sliced thin, on Light Rye Bread sandwiches. The king of New York deli fare.

Pastrami is usually sliced thick and piled high on Rye Bread sandwiches. You can it from Corned beef by sight, by the dark smoky ring around the outer edges of a slice. It’s also a New York Deli icon, and has developed its own ‘culture’ of avid advocates.

Montrèal Smoked Meat is usually sliced thin, always served on Rye Bread sandwiches, and sometimes coarse-crumbled on a pizza. It may be found hot (sliced thick), or cold (sliced thin).

All three sandwiches must be slathered with mustard, and come with a dill pickle on the side. Maybe two. Sauerkraut or Cole Slaw may also be offered on the side.

Now you know!

The differences between the three cured beef classics we’ve dissected today may be minor in some respects, but they’re major in others. That’s what makes them distinctly different, and accounts for the rabid followings they’ve gathered to their spicy bosoms…

~ Maggie J.