Want to know a dirty secret? Even the best New York delis don’t make their own pastrami. At least, not entirely. The time, space, and labor required to make sufficient amounts of the stuff are simply too great for a deli in a densely populated city. So instead, they contract most of the work out to large smokehouses, much like small breweries hire larger facilities to brew a recipe to their specifications. Great delis apply their own secret touches, but the basic steps to making pastrami are all the same.
It starts with trimming a slab of brisket, or, more traditionally, beef navel, then brining or dry-curing it with salt, nitrates to set the pretty pink color, and spices like coriander, allspice, and bay leaf. Then the meat is smoked, usually with specific times, temperatures, and wood sources.
At this point, it’s delivered to the deli as a parcooked and preserved product. When the deli is ready to summon the meat for slicing, they’ll boil or steam it until it jiggles like a Texas brisket, and slice it to order. How you reheat and slice a pastrami impacts the final plate as much as how you cure and smoke it, so great delis like Katz’s distinguish themselves not just with a strong recipe, but by consistently steaming and slicing it into perfect slabs of melt-in-your-mouth, “I’ll have what she’s having” sandwich fodder.