Here at What’s the Difference HQ, we’ve already covered the distinction between deli and appetizing and the intricacies of the appetizing case. But the deli counter has its own pressing questions—because while you may have some vague understanding that pastrami and corned beef are two different things, and that one might be better than the other, you may be stuck on the how or why. Here are the major points of differentiation between the two, because no meat should ever be a mystery.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: Pastrami has two possible ancestries: it’s either Romanian (where its predecessor, pastrama, was made with pork or mutton) or Turkish (where it’d be a descendent of pastirma, made with beef). Corned beef hails from Ireland, which is why it’s eaten on St. Patrick’s Day.
CUT OF MEAT: Today’s corned beef and pastrami are both made from beef, albeit different parts of the animal. Corned beef is made from brisket, which comes from the lower chest of the cow; pastrami is either made from a cut called the deckle, a lean, wide, firm shoulder cut, or the navel, a smaller and juicier section right below the ribs. These days, you may also see pastrami made from brisket.
BRINE: Pastrami and corned beef are brined before they’re cooked; they’re either rubbed with or submerged in a solution of salt and spices to infuse the meat with more moisture and flavor. Both are brined in a mixture of salt, sugar, black pepper, cloves, coriander, bay leaves, juniper berries, and dill, as well as the preservatives sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite.
SPICE MIX: Here’s when things really start to differ. After brining, pastrami gets coated in a mixture of black pepper, coriander, mustard seeds, fennel seeds, and sometimes fresh garlic; that spice coating is what gives it its blackened appearance. Corned beef is… naked. No spice mix to speak of.
COOKING METHOD: Pastrami is smoked over hardwood, oftentimes with a pan of water nearby, which helps create steam and keep the meat moist. It’s then cooled and then steamed before serving. Corned beef is… boiled. Sometimes with cabbage and other accoutrements in the mix, too.
BONUS ROUND: If you’ve ever been to Montreal, you may be wondering: What does “smoked meat” have to do with all this? Smoked meat is a Canadian specialty that pulls from the same themes as corned beef and pastrami, but has a story arc of its own. It’s made with brisket and is brined in a mixture of black pepper, coriander, garlic, and mustard seeds—but with much less sugar than its pastrami and corned-beef cousins. It’s then smoked, like pastrami, and is best layered onto rye bread with mustard for serving—just like the rest of family.