Know Your Deli Meats: A Guide to the Best Cut

Know Your Deli Meats: A Guide to the Best Cut

America loves a sandwich. Rachel Nuwer at Smithsonian Magazine even reports that half of the population eats a sandwich every single day.

As a deli or cafe owner, you’ll inevitably receive questions from customers regarding your menu and the specific items on it.

  • What makes one cut of meat better than another?
  • What’s the preparation process for this meat?
  • Which cuts work best on a sandwich?

Having a swift response is helpful for filling in the gaps for your customers and for proving that you know your stuff. With that being said, here are answers to some of the more common questions.

What’s the History Behind Pastrami in America?

The love affair between Americans and pastrami runs deep. Kenny Sokan writes in Public Radio International that Jewish-American delis first started popping up in New York in the late 19th Century. By the early 20th Century, pastrami sandwiches were the focal point of most menus and often considered “the caviar of Eastern European Jewish life.”

They were a delicacy that deli owners took immense pride in creating, and their customers took immense pleasure in eating.   

Americans quickly took a liking to them, and over the years pastrami sandwiches have become an iconic NYC tradition. The classic pastrami on rye with spicy brown mustard is still very much revered and held in high esteem.

What’s interesting is just how little they’ve changed. The Wall Street Journal’s Deborah Dunn quotes one deli owner, Will Horowitz, who says that the standard deli sandwich hasn’t changed much in 100 years except for the fact that everything used to be handmade.

So, eating a delicious pastrami sandwich is basically like taking a bite out of history. You’re getting over a century’s worth of goodness.

While NYC is the birthplace of of the pastrami sandwich in America, you’ll find them in delis throughout the entire country. Deli owners from the Deep South to the Pacific all put their own spins on this classic.

What are the Different Pastrami Cuts?

There are three main types of pastrami cuts. One is the navel, which comes from the front quarters of the cow, thereby making it kosher. As Eric Lissner points out in Our Everyday Life, this is the type of famous pastrami that you typically find in New York delis.

Laura Togut adds in Serious Eats that aficionados agree that “real deal” pastrami comes from the navel end because it’s especially fatty and holds up well to the lengthy cooking process required to prepare it. If you’re a pastrami connoisseur, this is likely the cut you seek.    

Next, there’s the bottom round. This is known for being a leaner cut that’s very tender. The Virtual Weber Bullet team explains that this is the type of pastrami that you’ll find in grocery stores and yields a large, round slice of meat.

Finally, there’s pastrami first cut. This is very lean and has hardly any fat on it, which tends to be the healthiest option (though some argue it lacks the authenticity and flavor of the navel).

How Does Pastrami Differ from Corned Beef?

The key differences involve two main factors — the cuts of meat used and the preparation techniques that are used. Joan Ginsberg explains in Deli Done Right that corned beef is made from beef brisket, a section found on the lower chest of a cow. However, pastrami comes from the plate, which is a little farther back on the animal.

In terms of preparation, the earlier stages are fairly similar. Both are cured with salt as a means of preserving the meat. It’s actually due to this process that the term “corned” beef got its name. Matt Blitz touches on this in Food & Wine, where he says that during the 17th Century, large grains or “kernels” of rock salt were added to the brine.

The latter stages are when the preparation differs. Sarah Spiro states in Spoon University that corned beef is usually boiled after curing, whereas pastrami receives a dry rub and is then smoked.

As a result, corned beef tends to come out juicier and saltier, while pastrami is a bit drier and smokier.

slice brisket beef preparation for cooking

What Makes a Great Brisket?

There are several different variables that determine the quality of a brisket. David Johnson writes in Grill Beast that prime and choice cuts are considered to be of higher quality than select grades due to the fact that they have excellent marbling and are more tender. But he adds that select grades can still be tasty with the right preparation and cooking.

This brings us to our next point — tenderness. The Oak Leaf Smokehouse team can’t say enough about the importance of having tender brisket. More specifically, they mention that it should be soft and juicy enough to pull apart easily and moist enough that you don’t need to add any sauce. It’s this kind of melt-in-your-mouth goodness that brisket lovers crave.

And how do you achieve this level of tenderness? It’s all about slow cooking. Peggy Trowbridge Filippone points out at The Spruce that a great tasting brisket needs plenty of time to cook. Smoked, Texas-style brisket might get smoked for 12 hours, she notes, whereas braised, Jewish-style brisket is cooked for about three hours (at low heat in both cases).

This is what allows the tough collagen fibers to properly break down into a gelatinous consistency, which makes the brisket soft and palatable.

When it comes to smoked brisket, you should also pay close attention to the crust. Ideally, it will have a smoky outer crust that’s dark or even black. This is what gives it that mouthwatering smokey flavor.

What Are the Different Cuts of Roast Beef?

There are a plethora of different roasts that come from all parts of a steer’s body. From the very front to the far back, delicious cuts can be had. But, as Melissa Clark mentions in The New York Times, most deli-style roast beef sandwiches are made from lean cuts of meat and typically include the bottom, top or eye round, which come from the rump.

Janet Rausa Fuller at Epicurious points out the subtle differences between these three cuts. Bottom round roast (also known as the rump roast) is one of the more affordable cuts that comes from the outside of the back leg and has some excellent marbling.

Top round also comes from the back leg and is similar to the top sirloin in terms of its fattiness and flavor. This is the cut that you’ll most commonly find for deli roast beef.

Lastly, there’s the eye of round roast, which is very lean and comes out best when thinly sliced. As David Sax points out in The Atlantic, slice it by hand for the best possible outcome.   


What Makes a Great Deli-Style Turkey Sandwich?

Let’s be honest. Not all turkey sandwiches are created equal. Not even close. Preparation and slow roasting it at a low temperature are the keys to great turkey.

Christina Chaey provides her take in Bon Appétit, where she says that an epic deli-style turkey sandwich calls for an overnight seasoning, searing it briefly on a stovetop for a beautiful golden-brown color, and finally a low and slow roasting in a 250-degree oven until tender. She also adds that drizzling the top with pan juices can take it to another level.

What Goes Into Preparing Corned Tongue?

Despite the reservations some customers have, beef tongue is very palatable and quite delicious with the right provided proper techniques are used.

Rebecca Morris highlights the process in America’s Test Kitchen. She explains that it begins by first creating a brining sauce using spices like peppercorns, mustard seeds and coriander seeds. From there, the tongue is rinsed and trimmed before being left in the brine for five to seven days.  

It’s then rinsed in cold water and cooked in a 300-degree oven for roughly three hours. Finally, it’s peeled, sliced and eaten. One of Morris’ personal favorite ways to eat it is on a Reuben.

As you can see, the process is pretty involved, but the payoff is huge.

Educating the Customer

There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to tantalizing deli sandwiches. Often, there’s a tremendous amount of work that goes into preparing, seasoning and cooking these meats.

As a result, you’re likely to encounter customer questions. We hope this guide will give you some answers that you can have handy to educate customers and steer them in the direction of their perfect sandwich.

Images by: elenathewise/©123RF Stock Photo, annapustynnikova/©123RF Stock Photo, jnie/©123RF Stock Photo, evgenyb/©123RF Stock Photo

By | 2018-02-13T13:28:09-05:00 February 13th, 2018|Blog|1 Comment