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banner image of pastrami without nitrates or nitrites, close up of meat halfway smoked with temperature probes being wrapped in butcher paper

How to Make Pastrami Without Nitrates or Nitrites

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Making Nitrate-Free Homemade Pastrami: Your DIY Guide

Pastrami, a cherished deli favorite, is seasoned, cured, and smoked beef brisket, offering a tantalizingly flavor and tender texture. Pastrami is great with sauerkraut, makes a fabulous sandwich, and also creates the backbone of a yummy hash. We at Juice of Seven Lemons like to steer clear of preservatives when we can, so we decided to test and create a new recipe for homemade pastrami without nitrites or nitrates.

This delectable meat has a rich history, originating from Romanian and Turkish origins before becoming a New York deli staple. According to TASTE’s, The Brief History of Pastrami, as pastrami migrated from country to country, the recipe evolved to include other steps that enhanced preservation. With the evolution of curing pastrami, pink curing salt #1 was introduced into the pastrami process at some point.

Understanding Nitrates and Nitrites

Pink curing salt, often used in homemade pastrami brines, contains nitrates or nitrites, crucial for preserving meat and imparting that classic pink hue. However, health concerns prompt some to seek nitrate-free alternatives, avoiding potential risks associated with these compounds. Although sodium nitrite has long been favored in meat curing, concerns have emerged about its potential carcinogenic effects on human health, as highlighted by various studies. Consequently, the meat industry is actively seeking methods to reduce residual nitrite levels in meat products. Additionally, there’s a concerted effort to explore safer alternatives to nitrites for the preparation of organic meat items. (Source: National Library of Medicine)

Brining the Brisket

For our nitrate-free version, we shortened the brine, allowing it to brine for no more than a week and a half. If you purchase a smaller piece of brisket (about 3 lbs), expect it to be ready in around 5 days; a thick piece might require up to 8-10 days. We recommend getting a fatty brisket for this recipe as the fat will slowly render and keep the meat tender and moist during the long smoke time. If the meat is too lean, it will be more dry.

pastrami brine without nitrites/nitrates infusing on stove-top
brisket in plastic bag with nitrate free pastrami brining liquid; how to make pastrami

Dry Rub for Pastrami

After the curing process, you will cover the brisket with a dry rub blend before smoking. Both the brine and the rub lend the pastrami it’s well-known flavor.

pastrami brined brisket with dry rub applied, ready for smoker

Smoking Setup for Pastrami

Suggested Equipment

Some tools we suggest for an optimal homemade pastrami-making experience:

Recommended Wood Chunks for Smoking

We use oak wood for smoking for our pastrami, and there are many other woods you can use as well. Here are some suggestions of wood types and why you would want to use them for your pastrami:

  • Oak: A robust, smoky flavor profile.
  • Hickory: Offers a strong, bacon-like essence.
  • Cherry: Imparts a fruity, mild sweetness.
  • Maple: Adds a subtle, sweet undertone to the meat.

Pastrami Smoking Temps

During smoking, maintain a temperature range of 225-250°F for optimal flavor and tenderness. Since you are not using nitrites/nitrates, be sure you keep the heat above 225°F to keep harmful bacteria away from your pastrami.

Expect the Stall

When the internal temperature stalls, wrap the brisket in pink/peach paper, a technique preserving moisture while continuing the cooking process. The “stall” refers to a phase where the brisket’s temperature plateaus during smoking. Don’t panic—this is normal! Use this time to maintain steady patience and let the smoky magic unfold. Stalls can last up to 5-7+ hours before the meat temperature starts to climb again, so be prepared. You want to wrap the pastrami in pink butcher paper to preserve the meat’s moisture and maintain porosity for a bit of smoke to make it into the meat. Smokey flavor should already be part of the meat when the stall occurs, but pink butcher paper is a bit porous, so some smoke will continue to permeate the meat. For more information, check out this article about The BBQ Stall Explained.

Slice & Savor – Preservative Free Pastrami

Once the internal meat temperature comes to 200°F, you are ready to pull and rest your meat. Let the meat rest for at least half an hour before slicing into it. Nothing beats a warm pastrami on buttered toasted rye with spicy mustard, melted Swiss cheese and a generous helping of sauerkraut served with a side of potato chips and fermented deli-style pickle. However, if you are looking for an alternative to the traditional sauerkraut side for pastrami, try serving it with a quick and easy creamy Turnip Gratin and a side of green beans for an incredible, well-rounded dinner.

This meat freezes well (we suggest freezing large, non-sliced portions) and to reheat you’ll want to add a bit of liquid to the pan and cover to create a steamy environment for the meat.

If you are ready to try nitrite/nitrate-free, flavorful homemade pastrami, see our recipe below and let us know what you think. Each slice of this delightful delicacy makes this labor of love worth it! And please let us know if you have questions or want further clarification on anything. We are here to help!

golden juicy pastrami on smoker with two MEATER temperature probes, stalled, ready to be wrapped

Smoked Pastrami Without Nitrates/Nitrites

Create your own healthier pastrami sans nitrates/nitrites. This recipe still utilizes a classic pastrami brine with a beef brisket, but without the curing salt, and therefore for less time. Rubbed with traditional pastrami spices and long smoked, the taste and flavor should be on par with classic deli style pastrami. Served with sauerkraut, as a sandwich, or a classic hash – this preservative free pastrami will be worth the time and waiting!
5 from 1 vote
Print Pin Rate
Course: Main
Cuisine: American
Keyword: comfort, grilled, high protein, meat, smoked
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 11 hours
Brine Time: 10 days
Total Time: 10 days 11 hours 15 minutes
Servings: 10
Calories: 500kcal
Author: juiceofsevenlemons

Ingredients

  • 7 lbs Beef Brisket

Pastrami Brine

  • 1 gallon water
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup salt
  • 5 tablespoons pickling spices
  • 4 cloves garlic smashed or pressed

Pastrami Rub Glue

  • 1/4 cup yellow mustard

Pastrami Rub

  • 4 tablespoons black peppercorn coarsely ground
  • 2 tablespoons coriander seeds coarsely ground
  • 1 teaspoon mustard powder
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons onion powder

Instructions

Brine Preparation

  • In a large pot, combine brine ingredients.
  • Bring the mixture to a boil to dissolve salts and sugars and then remove from heat.
  • Let the brine cool completely before adding the brisket.
  • Submerge the brisket in the brine mixture for around 10 days (less for a smaller brisket). Turn the brisket once each week in the brine mixture. A large plastic freezer bag sitting on a sheet tray works well for this.

Rub Preparation

  • Combine all ingredients in a small bowl or plastic storage bag.

Preparation Before Smoking

  • One day prior to smoking, remove the brisket from the brine and soak it in water overnight to reduce saltiness.
  • Pat dry the brisket and cover both sides with yellow mustard and then the dry rub.

Smoking

  • Smoke the brisket at 225-250°F until the brisket temperature stalls (approximately 4 hours).
  • Remove the brisket from the smoker and wrap it in pink or peach paper.
  • Place it back on the smoker until the internal temperature reaches around 200°F.

Resting and Slicing

  • Let the pastrami rest for about 30 minutes before slicing it thinly.

Notes

Fatty Brisket Selection: As this is a long smoking process, keep in mind that you will want to buy a fatty piece of brisket so that the fat will render and keep the pastrami nice and moist during cooking.
Slice Thin: Pastrami should be sliced thinly against the grain for the best texture and tenderness. When reheating it’s easier to cut the meat cold and then re-heat slices.
Freezing & Reheating: This meat freezes well. We suggest freezing large, non-sliced portions wrapped tightly. To reheat you’ll want to add a bit of liquid to the pan and cover to create a steamy environment for the meat. 
Pink Pastrami Color: Pink color of pastrami comes from nitrites. The color of this preservative free pastrami will look more like a traditional smoked brisket, but the flavor and mouth-feel should still be that of a deli style pastrami.

Nutrition

Serving: 200g | Calories: 500kcal | Carbohydrates: 5g | Protein: 45g | Fat: 35g | Saturated Fat: 13g | Cholesterol: 125mg | Sodium: 1000mg | Potassium: 500mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 1g | Calcium: 50mg | Iron: 7mg

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