What's the Difference Between Pastrami & Corned Beef? We Asked Katz's Deli

The New York City-based deli has perfected the recipe for both since the 19th century.

March 16, 2022
Photo by Julia Gartland

Stepping inside a New York Jewish deli is a spiritual experience. All of my hopes and dreams are served right in front of my eyes, in the form of crispy potato pancakes wrapped in deli paper, a mountainous slice of noodle kugel, and thin, juicy shavings of pastrami on rye bread. But any good Jewish deli will have you answer one major question: pastrami or corned beef? Before you place your next order, learn the true difference between corned beef and pastrami, according to someone who has perfected the art of both: Jake Dell of New York’s Katz’s Delicatessen.

Cut of Meat

“Traditionally, pastrami is a navel cut and corned beef is made with brisket,” explains Dell. Each cut contains different amounts of fat, which translates into how the beef breaks down during the cooking process. The navel contains fat in the middle, whereas the beef brisket has fat mostly along the exterior of the meat. “The fat on the inside means that when you smoke pastrami, it distributes throughout the entire cut of meat,” says Dell.

The Cooking Process

Both pastrami and corned beef are brined, but pastrami is smoked and corned beef is boiled. Pastrami is rubbed with a dry seasoning blend of salt, pepper, coriander, and garlic, “which develops that awesome bark that’s just so delicious.” Some delis may also brine pastrami with mustard seeds, brown sugar, and other pickling spices. Corned beef, on the other hand, is salt cured—hence the corning process.

So Which Is More Popular?

To understand the history of corned beef and pastrami, we have to go back to 1888 when Katz’s Delicatessen first opened and the first Eastern European immigrants settled in New York City. For the first hundred years of business, Dell says that corned beef was twice as popular as pastrami. “For one reason or another, that switched and pastrami now sells double the amount of corned beef each week. We sell 20,000-30,000 pounds of pastrami a week.”

How to Serve Them

The classic preparation for both of them is on rye with mustard. Given how complex the flavor of pastrami is, most people tend to not add more than that. With corned beef, you have more flexibility to turn it into say a hash or Reuben sandwich, says Dell. Plus, there’s always the classic preparation of corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick’s Day.

Do you prefer corned beef or pastrami? Let us know which one gives you your “When Harry Met Sally” moment in the comments below.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Terri
  • John Peterson
    John Peterson
  • Stephen S
    Stephen S
  • Danuta Gajewski
    Danuta Gajewski
  • ForwardObserver
Former Food52 Staff Editor


Terri April 7, 2023
When I’m feelin’ a Reuben in my future- def corned beef. There are so many other textures and flavors on that sando (the sauerkraut, Swiss, Russian dressing…) that pastrami is just too strong and completely changes the classic Reuben flavor. But…there is nothing quite as “wow” as a freshly smoked and hand cut hot pastrami with mustard on rye! Mmmmm
John P. March 26, 2023
Pastrami all the way. Katz’s pastrami is the
Bomb. When I worked in Chicago, I used to frequent a restaurant in a building on Wabash Av near the Carson Pirie Scott store. It was in the lower level of the building and they had the best Reuben sandwich. And great lemon meringue pie!
Stephen S. March 28, 2022
A few issues here. Corned Beef is traditionally cured with Sodium Nitrite, as opposed to Common salt - Sodium Chloride - although regular salt will also be part of the solution used.

Also Corned Beef has a very different nature in the UK, & former UK dependent countries - it's usually (almost entirely) a tinned product, made with beef cured with Sodium Nitrite - usually manufactured in either Argentina, Chile, or Brazil. It was one of the earliest foodstuffs to be successfully canned & preserved & was a staple food for allied troops in both world wars. In the UK during & following world war 2, meat rations could be doubled if they were taken as corned beef rather than fresh meat. This was commonly known as Bully Beef.

From deli counters in the UK, the meat usually referred to as Corned Beef in the US is sold as Salt Beef - it's usually a Kosher meat, and certified as such. Pastrami is pretty much the same as in the US. What I would say is that the UK versions of both Salt Beef, and Pastrami seem to be more highly flavoured than their American counterparts.

Corned Beef Hash is generally made from tinned corned beef - although clearly there's no reason why you couldn't make it from something else. Never heard of the St Patrick's day Corned Beef Hash thing, but there is a long standing joke in the UK that you eat Pancakes on Pancake day, and then Corned Beef Hash, on Hash Wednesday - which is very roughly around the same time as St Patricks day. I've certainly made it then. Ireland would be likely to use the same tinned Corned Beef as the UK - in fact I think Irish branded tinned corned beef is available on the Irish Shelves of UK Supermarket. My Son's headed to New York this summer, and already had Katz's Deli on his list - he's wanting pastrami !
Danuta G. March 27, 2022
And then you have Montreal-style smoked meat...which is a combo of both! And no where better than at Schwartz's, in Montreal.
ForwardObserver March 20, 2022
I’ve always been partial to pastrami. First at a restaurant on Union Street in San Francisco ( name escapes me now) stacked 3” thick with melted Swiss and mustard on rye. . Later at several local delis back on East Coast. I’ve just discovered Corn Beef King in Montgomery County Maryland, which has a combination corned beef and pastrami sandwich, the thought of which has me salivating.
Heidi B. March 21, 2022
Was it served on a tablecloth of blue & white checked? Perry's on Union in San Francisco?
ForwardObserver March 28, 2022
Definitely wasn’t Perry’s, but a few doors away. Phyllis was the waitress. Not sure why I can’t remember the name as it was one of my favorites. I was very lucky. I had an unlimited expense account for 4 years and was encouraged to use it in lieu of a salary increase. So I did! The 70’s was a great time to be a straight, single, presentable young man in San Francisco! The best kept hetero secret.
Phil0 March 18, 2022
Growing up 2 blocks from Katz's in the 50s we ate there once a week as my father and I were all in with the (non lean) pastrami, mom did the corned beef (meh). Not living in NY anymore Katz's is one of several required stops when visiting.
I do miss the seeded rye of old with a nice crispy crust.
Julia G. March 18, 2022
Corned beef is the best, though my Jewish family call it Salt Beef. I was born in London and all the Jewish deli's call it Salt Beef.
Steven W. March 17, 2022
If you've never purchased a hunk, not sliced, of pastrami and made hash with whatever is leftover (if any!) you need to do so. I use the two things interchangeably in many things from hash to omelets. I've even used pastrami ends for bean soup.
Kelly V. March 17, 2022
Great idea!
[email protected] March 17, 2022
I was once behind Julia Child in a NY-style deli-line and the counter man was as mean to her when she wavered as he would have been to me! I will always wonder whether he didn’t know who his customer was, or whether he was merely strictly adhering to the deli-man’s code of ruthlessness. When it was my turn, I said, “I’ll have what Julia had.” I can’t remember which it was, but I didn’t want to waver!
He flinched not a bit at hearing her name. Come on — this was in Montecito in Santa Barbara — of course he knew.
But, Julia Child if couldn’t make up her mind between pastrami and corned beef, not a one of us needs to be ashamed of our ambivalence.
Kelly V. March 17, 2022
What a cool story! Thanks for sharing. I'll keep this in mind next time I hesitate when ordering :)
Don M. March 17, 2022
Definitely corned beef for St Patrick’s Day. It’s a toss up the rest of the time.
Kelly V. March 17, 2022
I'm with you! Today of all days, I think everyone needs to be team corned beef :)
matthewl March 19, 2022
My answer to that is both! I buy a pastrami and a Reuben. Eat half of each for lunch....... and the rest for supper. And split the pickle as well which you always get plenty of also!
Kelly V. March 19, 2022
Can't argue with that logic!