The basic formula for pastrami-making is this: Beef brisket is brined for about a week in a salt solution with sodium nitrite (to preserve color) and pickling spices, such as bay leaf, mustard seed, coriander seed, peppercorns, allspice and cloves.
Then it gets crusted with a peppercorn-and-coriander-based spice mix and smoked for hours. After that, the meat is steamed until tender.
Some chefs adhere to the formula; others deviate. Some slice it razor-thin; some prefer it a half-inch thick. Adjusting processing times, devising spice mixes and combining smoking woods are all ways to stamp a brisket as their own.
“Everyone has a visceral idea of pastrami from the first time they ate it,” says Jamie Stachowski of Stachowski’s Market in D.C. “So you’re trying to measure up to every ... person’s memory.”