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Pastrami vs. Roast Beef (The Difference)

Pastrami. Roast beef. Is there a difference? By the time you’re done reading this guide, you’ll wonder whether there are any similarities.

There’s nothing better than a pastrami or roast beef sandwich when you’re craving beef in a meal that you can hold in your hands.

At first glance, these two types of cold meats may seem similar, but the fact is that they have more differences than similarities. And if you want to improve your deli game, this post will help you figure out exactly what those differences are.

The Long and the Short of It

Pastrami and roast beef don’t come from the same place. Pastrami is an American Jewish staple with roots in Eastern Europe and Turkey. Roast beef is a signature dish enjoyed by the Brits for centuries.

Pastrami and roast beef are different cuts of beef. Pastrami is made from the deckle, the fatty part of the brisket, or the navel, the belly of the cow. Roast beef is prepared from prime rib, tenderloin, strip, or chuck.

Pastrami and roast beef serve different purposes. The Romanian recipe for pastramă was initially created to preserve beef for extended periods of time (in Romanian, păstra means “to keep,” “to preserve”). Roast beef is meant to be eaten shortly after cooking (a short resting period is required).

Pastrami and roast beef are not cooked the same way. Pastrami is brined, partially dried, seasoned, smoked, and steamed; roast beef is brined (but not always), seasoned, and roasted.

Pastrami and roast beef are served differently. Pastrami is sliced thin, served cold, and eaten on a sandwich; roast beef can also be sliced thick and served warm. The pastrami sandwich features coleslaw, sauerkraut, and pickles and is smothered with mayo, mustard, horseradish sauce, Russian dressing, or thousand island dressing. The three-way roast beef sandwich is prepared with American cheese, mayo, and BBQ sauce.

What Is Pastrami?

Pastrami is deli meat that’s been brined, partially dried, seasoned, smoked, and then steamed. It’s typically made from beef deckle or navel, although it can also be made from lamb or turkey.

The pastrami sandwich is a New York City staple and a cornerstone of American Jewish cuisine. In The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home, Michael Zusman and Nick Zukin explain that pastrami probably originated in Turkey and found its way to Eastern Europe via spice routes.

In Romania, the Turkish pastirma recipe was transformed into pastramă, where it was adapted to use mutton or lamb. (A mutton is a young sheep of less than one year and a lamb is a mature sheep of 2 to 3 years.)

Pastramă became pastrami when the third wave of Jewish immigrants emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, bringing their culinary traditions and recipes with them.

Sussman Volk is the man credited with inventing pastrami as we know it today. According to American Heritage, he owned a small store at 86½ Delancey Street in New York City when a Romanian man asked him if he could store his trunk in his basement and offered his recipe for cured meat in return.

First, he sold it by the slice. Then, he began to sell it between two slices of bread, with mustard. The rest, as they say, is history. When Sussman Volk and his family moved to 88 Delancey Street, they now had room for customers to sit down and eat—opening the first Jewish deli in New York City.

What Is Roast Beef?

Roast beef is beef that’s been cured, seasoned, and then roasted. It can be sliced thick and served hot as a main dish, or sliced thin and served cold as a cold cut (usually in a roast beef sandwich). Roast beef is traditionally made from prime rib, tenderloin, strip, or chuck.

Roast beef originated in England. After the Norman conquest of England in the 11th century, the population of cattle increased steadily thanks to the Normans’ preference for beef. By the Middle Ages, beef had become a staple food in the islands, and in kitchens, it was roasted on a spit in front of the fire.

While the kings, their courtiers, and the aristocracy consumed the finest cuts, the poorer population of England took their “lessor” cuts of beef to the baker to bake in the oven on Sunday since no bread was baked on Sunday, giving rise to the tradition of the Sunday roast.

Exactly who invented the roast beef sandwich in the United States is the subject of heated debate. It’s known that the Italian beef sandwich began to appear on Chicago menus in the early 1900s. In Boston, Kelly’s Roast Beef claims to have invented the three-way roast beef sandwich—that is, a sandwich with roast beef, American cheese, mayo, and BBQ sauce—in 1951.

Know your author

Written by

Dim is a food writer, cookbook author, and the editor of Home Cook World. His first book, Cooking Methods & Techniques, was published in 2022. He is a certified food handler with Level 1 and Level 2 Certificates in Food Hygiene and Safety for Catering, and a trained cook with a Level 3 Professional Chef Diploma.