They say the two things that go on a pastrami sandwich are a lot of love and even more pastrami. Here’s what else to put.
More than a hundred years ago, Eastern European Jews fled their homelands for America in search of refuge and a better life. Fortunately for the world, they brought their delicious recipes and rich culinary traditions with them.
It was Sussman Volk who served the first pastrami sandwich in his Delancey Street delicatessen in New York City in 1888. Today, this sandwich has become a true staple of American Jewish cuisine, and a nationwide favorite of many.
The best part about this sandwich? It’s easy to make (provided you have the pastrami) and you can customize it to your liking. When in doubt, this guide will point you to the traditional—and not so—breads, sauces, and fillings to use.
The traditional bread to use for a pastrami sandwich is rye bread, a bread made from various proportions of rye flour and wheat flour. You can buy it at your neighborhood bakery or Jewish delicatessen in town.
Compared to white bread, rye bread is denser and richer in flavor. It also holds onto its shape better, which is a must given the size and weight of a typical pastrami sandwich. Finally, rye flour contains less gluten than wheat flour, so rye bread is less springy and elastic.
The rye bread is often toasted. This triggers the Maillard reaction, which in turn improves the smell and taste of the bread. In the confines of your home, you can do this in a sandwich maker, a convection oven, or even in a cast iron skillet or non-stick frying pan on the stove.
In my study of pastrami sandwiches and American Jewish cuisine, I’ve come across recipes that substitute sourdough bread or whole-wheat bread for rye bread. What’s important here is not to use white bread for preparing a pastrami sandwich—it gives little flavor and gets too soggy too quickly.
Deli mustard and Russian dressing are the two classic sauces that belong on a pastrami sandwich. Most delis use either one or the other; it’s very rare to see both being used at the same time.
Deli mustard, sometimes called “brown” or “spicy brown” mustard, is prepared from brown mustard seeds soaked in less vinegar than regular mustard. This, as Joshua Bousel of Serious Eats explains, makes it spicier and sharper—and thus able to stand up to the smoky aroma and rich flavor of the sliced pastrami.
Russian dressing is a salad dressing consisting of mayo, ketchup, hot sauce, and horseradish. Other ingredients may include sour cream, pickle relish, white onions, sweet paprika powder, chili flakes, and salt. It’s called “Russian dressing” because the original recipe called for the addition of caviar.
Whether to use deli mustard or Russian dressing is a matter of personal preference. Mustard has a more uncomplicated and sharper flavor, whereas Russian dressing is sweeter and more elaborate.
Pastrami purists eat a hefty portion of sliced pastrami between two pieces of bread. The slices can be thick or thin, cut with a sharp knife by hand or using an electric meat slicer. Some smear the inside of the bread with deli mustard or Russian dressing, while others forgo the sauce altogether.
Pastrami can be added cold or hot to a sandwich. In most delis, it’s heated because the heating brings out the aromas and flavors of the meat. If you heat the pastrami at home, it’s essential not to overheat it, or it will dry out and turn rubbery.
For you: How to Reheat Pastrami Sandwich (Step-by-Step Guide With Pictures)
Aside from the pastrami slices, the two most common fillings for a pastrami sandwich are weinsauerkraut and coleslaw. Once again, it’s either one or the other. The sauerkraut is usually used in tandem with mustard, and the coleslaw is combined with Russian dressing.
“Weinsauerkraut” is sauerkraut made with white wine, spices, and salt. It’s mildly sour and pronouncedly sweet. The white wine gives it a certain sophistication that regular sauerkraut simply doesn’t have.
Coleslaw is made from finely shredded raw cabbage and thinly sliced carrots with mayo and lemon juice. It tastes fresher than wine sauerkraut and is a better choice if you or somebody in your household don’t really like the fermented taste of weinsauerkraut.
I’ve also seen rare variations of pastrami sandwiches made with the sweeter and spicier rotkraut.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the third most popular filling for a pastrami sandwich is Swiss cheese. Thin slices of Emmental and/or Gouda cheese are placed on top of the sliced pastrami and melted by sliding the sandwich into a hot, ventilated oven just long enough to heat all the ingredients through.
To melt cheese on a pastrami sandwich that you’ve made at home, preheat the oven to 180°C for 15 minutes with the convection fan on. You want the air in your oven to be hot and the walls to be radiating heat when you put the sandwich in.
The traditional ingredients you find in a pastrami sandwich from a New York City deli more or less end there. Katz’s Delicatessen servers theirs with half sour pickles and half dill pickles on the side.
Modern variations of the pastrami sandwich may include leafy greens, such as arugula or baby spinach; fruits and vegetables, such as avocado slices or white onion slices; alternative cheeses, such as dried mozzarella or cheese spread; snacks for extra crispiness, like rösti, onion rings, crumbled potato chips.
While you can put anything on your pastrami sandwich, we recommend that you keep to tradition and stick to the basics—rye bread, warm sliced pastrami, and deli mustard, with or without melted Swiss cheese, optionally with dills and sour pickles on the side.
Up next: Would you like to learn how to prepare this deli classic in 10 minutes on the stovetop? If the answer to this question is a definite and resounding “yes,” then check out our pastrami sandwich recipe.