Friday, March 29, 2013

Making Pastirma at home - plus recipe

I'm intrigued by stories of food from the Old Country.  Traditional recipes that combine preservation and deliciousness are always up my alley.

A friend of mine from Lebanon was telling me about this cured meat he knew as a youth.  Back in the old country, it was made from goat or mutton, coated with a spicy paste, and dried for ages before enjoying as a breakfast meat of all things.  In North America it's easier to get beef, so when I saw an Eye of Round Roast on sale, I picked it up and set to work.

Pastirma has several different names depending on the region, and different variation on the spice mix.  But what they do all seem to share in common are that the meat is pressed and the spice mix includes fenugreek and garlic.  Legend has it that in past days nomadic tribes would press the meat between the thy and the horse as they road along.  The salt from horse and rider sweat would help cure the meat, then it would be coated in spice and hung from the saddle as they road from place to place - how much of this is true, I don't know (I wasn't there).

Pastirma is also the ancestor of several different cured meats.  You can see how it travels West across Europe   There is Bresaola, and even Pastrami and Corned Beef are very similar to this style.  Interesting how more sedentary cultures use a brine cure, where as more mobile cultures use a dry cure.  If I was still an anthropology student, I would write a paper on this.

The modern method does not require a horse.  After much questioning of my friend and research (both in books online) I found two recipes for pastirma that I liked best: Middle East and Africa Cooking & Baking recipe for Basturma and Homemade Basterma.  I ended up combining Folklore with these two recipes.

I adore how this turned out and can easily see why it is so popular in the middle east.  I just want to gobble it all down, but it's so rich that only a few shaved slices is enough for me.  I can also see why it's so expensive to buy in the shops; it took over 5 weeks to make.  If I had a better set up for curing my meat, I think I could have done a better job, but even with my limited resources  it makes a very friendly start to dry curing meat.  It's also very forgiving about timing, humidity, temperature, &c.... which in my opinion are the best qualities of any long-term, farmhouse, homemade, foodstuff.

You can use any lean cut of red meat: lamb, goat, horse (if you are into that kind of thing), moose, dear, antelope, beef, or well, just about anything.  My understanding is that the better quality the meat, the better the finished product, so for my next go at this recipe I'll be using some goat that was raised on this farm.  Then again, it turned out this good with some commercial feed lot beef, so I can't imagine how good it will be with some real meat!

My Pastrima Experience

About 4lb meat (I used eye of round cut in half lengthwise)  no more than two inches thick.
eye of round
less than 1 cup kosher salt

  • Trim as much fat and silverskin as you can from the meat, slice it in half longwise if it's more than 2 inches thick, and rub the salt into the meat.  Put into a ziplock bag, remove the air from the bag the best you can, and leave in the fridge for 4 to 6 days.  It will be firm to the touch when it's ready.
  • Rinse off and soak in cool water for 1 to 3 hours.  Rinse and dry before moving onto the next step.
  • Wrap the meat in cheesecloth and press.  I used an old crock and some boards and rocks (bleached with H2O2, both before and after).  Press in the fridge for about 2 days.

getting ready to press the meat
meat wrapped in cheese cloth and a board for pressing.

pressing the meat in the fridge

  • Take some kitchen or butcher twine and place in boiling water to sterilize.  A darning needle too.
  • Thread the string through the narrow end of the meat, tie in a loop so you can hang the meat by this.
  • Unwrap the meat, and wrap again in clean cheesecloth. Hang for 10 days for 2 weeks (I hung in the fridge, but anything below about 10 degrees C should be fine if you salted it enough in the first step.

hanging in the fridge
meat after hanging in the fridge
    spices ready to mix
  • Prepare the spice mix.  I used:
1/3 cup Paprika
1/4 cup Fenugreek
1 Tbs Alspice
1 Tbs Black Pepper Corns
1 Tbs Cumin Seeds
1 tsp Cayanne
1 Bud (not clove, the entire bud) of Garlic
1 Tbs salt
about 1/2 to 1 cup cool water

  • I ground any spices that needed grinding, then mixed in the cool water a little at a time to make a thick paste.
  • I unwrapped the meat and carefully coated it with the spice mix.  It smelled amazing!  I was very careful to get every bit of surface area covered, it took a while.
  • at first I hung it near the hearth,
    then I remembered fire makes heat,
    so I moved it to the cupboard
  • Hang to dry somewhere out of the way.  Ideal would be about 60 degrees F, and moderately humid.  Ours was decidedly less humid and warmer (but don't tell the experts, it still turned out amazing).
freshly sauced meat

  • The spices are mega bug repellents so don't worry about that.  But you probably want to avoid somewhere with drastic changes of temperature or too much sunlight.  After the outer coating started to dry, my final hanging place was in the bottom of the pantry, next to the sauerkraut.
  • Hang for 2 weeks.
  • If there is black or fuzzy mould, worry.  Or if it smells rotten, then you worry. Otherwise, so long as you didn't skimp in the salt on the first step, then there shouldn't be any reason to worry.
  • When the time is up, grab a beer, have a party, and enjoy your Pastirma (ps, beer intensifies the spicy flavour, not calms it like with a curry).

If you get that far, you can see why it's traditionally shaved off with a hatchet.  It's very firm and the knife needs to be very sharp and strong to slice into it.

Shave thinly as you intend to eat it.  Don't cut up too much before hand because it won't keep as long.  You can store at room temperature in a pinch, but it will continue to dry out, so best to wrap in some butcher paper and put in the fridge.

I'm very impressed how delicious this is.  I'm going back for seconds now, and I might try putting some in a pasta dish tonight for dinner.

Affordable Cooking: It cost me $15 for the meat, another $3 for the spices and salt (probably less) so that's $18 for 2.5lb.  A brief look at the internet says that it runs about $20 a pound to buy ready made Pastirma (plus shipping), but I haven't found any sellers that will ship to Canada, so I think you would have to find a speciality shop for that.  I think there's one fellow in Vancouver that makes it on a large scale, but you have to be a friend to buy it off him.  So to buy this much Pastirma retail, it would be at least $45 plus shipping.... I'm happy with how little it cost me and (provided I can get the meat for a good price) will make this again.

Cooking with Allergies:  This is pretty good.  You can choose the meat and to some extent modify the spices (just be sure to keep the salt, fenugreek and garlic the same) and it does not contain nitrites/nitrates which can cause a reaction in some people.  However, it does have a high salt content.  It needs it to kill off the evil bacteria, so if you are on a low salt diet, only have one or two slices.  The current recommendation is that you have no more than one ounce of cured meat a day, so it's a good aim to um,. well to aim for.


  1. That looks great!

    I'm a food blogger currently living in Finland, and a Russian friend brought me some of this made in Georgia from a trip to Russia. I had to look up what it was and how to make it, and found your blog! Thank you for the advice. And yes, I can get horse here - I saw some fillets just the other day and wondered what to do with those! :D

  2. Would it be prudent to remove the outer "spice shell"? I feel like it might overpower the meat.