AY, THERE’S THE RUB
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Warm wishes to you this holiday season,
I remember when few folks outside the competition barbecue circuit used—or had even heard of—dry rubs. Today, it’s hard to imagine grilling and barbecuing without these flavor-boosting, crust-forming blends of herbs and spices. Rubs have the ability to transform ordinary grilled food into something extraordinary.
There are dozens of commercial brands on the market, but the truth is, rubs are exceedingly easy to make from scratch at home. Inside of 30 minutes, you can have a trio of rubs lined up on your kitchen counter all ready for holiday giving. They’re a great way to indulge your passion for all things barbecue, particularly if the snow-clogged path to your grill hasn’t yet been shoveled. (OK, I know that’s unlikely among Up in Smoke readers.)
Now, you might wonder why a guy with his own line of commercial barbecue rubs would encourage you to make your own. Well, of course, you’re certainly welcome to buy and give my rubs (an idea I wholeheartedly endorse), but I know that this time of year, a lot of folks like the idea of giving a gift that’s homemade. As you may recall, I shared several ideas for homemade barbecue sauce and strategies for developing your own in the December, 2005, issue of Up in Smoke. Consider this your primer on dry rubs.
Simply defined, a rub is a mixture of herbs and spices used to season meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables, or even tofu. There are many examples of traditional rubs in the world’s barbecue cultures. Some are downright exotic, such as Morocco’s ras el hanout, which can include as many as 100 ingredients. The term translates to “head of the shop,” and as you can imagine, every “head of shop” has a proprietary blend. Others are as elemental as Chinese five-spice powder (anise, peppercorns, cinnamon, cloves, fennel), or the French seasoning quatre épices (literally, “four spices,” which translates to white pepper, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves).
In America, where pit masters use rubs with greater imagination and with a freer hand than anywhere else on the planet, rub preferences split along predictable regional lines, just like barbecue itself.
The ur American rub, which is a good place to start, usually contains roughly equal parts of salt, pepper, paprika, and sugar. It plays to a full range of flavors that can be perceived by the taste buds on your tongue. But just how you achieve those flavors lets you put your personal signature on the rub.
Sweet – sugar, brown sugar, maple sugar, or palm sugar;
Salty – table salt, kosher salt, sea salt, smoked salt, or any of the specialty salts now on the market;
Sour – lemon pepper, dried lemon or orange peel, sumac;
Heat – black pepper, green peppercorns, red peppercorns, Sichuan pepper, white pepper, dried chile flakes or powder, ginger, wasabi, paprika, smoked paprika.
Of course, there are many spices and ingredients you can use to tailor a rub’s texture and ethnic profile. Using an unconventional ingredient (in an intuitive way, of course) can make your rub really stand out. Some examples I’ve had luck with: coffee (yes…coffee) [page 82 of Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades], iced tea mix [page 130 of Beer Can Chicken], and even cocoa powder [page 266 of BBQ USA].
Lately, I’ve been experimenting with powdered versions of what are traditionally liquid condiments such as dried Worcestershire powder (available from www.penderys.com) and dried soy sauce [www.spicesetc.com]. I’m so pleased with the results that I’m introducing three new Steven Raichlen Best of Barbecue rubs this spring: I’ll tell you when they’re ready in a future issue of Up in Smoke.
Here are some additional tips for dry rub success:
- Buy the freshest possible spices and dried herbs. After 6 months, most dried herbs, especially tender herbs like chervil or tarragon, will have lost their punch. Buy replacements at a store that does a brisk business. If possible, grind the spices yourself right before you use them. A small electric coffee grinder reserved for this purpose is a help. Just don’t use it for coffee again…
- Use a cautious hand when adjusting flavors. Remember—the male brain is wired to think, “If some is good, more must be better.” Too much of a good thing can ruin a great batch of rub.
- Take your rub for a test drive. Remember, a rub will taste differently on your finger than it will on meat sizzling away on a grill or smoker. Try the rub on a neutral-tasting piece of meat, like a steak or chicken breast, so you know how it behaves on the grill.
- Strive for balance. A good rub will play like a musical chord on the palate—it should be harmonious.
- If not following a recipe, be sure to record the ingredients you use along with accurate measurements. You want to be able to replicate your successes. And share them with us and the good people on the Barbecue Board, of course!
- If giving rubs as gifts, package in airtight containers or shaker jars. These can be purchased in some cookware shops or restaurant supply stores. Design a label—easy using a computer. Do include instructions for use.
- As a general rule, figure on 2 to 4 teaspoons of rub per pound of meat, poultry, or fish.
- Date the rub and indicate the shelf-life: If kept away from light and heat, most rubs will be at their best for about six months.
So, how do you use your rub? There are two ways.
You can use it as a seasoning, like you would salt and pepper, and apply it just before grilling. Sprinkle it on, or rub it in with your fingertips. (Hey, why do you think they call it a rub?) You can reapply some just before serving to reinforce the flavor.
But you’ll achieve a more complex flavor if you use the rub as a cure or marinade: Apply the rub to food several hours ahead of time (up to a day, if the cut of meat is large), and refrigerate, covered, until ready to grill. For more specific instructions on how to use rubs, consult Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades.
Rubs aren’t just for savory dishes. One of our most popular Best of Barbecue rubs is our “dessert rub,” a combination of turbinado sugar, also known as raw sugar, with cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. (There—you have the formula!) [Raichlen on Ribs, page 277] It’s fantastic on grilled fruit.
I hope I’ve lit a fire under you, so to speak, and that you’ll be inspired to try the following new recipes or develop your own. As always, please tell us about your successes and challenges on the Barbecue Board.
Makes about 1/2 cup
1 tablespoon coarse salt (kosher or sea)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon good quality cocoa powder, unsweetened
2 tablespoons pure chile powder
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon oregano, preferably Mexican
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of ground clove
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Combine the ingredients in a small bowl and whisk to mix. Transfer to a jar, cover, and store away from heat and light. The rub should keep for up to six months.
Here is a scandalously easy rub that invokes the iconic flavors of the Grecian islands. Combined with olive oil and a splash of good vinegar, it becomes a marinade.
Makes about 1/2 cup
2 tablespoons coarse salt (kosher or medium-grained sea salt)
2 tablespoons dried parsley
1 tablespoon oregano, preferably Greek
1 tablespoon dried ground rosemary
1 teaspoon dried mint
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon lemon pepper
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper (optional)
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
Combine the ingredients in a small bowl and whisk. Transfer to a jar, cover, and store away from heat and light. The rub should keep for six months.
I just recently found your website and am a very new BBQ’r…
I have been reading through a lot of your tips, tricks, and recipes, and am looking forward to lots of BBQ fun.
I have a question: I noticed you use bourbon in some of your recipes. I don’t drink, and thus never have bourbon. I was wondering if I could substitute something else…
Queen Creek, AZ
Thanks for your excellent question, Greg. There are several flavorful liquids that can be substituted for bourbon. Apple cider, ginger ale, cola, or coffee are non-alcoholic options when making mop sauces, marinades, or barbecue sauces. What’s important is the layering of flavors; it’s what separates good BBQ’rs from great BBQ’rs.