Wikipedia tells us that a spice rub is any mixture of ground spices that is made for the purpose of being rubbed on raw food before the food is cooked. The spice rub forms a coat on the food. The food can be marinated in the spice rub for some time for the flavors to incorporate into the food or it can be cooked immediately after it is coated in the rub. The spices are usually coarsely ground. In addition to spices, salt and sugar may be added to the rub, the salt for flavor and the sugar for caramelization.
Damn that Wikipedia, I can never articulate definitions as well! However, I don’t completely agree with this base definition. I feel like I’m about to open a culinary Pandora’s Box, but Wiki’s definition seems to leave out wet rubs. My experience has been that rubs come in two styles, wet and dry rubs. A dry rub, as Wikipedia informed us, is made up of spices and herbs that are sprinkled on, used to store in, or directly rubbed into the meat. A wet rub also contains a liquid component, classically an oil, and is used to coat the surface of the meat.
So why use a wet rub over a dry rub? The deciding factor is usually in the level of natural moisture in the meat. Dry rubs stick great to pieces of meat with a higher level of natural moisture but tend to fall off and become ineffective on dryer cuts. There is nothing worse then putting together a wonderful dry rub, applying it, only to find it falls off into the fire. These dryer cuts are where the wet rubs flex. Not only does the wet rub keep the flavor sticking to the outside of the meat, but the moisture barrier helps the meat retain moisture which is always a good thing. The oil that is almost always an ingredient of a wet rub also helps keep the meat from sticking to the grill. So the bottom line in deciding which type of rub to use: the meats level of moisture.
Does sprinkling salt and pepper onto a juicy NY Strip before grilling constitute a rub? No way!
What really defines a rub, as opposed to simply flavoring, is the way in which it is applied. A rub, whether wet or dry, should completely cover the surface of the meat. A rub should be lovingly worked into every inch of the meat to ensure complete flavor immersion (yes I just typed that). Epic fail when you spend time and money on a delicious new rub recipe and then fail to spend the time working it into the meat.
Here are a few special tips to keep in mind while you lovingly work your rub into dinner. When working with poultry you MUST work the rub under the skin. If you simply rub over the skin you won’t be doing anything for the meat but will end up with tasty poultry skin. So remember, skin will always block flavor immersion when applying rubs.
I’m a firm believer in letting “flavors meld” as my friend, and fellow cook, Josh always says. This means letting the meat sit for an hour, or so, after rub has been applied. Probably a good idea to let this melding happen in the fridge, to avoid any unwanted bacteria from joining in the party. Putting rubbed meat on immediately will do little more then flavor your BBQ.
One final note, although rubs are most classically associated with BBQ, I’ve successfully used them in the oven and on the stovetop. Like all culinary experiences should be – experimentation is half the fun.
So how about some rub recipes and the meats they most love to embrace?
Type-A Rub (dry)
This rub is the overachiever of the family. It’s good on virtually everything. Multiply this recipe, store it in a tightly sealed jar, and massage it (lovingly) into whatever needs a quick pick-me-up before it hits the grill.
1 tsp. dry mustard
1 tsp. granulated onion
1 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. granulated garlic
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
In a small bowl combine the ingredients. Press the rub into all sides of the meat or fish and refrigerate for 1 hour prior to grilling to intensify flavors. Yields 2 tablespoons.
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
2 Tbs. kosher salt
2 Tbs. ground black pepper
2 Tbs. Adobo sauce*
1 Tbs. paprika
1 Tbs. chili powder
2 tsp. cinnamon
2 tsp. allspice
In a small bowl combine the ingredients. Press the rub into all sides of the meat. And remember… low and slow. (I really wanted to change that last instruction into a Beastie Boys line, but refrained. Who am I to change the words of Mr. Roker?) Yields 1 cup.
* The only way I’ve found I can purchase Adobo sauce is when I purchase a can of Chipotle Peppers in Adobo Sauce. There is enough sauce for this recipe in a 7 oz. can.
Asian Rub (dry)
When looking to the Far East for flavor, look no further than this beguiling mixture. It carries chicken and beef thousands of culinary miles in a matter of minutes.
1 tsp. granulated garlic
1 tsp. granulated onion
1 tsp. paprika
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. dried lemongrass
1/2 tsp. dried basil
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
1/8 tsp. cayenne
In a small bowl combine the ingredients. Press the rub into all sides of the meat and refrigerate for 1 hour prior to grilling to intensify flavors. Yields 2 tablespoons.
Southwestern Wet Rub (wet)
This delicious rub will be a thick paste which helps it stick to any meat. It’s particularly yummy on brisket.
3 Tbs. brown sugar
2 Tbs. cayenne
2 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce
3 cloves garlic, crushed (how to)
1 Tbs. paprika
1 Tbs. kosher salt
1 Tbs. Tabasco sauce
1 Tbs. granulated onion
1 Tbs. black pepper
1 tsp. ground cumin
In a small bowl combine the ingredients. Press the rub into all sides of the meat. May be refrigerated for up to two weeks.
You may notice rub recipes call for “granulated” versions of common spices. Granulated spices are simply coarser in texture which makes them much better in rubs. The coarser consistency works into the meat more effectively than the more flour-like powder versions of the spice. You really want to spring for the granulated versions of the spices rub recipes use, you know I try to keep price down throughout this blog, but this is one case where you want to drop the extra coin. Granulated spices are available right next to all the other spices in the grocery store.
“Weber’s Big Book of Grilling” by Jamie Purviance and Sandra S. McRae, is such a fantastic grilling bible, I think everyone should own a copy.