Since the dawn of cooking, man has sought to turn mere sustenance into gastronomic feasts. I’m no anthropologist, but I suspect that a discerning palate separates us from the lower primates every bit as much as the opposable thumb.
As part of your evolution from garden-variety griller to pit-master (I was going to say “Steak-speare” but thought better of it), there will be many techniques to learn.
Knowing your way around the grill, and picking the right cuts of meat is important, of course, but if you want to put your stamp on your cooking, you’ll want to develop and make your own rub.
In this article I’ll take you through a quick look at the roots of seasoning food and then get into detail about types of rubs, the key ingredients, and how to blend them in perfect proportions yourself, rather than buying pre-made commercial rubs.
Since not all rubs are right for all meats, we’ll look at specific rubs for beef, pork, and more.
Now, if you’re ready, we’ll plunge into the surprisingly fascinating world of flavor, and learn how to take your BBQ offerings up a notch or two. Let’s see what seasonings may come!
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A Brief History of Thyme
Exactly when our pre-human ancestors had the first barbeque may never be known. The oldest known remains of purpose-built structures for fires date back about 400,000 years. Discoveries made in South Africa, however, suggest that early hominins were cooking meat more than a million years ago.
It’s a big step from slapping meat on a fire to adding seasonings for flavor, and scientist don’t know for sure when that happened, either.
Some researchers think seasonings were discovered by accident by ancient hunter-gatherers carrying meat wrapped in leaves or bark and finding they liked the taste that was imparted. It is known that Neanderthals used herbs some 250,000 years ago: scientists have found traces of them in prehistoric plaque.
The early Spice Trade and the value of spices centuries ago are well documented and I won’t spend time on that here. Suffice to say, every major civilization around the globe developed their own local seasonings, sometimes using native-grown spices and herbs, and sometimes using imported or transplanted goods.
Today, most people with access to a grocery store can avail themselves of a dizzying array of international spices that would once have been worth a king’s ransom.
The Triumvirate of Flavor
When it comes to flavor additives, there are many choices, but there are three that stand out as the most basic:
Salt and pepper are found on every restaurant table, and sugar is often there, too. A quick search of nearly every kitchen in Western Civilization, and probably around the world, will turn up all three in some format.
It should come as no surprise, then, that these three common ingredients are the foundation for just about every type of BBQ rub.
This is great news for you, because you might not need to pick them up at the grocery store on your inevitable spice run.
What Kind of Salt Should I Use?
There are all kinds of salt available to use. The purpose of salt is to enhance certain flavors and suppress others.
Salt can keep food from tasting bitter, but may make sweet notes stand out. In higher concentrations, salt brings umami to the fore, and that’s just what we want in a meat rub.
The most familiar kind of salt, table salt is usually iodized and highly refined. It’s fine and relatively free from impurities, and it’s meant to flow freely from a shaker.
While not exotic, there’s nothing wrong with using this old standby in your rubs.
An attractive salt that is flakier and coarser than the salt most people know.
It dissolves quickly when cooked, but it’s excellent for seasoning meat. In fact, its primary purpose is to remove fluid from meat during the koshering process.
As the name implies, this salt is harvested by evaporating seawater. Because it doesn’t go through the rigorous refining process table salt does, sea salt is coarse and usually full of other minerals.
For that reason, it adds a more complicated flavor making it great on its own, or as a rub base.
Himalayan Pink Salt
This is a trendy number, and it’s cropping up in high-end restaurants everywhere. It’s a very raw salt, and is as popular with new-agers as it is with chefs.
While salt lamps are all fine and dandy, my preferred use is as an attractive and tasty additive to a rub.
Fleur de Sel
If you really want to wow your friends, add a dash of this hand-harvested French sea salt, and be sure to leave out the package and the receipt!
A light salt that works wonders on veal, lamb, or fish, it sells for about 4 or 5 dollars… an ounce.
For a similar but slightly less costly French coast salt, try Celtic Sea Salt. It’s the grey salt found under fleur de sel, and it’s great for fish.
There are two kinds of colored Hawaiian salt: black and red.
The black stuff get its color from charcoal that’s added in, and the red salt is naturally colored by local clay that’s rich in iron.
Both are well suited to seafood, but the black also works for pork, and the red looks and tastes great on beef.
Well, this stuff just has BBQ written all over it!
Some genius took salt and smoked it slowly over a wood fire and came up with this modern marvel.
There are different flavors created with different kinds of wood; pick your favorite and put it in your blend to add a smoky and robust character without having to smoke the meat itself.
Pro Tip for Salt
Salt draws moisture out of meat, and that’s not a bad thing IF you control the process.
If you put your salt-based rub on too far in advance, you’ll just dry out your meat. Don’t let your rub sit too long before cooking. The idea is to draw out just enough moisture to help form a crust without turning your meat into leather.
Alternatively, you want to leave the salt on for hours, in a process called ‘dry brining.’
This is where the salt draws moisture out of the meat, the salt dissolves in the moisture and the meat is left long enough for the now salty liquid to be drawn back in.
This gets seasoning deep into the meat fibers, not just on the surface, and the end result is a still moist, deeply seasoned meat.
So apply salt either just a few minutes before cooking, or leave on for 3 hours plus. Do not salt and leave it on the meat for times in between.
Pepper: It’s Nothing to Sneeze At
Pepper, as you may be aware, comes from grinding peppercorns. But did you know that the peppercorn is actually a berry?
They come from a vine native to India, but which is now grown commercially in really hot places around the world. Thanks to the dispersion, there are now many regional varietals of peppercorn, each with a subtly unique flavor profile.
You might find pepper grown in Sumatra, Vietnam, or Ecuador, if you look hard enough.
The famous black peppercorns we’re used to seeing in peppermills are unripe berries that have been harvested and dried, perhaps through cooking, or perhaps by just leaving them out in the sun.
White peppercorns used to be black before they were soaked and peeled.
Green peppercorns are picked before they’ve matured and then dried. Green peppercorns are famously used in steak au poivre, a classic French steak preparation.
Pink peppercorns – You might hear of pink peppercorns during your culinary explorations. They originate from either Peru or Brazil, and do not come from the same family of plants as the black, white, or green peppercorns.
They look great, and have a nice flavor, but be warned: they are related to cashews and could be dangerous to anyone with a tree nut allergy.
What About Paprika?
Lots of folks love paprika, and why the heck not? It adds a nice little dash of flavor and a very appealing color to many dishes. It is not, however, a pepper in the same way as pepper made from ground peppercorns.
Paprika, like cayenne pepper, is made from dried and ground peppers of the New World variety. Think bell peppers (or sweet peppers, depending on where you live), or even chili peppers.
Tasty, but entirely different from peppercorns.
It Was My Understanding There Would Be No Math…
No doubt there are many folks who just toss random ingredients together and hope for the best when it comes to seasoning.
I once made an incredible blend of flavors for some grilled tilapia by just grabbing a bunch of bottles from the kitchen cupboard and sprinkling a bit of this and a bit of that. Years later my kids still talk about, but, sadly, I don’t know what I used, and I have never recreated it.
This is not how to make your own rub!
It’s far better to use a structured approach in hopes of achieving repeatable results.
Not to say you can’t be creative! But if you start with a basic formula, you can experiment without going too far wrong, and without risk of a once-in-a-lifetime success.
There are some tried and true ratios for ingredients that you can use for a starting point.
The Pork Rib Rub
According to science and Alton Brown, neither of which can be argued with, the perfect ratio for a dry rib rub is 8:3:1:1. That means your first ingredient makes up 8 parts of 13, your second is 3 parts, and so on.
The biggest portion of the rub is sugar. Sugar caramelizes beautifully and is ideal for enhancing the flavor of pork. While you could use good ol’ white sugar, feel free to play around with Demerara, brown, maple, and other kinds of sugar.
Next, comes 3 parts of salt. Again, while the ratio may be set, the kind of salt isn’t. Refer to the salt section above for a starting point in your personal quest for salinity.
In the third section, you add flavor and color with either chili powder or paprika. The choice depends on the type of rub you’re after, spicy or mild.
Finally, pick your own seasoning to finish off the rub. You could even use more than one spice, so long as the combination adds up to one part to balance the equation.
Beef Rub Proportions
For beef, you’ll usually want to go with a higher proportion of salt than sugar.
Good beef can be dramatically flavorful and salt-based rubs will enhance and add on rather than mask and obscure. Still, many folks love what sugar can do to a steak, so don’t be afraid to try the 8:3:1:1 rub on your beef.
The jury is out on the exact right combo for salt-based rubs, but many recipes call for one of the following:
Noticing a pattern here? The largest number is always salt, followed by sugar, and then pepper or paprika. The longer ratios allow for extra customization to achieve a particular flavor combination, or to suit a regional preference.
Some recipes call for an even higher proportion of salt, sometimes up to 10 parts. While we may be talking about small quantities (think 10 tablespoons, not 10 cups), it’s still important to strike a balance.
Still, taste buds are very personal little guys, and some people might prefer more salt. Just remember what I said earlier about drying out your meat.
To Everything There Is A Seasoning
There is an incredible array of herbs and spices available to choose from. However, not all spices are suited to all kinds of meat. So it’s important to choose your mix carefully to suit the meat and the flavor you’re after.
Here are a few herbs and spices to get you started, paired up with the most appropriate meat variety. Remember: there are no rules, only guidelines.
Note: I’ve left out pepper (and its relatives), salt, and sugar. Those are a given.
Best Seasonings for Beef
- Dried onion
- Dry mustard powder
- Curry powder
Best Seasonings for Chicken
Best Seasonings for Fish
- Chili flakes
- Celery seed
Best Seasonings for Lamb
Best Seasonings for Pork
- Dry mustard powder
- Celery seed
Sometimes, you want to try and mimic the flavor of a far-off land, and give your taste buds a vacation from the ordinary.
Indian, Thai, Tex-Mex, Caribbean – there are fantastic flavors to be found all over the globe, and you don’t have to rack up the frequent flyer miles to try them.
Taking a trip to the neighborhood grocery store may yield some good finds for regional cuisine. If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, seek out an ethnic supermarket or find a good local market where regional offerings might be available.
Some spices that can add a taste of somewhere far away include:
- Chili powder
- Celery seed
- Chili powder
Kansas City Here I Come
Of course, not all regional flavors are found thousands of miles away. For example, the Kansas City rub is known far and wide, but many of you may live within a short haul flight of the source of origin.
The Kansas City rub is made of brown sugar, paprika, white sugar, garlic salt (my go too spice for everything), celery salt, chili powder, black pepper, cayenne, and dry mustard.
Not to be outdone, Texas has its own rub consisting of paprika, brown sugar, chili powder, kosher or sea salt, black pepper, garlic, onion, and cumin.
In fact, there are regional varieties of BBQ flavorings to be found across the United States, Canada, and in many countries around the world.
Other Seasonings to Consider
Most of the spices and herbs I’ve discussed so far are easily purchased individually for custom-making your own rubs. However, there’s no reason not to try one of the many pre-blended spice combinations readily found in most stores that sell spices and seasonings.
- Asian Five-Spice
- Caribbean jerk
- Herbes de Provence
While some spice enthusiasts might consider these blends to be cheating, they can be useful time-savers and may bring a level of authenticity that might otherwise be difficult to achieve. (As an example, Asian Five-Spice blends star anise, Szechuan peppercorns, fennel, cassia, and clove.)
There are many exotic spices one can try out, too. As you may have deduced, I’m all about impressing the guests by taking the experience to unexpected places. Have fun experimenting with something out of the ordinary like:
- Citrus zest: add some zing with a bit of peel
- Bloody Mary/Bloody Caesar rimmer: a blend of spices meant for rimming drink glasses; I love this stuff on chicken
- Long pepper: hotter and sweeter than black pepper; great for Indian or Mediterranean dishes
- Saffron: crazy expensive, but you only need a bit to make an impact
- Anardana: made from dried pomegranate seeds; use it to add some sour, fruity notes to a fish rub
Of course that’s just the tip of the international spice rack iceberg! I encourage you to go to the store, pick up things you don’t recognize, and read the labels.
Or, if you’re dining out and come across a flavor you don’t know, ask your server what it is. You never know, it could become your new secret ingredient!
Wet Rubs vs. Dry Rubs
Didn’t really specify which we were discussing did I? The truth is, they both start life the same way.
You make a rub by blending your dried/powdered/ground ingredients together. (Food processors are great for this, but a whisk and a large bowl are just fine.)
A dry rub is exactly what it sounds like: you apply the blend of seasonings exactly they way they are to your cuts of meat.
For a wet rub, you can mix in some oil, or Worcestershire sauce to the blend to help it adhere to the meat.
How To Give Your Meat a Good Rub
So, you’ve learned a lot about spices and what they’re good for by now, and you might be itching to put your new rub to the test. One problem – you may not know how the rub is applied to the meat. That’s ok, I’ve got you covered in my guide on how to use dry rubs…but you can also see an abridged but useful version below!
Despite the vigorous name, you actually aren’t giving your meat cuts a Turkish massage. For a dry rub, sprinkle the blend on gently and try to cover the entire surface of the meat. If you’re cooking chicken with the skin on, you might want to put some rub under the skin to ensure contact with the meat.
Once it’s sprinkled on, feel free to work it around a bit, but, since it’s dry, it’s not going to absorb into the meat. You can apply your rub about 15-30 minutes before it hits the grill. If you don’t have salt in the rub, you can leave it longer if you want.
If you have any rub left over, put it in a container and seal it tight. It won’t last forever, but it certainly will be good for the rest of the season.
A wet rub can be brushed on like a paste. As with the dry rub, make sure to cover the whole cut. You might choose to let a wet rub sit on the meat a bit longer to allow some of the fluid to soak in.
Once your meat is covered in rub, put it on the grill and cook as per usual. Watch out with sugar-based rubs, however – sugar burns quickly, and you don’t want a burnt crust.
The Finishing Touch
Not every cookout requires a custom blend of spices to make it a success. There’s nothing wrong with savoring the natural flavor of a really great steak, going simple with salt and/or pepper, or splashing on your favorite sauce.
But when you’re looking to take your mouth on a flavor adventure, there’s nothing quite like whipping up your very own rub. You never know when you’ll hit that magic combination that becomes your signature seasoning.
If you’ve got anything you’d like to say about BBQ rubs, or about this article, please take a minute and leave a comment or drop a line. We’re always happy to hear your thoughts whether you agree or disagree with anything we’ve said. Maybe you’ve got a tip to help us all out as we craft our own rubs? Please share!
See you in the backyard, my friends!