Barbecue Rubs, Blends, Pastes and Slathers
March 30, 2012
When it comes to grilling, there are countless ways to add layers of flavor beginning with external seasonings. Here to shed some light on the various options that exist is the man they simply call Meathead, Craig Goldwyn.
Some meats just don’t need anything other than a little salt and pepper. A great steak comes to mind. Or a really fresh piece of swordfish. On the other hand, some meats love swimming in sauces. Like pork ribs. Other meats are not very flavorful on their own, and are a blank canvas that is easily painted with herbs, spices, and flavorful liquids.
There are several ways to amp up the flavors of foods before cooking:
When chefs speak of seasoning a dish, they are not referring to adding herbs and spices. They are talking about salt and pepper. Period. And most chefs think that these two basic additives are absolutely positively essential. Salt is an excellent flavor enhancer because it actually opens up your taste buds and this really wakes up the flavor of meat and vegetables. If your diet requires low salt, go easy on it, but if you can handle a little, don’t skip a little “Dalmatian rub”, just plain salt and pepper, on almost anything.
Dry rubs and spice blends
Dry rubs are a mix of spices and dried herbs and they are rubbed into the meat before cooking. They come in a wide range of flavors. There are barbecue rubs, chili powder (yes chili powder is a spice blend), curries, jerk seasoning, sate, Old Bay, and many more.
Rubs can be applied just before cooking, but if you have the time, leave them on overnight so they can penetrate. They don’t go much more than 1/8″ into most meats, but that’s enough to make a difference. You can buy pre-mixed rubs, but they are easy to make yourself, and every good barbecue cook should have a signature house rub to brag on. Just steal my recipes. Then experiment with variations.
Dry rubs usually have salt in them. The salt melts when it contacts the meat and weird things happen with electrons, and it is sucked into the meat dragging with it the other spices. Salt can also help make the surface crusty, usually a desirable texture. Sugar is a common addition because it is a flavor enhancer and it also helps with crust formation. Hot pepper is often in rubs because it adds excitement, but go easy, not everyone likes it as hot as you do. Paprika is often included, not so much for flavor as for color. Black pepper is common, so is garlic powder, onion powder, and herbs. Find a rub recipe you like, make a big batch, and put it in a large spice shaker with a lid. If it clumps or cakes, you can do what waitresses in diners have been doing forever: Dry some rice in the oven or a pan and add it to the jar to absorb the moisture (special thanks to Mexico Don for the tip on drying the rice first).
Pastes, wet rubs, and slathers
Pastes come in two classes: Water based and oil based. Most are just dry rubs mixed with water or oil. They have the advantage of sticking better and can be layered on thick. If salt and sugar are important components, use water as a solvent. Water base slathers are often mixed with mustard, wine, stock, or just plain water. Oil won’t dissolve salt and sugar as quickly as water, but many herbs and spices are not water soluble, and oil pulls out their flavors better. Oils are especially good at pulling flavor from fresh herbs. Oil has the added advantage of helping seal the surface of the meat, slightly reducing evaporation. It also helps keep food from sticking to the grates, and if oil-based pastes get hot enough, it can fry the surface, helping with browning and really amping up the flavor.