The barbecuing season has finally arrived, and there’s nothing like a juicy steak fresh off the grill. Sometimes all we need is a little salt and pepper for it to taste amazing. But at other times we might want some extra flavor, something new and bold for our taste buds, especially if we’re barbecuing often.
Here are some ideas that will enhance the grilled flavor of all your favorite foods.
Rubs have two varieties — dry and wet. Dry rubs are a mixture of dry spices and herbs, while wet rubs are dry rubs plus a wet ingredient, such as lemon juice or vegetable oil. It’s better to make your own rubs because it’s easy and costs less, and the commercial ones are loaded with salt.
The purpose of dry rubs is to bring out the natural flavor of meat, and to introduce new flavors. They can also create a great crust on cooked food.
The simplest dry rub contains salt, pepper, and brown or white sugar, and these are a foundation for many rub recipes. From there you can choose any ingredients you want, as long as you maintain a balance among the other components (for example, you don’t want the rub too hot).
Some common spices and herbs you can add to the basic dry rub include: paprika, chili powder, onion powder, garlic powder, white pepper, lemon pepper, dry mustard, cayenne, cumin, dried lemon/lime zest, coriander, sage, and thyme.
A dry rub is used on food that is cooked faster at higher temperatures, such as on a gas grill, and on food that won’t tenderize that much, like thick chicken breasts and shrimp.
There are some tried and true ratios you can use for the ingredients. This doesn’t mean you can’t be creative, but once you have some experience making your own dry rubs using these formulas, it will be easier to experiment.
For example, the perfect ratio for a dry rub for ribs is said to be 8:3:1:1. This means the first ingredient of 13 makes up 8 parts, the second 3 parts, the third 1 part, and the fourth 1 part. You could then have a mixture of: 8 tablespoons (parts) sugar, 3 tablespoons (parts) salt, 1 tablespoon (part) chili powder or paprika, and 1 part any spice you’d like (or any combination that adds up to 1 tablespoon (part) such as 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 1/2 teaspoon thyme). These measurements are just an example and can be scaled up or down.
For beef, you’ll want a higher amount of salt than sugar, although some people like the rib formula with their steaks. There isn’t as much agreement on the salt-based rubs, but many recipes call for the following ratios:
The largest number is always for salt, the second for sugar, and the third for pepper or paprika. The longer ratios allow you to add customized ingredients for personal preferences.
Don’t apply your salt-based rub too long before grilling, because salt draws moisture out of meat. You want to pull out just enough moisture so a crust will form while cooking, but not enough to dry out your meat.
Of course, you can always vary which ingredients are the larger portions in these formulas, as long as you always include the sugar and salt. Some people like less salt and sugar with their food and decrease the amounts.
A wet rub is best used when slow cooking because it will tenderize the meat and keep it from drying out. The consistency can range anywhere from a paste to a sauce, as long as it sticks to the meat. If your wet rub is high in sugar content (brown sugar, molasses, etc.) keep the temperature lower than 350° F so it will caramelize, not burn, and brown the meat.
The ratio in a wet rub for the spices and herbs is the same as for the dry rub without moisture. Examples of wet ingredients include: soy sauce, cider vinegar, molasses, honey, beer, bourbon, vegetable oil, Dijon mustard, Worcester sauce, tomato sauce, fruit juice, lemon juice, and melted butter.
Use a wet rub with meats such as beef ribs, pork chops, and bone-in chicken. They’ll draw in moisture from the rub, while charring on the outside. Wet rubs are also better for grilled vegetables, such as portabellas, bell peppers, red onions, and zucchini — dry rubs don’t stick as well to most vegetables.
How to Apply Rubs
Some of the dry ingredients you’re assembling for your rub may have to be ground first, such as peppercorns, and the seeds for mustard, coriander, cumin, and celery. Any herbs should be fresh and dried.
For a dry rub, spoon or sprinkle the mixture over the entire surface of the meat. Some people moisten the meat first with a little water, oil, mustard, or ketchup to help the rub stick. With chicken, if you’re leaving the skin on, you can put some rub under the skin to make sure it’s touching the meat. Work the rub around with your hands until the meat is covered. Do this about 15-30 minutes before you put the meat on the grill. You can wait longer if you don’t have salt in the rub, but plan to add it when serving.
Wet rubs are brushed on. Be sure to cover the whole cut of meat, or the whole vegetable piece. The wet rub can sit on the meat a bit longer than the dry rub to let some of the liquid soak in. Apply more whenever you flip the food on the grill.
You can make large batches of dry and wet rubs for future barbecues — just increase the portions of each ingredient, but keep the ratios. Store the dry rub in a tightly closed container for up to 6 months. Wet rubs will keep for a few weeks in the refrigerator.
Sauces and Glazes
When cooking with a dry rub, don’t apply a glaze (e.g. maple syrup and soy sauce) or a barbecue sauce until the last few minutes of grilling time — just long enough to heat it and bake it on the food without burning. Pour the glaze or sauce into a bowl, dip your spoon or brush in it, then apply it to the meat or fish on the grill. Serve fresh sauce at the table for dipping.
Here are some spice and herb recommendations for meats, fish, and vegetables:
- Beef – thyme, rosemary, garlic, oregano, dried onion, sage, dry mustard powder, curry powder, basil
- Chicken – thyme, rosemary, coriander, sage, marjoram, tarragon, ginger, basil, parsley
- Fish – chives, dill, fennel, coriander, chili flakes, tarragon, ginger, celery seed, parsley, turmeric
- Pork – rosemary, sage, thyme, dry mustard powder, garlic, cloves, caraway, fennel, celery seed
- Vegetables – paprika, chili powder, black pepper, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, basil, oregano, onion powder, rosemary, thyme
Rubs can be a blend of pretty much anything. There are some wonderful ones that break all the “rules”. Take a recipe and be inventive — substitute for your favorite spices and herbs and omit others. And if you don’t have the time, or the ingredients, use a store-bought dry rub or a thick barbecue sauce for a wet one.
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