The Science Of Rubs
"Bam! That's what you do with spices!" Emiril Lagasse
Some foods just don't need anything other than a little salt and pepper. A great steak comes to mind. 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 usually not referring to adding herbs and spices. They are usually 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. It also helps meat retain water. 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. Click here to read more about salt and the different types of salt.
When the rest of us speak of seasoning, we usually mean salt and pepper and all the other flavorings. Spice blends, commonly called dry rubs, and wet rubs, which are spice blends mixed with oil are a great way to amp it up to 11. Pesto is a classic wet rub.
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. Find some rub recipes you like, make a big batch, and put them 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.
You can buy pre-mixed rubs, but they are easy to make yourself, and a lot cheaper since most commercial rubs are loaded with salt. Every good barbecue cook should have a signature house rub to brag on. Just steal my recipes. Click here to see a list of them with links to the recipes. Then experiment with variations. But remember, you cannot judge a rub raw. It tastes very very different after cooking. The juices of the meat mix with the herbs and spices, melt them, and they undergo chemical reactions catalyzed by the heat of the fire. A rub may taste too hot when raw, but keep in mind there will be a bite sized piece of food underneath it diluting it. You may hate rosemary, but you'll never notice it in the blend, after mixing with juices, after cooking, and in with a mouthful of pork. As always, I recommend you make my recipes unaltered the first time, and after you cook with it you can then alter it to your tastes.
The four Ss
A good rub is like a good orchestra, it has a range of instruments to play all the notes in harmony. They are:
Savory. There is an herb named savory, and in common language we speak of savory as being a pleasant smell or taste, but in the culinary arts, savory flavors come from amino acids called glutamates, green herbs, some spices, garlic, and other flavorings.
Spices and herbs. Not all of them work on all foods, but the spice rack is full of great flavors. Paprika is often included, not so much for flavor as for color. Click here to read more about spices and herbs.
Spicy. Hot pepper sensations, often called spicy flavors, are often in rubs because they add excitement, but go easy, not everyone likes it as hot as you do. Black pepper is common, so are ground hot peppers such as cayenne or chipotle. Ginge, horseradish, and mustard powder also fit in this category. Click here to read more about chiles.
No salt in rubs!
Salt penetrates, so the amount we apply depends on the weight of the meat. All the rest are huge molecules that are not very water soluble (and meat is 75% water) and they rarely go beyond 1/8" deep. Spices and herbs are a surface treatment just like sauces so the amount we apply depends on the per square inches of surface.
Applying the salt separately and in advance is a very important technique called dry brining. Dry brining is simply salting thick cuts the day before cooking and thin cuts an hour or two before. Adding salt in advance is good for the meat because it melts on the wet surface of meat and it penetrates deep. You should click this link and read more about dry brining.
Adding spices in advance does little to benefit the meat below the surface because they cannot penetrate. You should read this article to see how salt gets sucked in. Read more about why rubs and marinades don't penetrate in my article on marinating.
You need more salt on a pork shoulder than on pork ribs because a shoulder is thicker. You need more salt on rib roast than a ribeye steak, and more on a ribeye steak than on skirt steak. You need more salt on chicken breasts than on thighs or drums. You need more salt on the thick part of a leg of lamb than on the thin part. You don't need more spices on any of these because they don't penetrate. Keeping salt and the other Ss separate lets you apply the right amount of each.
There are other good reasons to keep them separate: (1) You do not need any salt at all on cured meats like a ham, bacon, or corned beef, but you might want sugar, savory, and spicy. (2) Nowadays almost all turkeys and many ribs, pork loins, chickens, and other meats are injected with a salt solution either at the processor or at home. And this trend is not going away. Many readers tell me they cannot find ribs that have not been pumped. Meat that is labeled "enhanced" or "flavor enhanced" or "self-basting" or "basted" has been injected with a brine at the packing plant. Kosher meat has also been treated with salt at the plant. (3) Some people like more or less salt than others. By keeping it separate you can tailor saltiness to your taste. (4) Some people are on salt restricted diets, although when you do the math, the salt used in preparing meat, up to 1/2 teaspoon per pound, is way below your limit. (5) Some rubs are mixed with oil, and salt dissolves in water. If you apply it first, the water in the meat will pull it in. Then the oil won't interfere. (6) Leaving salt out of the mix also gives you room to add a finishing salt just before serving. A sprinkle of large grain salt on a steak as soon as it comes off the grill give it real pop.
You can add the salt at the same time as the spices. No harm, no foul. It will still penetrate, maybe not as deep, but it will travel when it gets wet and warm. But if you can get it down in advance, give it a head start. Injecting is also a good idea (leaving aside the issue of how it allows packers to add up to 10% weight to the meat). You should consider doing it yourself with thick meats, especially beef brisket and turkey breast (if it is not already injected).
I know almost all commercial rubs have salt in them. Sometimes half the blend is salt. That's because salt is cheap and rubs are expensive. The more salt, the more the profit. Besides, most rub manufacturers haven't figured out the science and if they took the salt out they would be so expensive people wouldn't buy them. All the more reason to make your own rubs starting with my recipes.
So salt, rub, and sauce are three separate applications. You wouldn't add the sauce to the rub would you? We often have to teach newbies not to apply sauce til the end of the cook. Let's learn to add salt in advance. Salt, rub, and sauce are like antifreeze, oil, and gas. They all go into the engine, but don't mix them! Apply them in the right proportion at the right time. Or to carry the metaphor a bit farther, applying the salt, the rub, and the sauce separately is like controlling the gas pedal, break, and clutch. Work them in harmony but separately.
Keeping the salt in one hand and the rub in the other gives you a lot more freedom and control. Remember, you can always add salt, but you can't take it away.
Bloom your spices
Toasting many spices amplifies their flavors by releasing their oils and changing chemical sconstructions through the maillard effect. So here's a trick to take your rubs to the next level. Warm a frying pan over medium heat and pour in your spices. Stir or shake them often. Don't let them sit still for more than 10 seconds or they can burn. It only takes about two minutes to bloom them. You'll know when the fragrance jumps out at you.
Either pour them out of the hot pan immediately or else they will continue to cook and burn or, if you wish, make a wet rub by adding some oil, not a lot, just enough to make a paste, and turn the heat as low as possible and cook for another minute so the oil will pull out more of the flavor.
Mustard or oil under the rub?
You can put a rub right on bare meat, or you can help it stick by moistening the meat with a little water, a slather of mustard or ketchup, or you can use cooking oil. The best we can hope for is that the spices and herbs will melt a bit, make a nice flavorful slurry that will become a major part of the desireable flavorful loveable bark when it is heated and dries out.
My experience that they make little or no difference in the final outcome. The mustard fanatics are, well fanatic. But mustard is water, vinegar, and maybe white wine (all mostly water) with mustard powder mixed in. The amount of mustard powder is so small that by the time the water steams off and drips away, the mustard powder remaining is miniscule. If you want a mustard flavor, you will do much better by simply sprinkling it on the meat.
Oil fanatics are just as fanatic. They think the spices, which are mostly oil soluble not water soluble, will be dissolved and penetrate the meat deeper. They forget that oil and water don't mix. The oil is not going into the meat. If you oil the meat before putting on the rub, the salt will have a harder time penetrating.
I usually use cooking oil because it helps keep meat from sticking to the grates and because it also helps seal in water for a few minutes. Since salt is water soluble, I try to remember to dry brine. Far more important is what is in the rub than under the rub. So use whatever you want.
You should rub a rub
There is a popular myth that you should not rubs in a rub, that you should sprinkle it on because rubbing it in cuts the surface and juices will run out.
Humbug. There is a reason they are called cuts of meat. Meat is muscle that has been cut to remove it from the bones, fat, and other muscles. The surface has already been in a knife fight and there are gazillions of muscle fibers that have been sliced open. There are also bazillions of microscopic ridges, valleys, cracks, crevices, pits, pockmarks, and pores in the surface. The surface is far from smooth. Rubbing a rub into the surface can't hurt it one bit. It is not going to lose any more juice than if you just sprinkle it on. And rubbing might just help the meat hold onto the rub better.
Skip the plastic wrap
After salting, the best arrangement is on a wire rack over a pan, no wrap. There is nothing about plastic wrap that forces salt or rub molecules into the meat. It is not some sort of vacuum or pressure system. Plastic wrap just gets stuck to the rub and pulls it off when we remove the plastic. Liquid also accumulates in the plastic and washes away some of the spices. If you are dry brining poultry, you actually want airflow around the meat to help desiccate the skin.
In the restaurant world you are required by law to cover or wrap the meat so juices won't contaminate other foods like veggies. This makes sense, so a roasting pan with a rack and a dome will work just fine.
If there are odors in the fridge, if there is something really smelly in there, plastic wrap will help keep out the smell, but remember, plastic wrap does not prevent air from entering and exiting, so if there is one of Tony Soprano's dead friends in your fridge, the smell can penetrate most plastic wraps.
Otherwise, just leave the meat nekkid on a rack in a pan on the bottom shelf of the fridge. If you feel safer wrapping, go ahead. It really won't hurt much.
This page was revised
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