Photo by James Ransom
A spice rub (a.k.a. dry rub) is a mixture of herbs, spices, and salt that is spread over -- or literally rubbed into -- meat or fish several hours before cooking, behaving much like a dry marinade. Spice rubs are most famously associated with barbecued meats, but these potent concoctions have applications far beyond pulled pork and needn't require a full Saturday for babysitting the backyard smoker. These rubs work equally well on meat and fish bound for the slow cooker, oven, or stovetop. Unlike a wet marinade, they impart flavor without the use of added oil or fat.
Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice
- Salt is a crucial spice rub element, as it works to break down protein fibers, allowing the spices to seep deep within the meat.
- Refresh whole spices by toasting them in a dry pan over medium heat, and then let them cool completely before processing.
- Finely grind spices using a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. A microplane can be used for larger spices like nutmeg, especially when only a small amount is needed.
- Crushing toasted spices instead of grinding them to a powder will allow the dry rub to create a crunchy texture and a thicker shell. Powdery spices will provide a more even-coating dry rub.
- Sugar added to the rub will caramelize during cooking and create a darker crust. Many cooks prefer using brown sugar over white to aid coloring and impart a deeper flavor.
- Once the spices and sugar are combined to form the dry rub, the mix can be stored in an airtight container for up to six months (basically, as long as most spices remain potent).
- You can make spice rubs more paste-like with the addition of a wet ingredient (think: honey, a splash of wine, freshly grated ginger, a squeeze of citrus), but don't add the wet item until you're ready to use the rub; otherwise, you'll shorten the life of the rub. (Note that any extra wet rub should be stored in the fridge.)
Here’s the Rub
- Before using a spice rub, clean and trim the meat you plan to prepare. Meats should be cut to the final cooking size before being rubbed down (e.g. cube stew meat).
- When rubbing a large item that still has skin on, like a whole chicken, it's best to not only put the rub directly on the skin, but also coat as much of the area underneath the skin that you can get access to without removing it.
- Rubbing the meat with a spice mixture several hours (or up to two days) ahead of cooking will allow the spices to tenderize the protein. The larger the cut of meat, the longer the rub can stay on.
- In high-heat cooking situations, spice rubs can also protect and insulate ingredients without the addition of oil or other fats. When grilling cut vegetables, try coating them with a spice rub just before putting them on the grill to help prevent them from sticking to the grates.
Many classic spice blends can easily be used as dry rubs.
- Za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice blend, makes a great crust for roasted fish.
- Chinese five-spice -- a mixture of star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, cinnamon, clove, and fennel -- is ideal for pork, chicken, and lamb.
- Tandoori spice (typically a combination of coriander, cumin, garlic, paprika, ginger, cardamom, and saffron) gives chicken its customary reddish glow after a high-temperature roast in a clay oven (but a standard oven works, too!).
Whole spices ready for toasting; fully ground spices await being mixed (photos by Sarah Shatz)
Chicken Dry Rub
Pork Dry Rub
Cocoa Rubbed New York Strip Steak with Caramelized Onion Jam
Herbes de Provence Salt
Lou Lambert's Coffee-Rubbed Roasted Brisket
Seriously Delicious Ribs [Food52]
Porcini Rubbed Butterflied Roasted Chicken [Food52]
What's in your go-to spice rub recipe? Share your cooking tips with us in the comments section below.
Like this post? Check out last week's From Scratch topic: Mayo & Mayo-Based Sauces.