The best way to bring out the flavor of your meat is by using spice rubs. Some rub recipes you will like more and some you will like less, but it's almost impossible to render your meat inedible by using even the worst rub. And who knows, you may hit on that special spice combination that will make your family famous.
Let's talk about ingredients. Salt and pepper form the base of the more savory dry rubs, and sugar (brown and/or white) form the base of the more sweet dry rubs. Wet rubs typically use mustard, ketchup and/or vinegar for the base with spices added as desired.
So which rub do you use for which meat and for which style of cooking? That's the question, of course. Here are some simple guidelines (keeping in mind that as soon as you list the rules there will be people who come out of the woodwork to explain how they were successful breaking all the rules.)
- Savory dry rubs work better when you're cooking over high heat. That would include steaks, burgers, etc. Sugar tends to burn over high heat or direct heat (like a back yard grill,) and leaves a burnt sugar flavor behind. Nobody likes that. So if you're going to cook over high, direct heat, think savory rubs first.
Sweet rubs work best in the low and slow environment. That would include ribs, brisket, flank, shoulder, etc. cooked at temps around 200-250 degrees for may hours.
Wet rubs can work in either temp setting but tend to work better in low and slow. Many barbecue recipes utilize wet rubs.
So what are the ingredients, and what are the percentages?
- Salt. Use sea salt or pink himalayan salt, or kosher salt, or something other than just iodized table salt. You would think salt is salt, but each kind has different flavor profiles. Experiment. That's what this is all about.
- Pepper. Use freshly cracked pepper wherever possible. Pepper that is pre-cracked has very little flavor and does very little for what you put it on. You can buy pepper corns in various flavors (colors) and crack them fresh. Try it. You'll never go back to pre-cracked pepper.
Sugar. This is a case where any old sugar will do. Although you don't want to rule out raw sugar like the cones of sugar you buy at the Mexican market. That is a unique flavor.
Brown Sugar. Again, any old brown sugar will do.
Garlic Powder. This is a case where garlic powder will do, although finely mincing fresh garlic will give a rounder flavor.
Smoked Paprika. Any smoked paprika will do, but smoked is clearly better than regular. I don't use unsmoked paprika for anything.
Chili Powder. You can use regular chili powder, ancho, guajillo, or whatever you have. The more exotic the chili powder, the more exotic the flavor. Be creative.
Cayenne pepper. You can use any cayenne you like. Just be careful. Not everyone likes it as hot as you do. Work your way up on the cayenne.
Onion Powder. Again, this is a case where onion powder is acceptable, but where fresh onion will give you more flavor.
Cumin. I know there are people who swear by cumin on red meat. Personally, I think it goes much better on pork or chicken. In fact, I love it on both pork and chicken. But I never use it on red meat. Ever. However, your mileage may vary. Give it a try. You may like it. But start small and work up. It has a distinct flavor and works best on beef in very small amounts.
Mustard. Mustard is a staple for wet rubs, especially in the deep south. You can try regular yellow mustard, but dijon mustard typically yields a more complex flavor profile. If you use regular yellow mustard you're going to have to use more spices to doctor it up.
Ketchup. Various brands of ketchup have different flavor profiles. Try different brands to see what you like.
Citrus Juice. Citrus juice is usually limited to lemon, lime and orange. Lemon is best on fish, lime is best on pork, fish or chicken and orange goes with everything. In a dry rub you can zest the peel (after scrubbing all the wax and crud off, of course) and use that, or you can use the juice. If you're using a wet rub you can use either the zest or the juice. Try both. They yield a differnt result.
The best ratio for the above ingredients is this: If you're using sugar as your base, use four parts sugar to one part of everything else. If you're using salt as your base, use two parts salt to one part of everything else. The exceptions are cayenne, which you should start with 1/4 part and cumin, where you would start with 1/2 part.
So what does that look like? Let's say I look in my spice cupboard and I have plenty of sea salt and I want to do a salt-based rub. It would look like this: 1 Tbs. Salt, 1 Tbs freshly cracked black pepper, 1/2 Tbs. smoked paprika, 1/2 Tbs. ancho chili powder, 1/2 Tbs. onion powder, 1/2 Tbs garlic powder, 1/4 Tbs cayenne.
For wet rubs, start with a cup of mustard or ketchup and add spices a teaspoon at a time. Citrus zest or juice would be added a tablespoon at a time. If you're using the citrus juice as the base, start with a cup and add 1/2 to 1 Tbs. of spices until you get a flavor that is pleasing to you.
Finally, these ratios are just a starting point. For example, I like garlic, and I always use more garlic than what these ratios suggest. Could be the same for cayenne, or whatever spice is your favorite. Don't get caught up in the recipe. Just start adding ingredients until you have something that pleases you. And don't stop with these ingredients. You could add garam masala or turmeric for an east Indian flavor. Or ginger for an asian flavor. Or other savory spices like rosemary, thyme, etc. for a European flavor. To get started, just open the spice cupboard and get out what you have and start mixing. I promise you're going to like it.
Applying The Rub
Applying rub is just like you'd expect (or maybe not.) You take it in your hand (clean, freshly washed hand) and rub it vigorously into the meat. You don't just sprinkle it on top. Rub it in and let it sit for a couple of hours. You can put it in a ziplock bag in the fridge, or you can leave it on the counter (if you don't have a dog tall enough to surf the counters.) But give it time to do it's magic.
The exception to applying the rub by rubbing vigorously is fish. Obviously, most fish won't hold up to vigorous rubbing, so you rub more gently. But you still rub it in and not just sprinkle it on.
You'll notice I didn't put any recipes out there. You don't need them! Just use the above ratios and see what you get. Experiment. Get creative. Cooking is supposed to be fun and exciting. Trying something new will lead to adventures in food you never thought possible. Have fun with this, and if you hit on something that's really good, share it with everyone in the comments below -- or maybe not, if it's a secret and you're going to be a millionaire from it.