Technique of the Week: Rubbing

The technique of rubbing meat almost always involves the dry heat method of cooking where almost no water based liquid is used in cooking. The most popular cooking method for food prepared using a spice rub is grilling although baking and pan roasting are other dry-heat methods.

A spice rub is any mixture of ground spices that is made for the purpose of coating raw food before cooking. The food can be marinated in the spice rub for some time for the flavors to incorporate into the food or it can be cooked immediately after it is coated. The spices are usually coarsely ground. In addition to spices, salt and sugar may be added to the rub, the salt for flavor and the sugar for caramelization. The simplest rub is just coarsely ground black pepper rubbed on beef most widely known as “steak au poivre.”

In some cultures, spice rubs are highly personal and sometimes a very secret recipe. Grill masters in the southern United States jealously guard their recipe secrets and they will usually have a secret ingredient that they will not reveal to anyone. In some cultures, the recipe for making a spice rub and how to cook with it are passed from mother to daughter and every family will have a slightly different recipe.

There are many varieties of commercial rubs available at grocery and gourmet stores with some brands enjoying a loyal following. However, we have found that many of these versions start with a base of salt which is inexpensive and adds bulk, but not flavor.  

It is easy to build your own special blend comprised of your favorite herbs and spices. In order to make a successful rub, you need to balance flavors. Brown sugar works well with pork as does sage, mustard, and pepper. A milder blend with coriander or thyme is better suited to chicken. Beef and lamb can take stronger-flavored spices such as cumin, chili pepper or even allspice. Paprika is a wonderful spice to start with as it matches well with all types of meat. The following rub mixture is a good all-around mix for any type of meat or even vegetables.

Universal Spice Rub
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seed, cracked
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon cumin
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes or cayenne

Using a coffee or spice mill or a mortar and pestle, crush fennel seeds to release their flavor. Combine all ingredients in a jar and mix together (shaking works well.)

Pat meat dry before sprinkling liberally with rub mixture. This recipe should fully coat 1 ½ - 2 pounds of meat. For the best results with a spice rub, sprinkle the mixture over the food and then gently massage in the seasonings to make sure they adhere.

Although rubs can be applied right before cooking, we have discovered that a little more time allows the flavor of the spices to penetrate more deeply into the food. Cover and refrigerate rubbed meat for at least 2 hours (or overnight for larger cuts of meat to impart a spicier, more intense flavor). Discard any rub that has come in contact with raw food. You can store unused rub in the mixing jar at room temperature for several weeks (if it lasts that long.)