Rubbin’ Basics

DISCLAIMER: Yes, I live in Texas. Yes, I own both a grill and a smoker. Yes, I understand the fundamental differences between grilling, smoking, and barbequing. That said, no, I ain’t a know-all expert on this stuff. There are plenty of gen-yoo-wine experts out there though, so if you hanker after the exact right way to make a Memphis style rub, get online and look it up! That said, keep in mind that you’re gonna find probably 20+ genuine Memphis rub recipes out there, each one claiming to be the right one, (Which First National Bank is the real one again?) Take it all with a grain of salt, (Pun intended…)

We love cooking flesh, we truly do. As you’ve probably noticed, there’s a fair amount of chicken, fish, pork, and beef running through these pages. You’ve probably also noticed that we rarely leave them alone. Some kind of rub, some form of herbs and spices, is almost always present, ‘cause that’s what we like. Now, as fate would have it, we feed quite a few other folks too, and it turns out they love what we do in this regard as well. So, thought we’d share some basic thoughts on the subject.

My bottom line on rubs is this: One or two dominant notes, with as many other minor notes as needed or desired, with a caveat – Don’t add so many or so disparate as to overwhelm the blend. That may seem an obtuse statement, but if you think about it, it makes sense. Garlic, onion, smoke, sugar, pepper, chile heat, clove, cinnamon, coffee, citrus, sage, rosemary, and on and on – They’re all great flavor notes, but any one out of proportion can and will muddle the mix at best and wipe it off the map at worst.

When we were up cooking in Walker, MN, recently, a regular stream of folks were coming by, and every few minutes one would say “You don’t measure.” It’s true, I usually don’t. Nothing unusual in that, many folks who cook a lot don’t use a spoon or cup much anymore. I can put a teaspoon if something into a bowl or grab 6 ounces of a protein by hand and be very close to right on, but I do this many times every day for a living: If you can do that comfortably too, then feel free to do so. If you can’t, then keep measuring until you can and want to, it’s no big deal either way. The point of this ramble is ratios and portioning. I don’t think of rub recipes in terms of making a cup, etc, I think of making enough for what I need it for, and that’s what I’d encourage you to do as well. The secondary benefit of this method is allowing experimentation. When you find something you like, write down, right away, what you used in what ratios and save it. Then you can recreate the recipe at will. I am not a fan of doing big batches of rubs, because it’s my feeling that anything stored like that will lose some oomph by being premixed for a long time. I always advocate buying spice and seasonings in whole form whenever possible and then grinding/mixing your own as needed. Doing so gives you bolder, fresher flavors and a more potent rub. You can therefore use less and gain more, which makes good sense for economy as well as flavor.

When composing a rub, pick your dominant notes and portion them 50% – 50% as a start point. Next consideration is how much to use. Make the amount big enough to count. If we’re going to prepare a rub for 3 or 4 nice 8 oz. T-Bone steaks, fer instance, I’d go with about 2 tablespoons each of my dominant notes and a teaspoon each of the minor notes.

Here’s my go-to basic beef rub, just the bare bone essentials.

2 Tablespoons Sea Salt
2 Tablespoons Pepper Blend
1 teaspoon Onion powder
1 teaspoon granulated Garlic

Put all that in a grinder, give it a whirl and off ya go. I’ll rub the flesh with a light coat of olive oil and then work the rub into it, coating thoroughly, about 30 to 45 minutes prior to grilling. Let it sit in the fridge and get comfy, then let there be fire…

Once again, depending on the meal desired, you could add a bunch more to that rub if you wanted. Subtract 1 teaspoon of sea salt and sub smoked salt. Add a teaspoon of smoked paprika. Add a ¼ teaspoon of chile powder. Add rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, etc. Sub lemon juice for the oil as a rub adherent. Get the idea?

Notice the lack of sugar in that rub? Why is that? Simple question, simple answer – Cooking method. With steaks, we’re gonna cook hot and fast, so sugar is probably not what ya want, ‘cause it can and will burn under those conditions, and we don’t need to ruin good meat. Low and slow is the place for sugar, so let’s go there.

How about for pork? Pork is a prime low and slow cooking candidate. It also has a pretty good salty note to begin with, so sugar is a good candidate for a dominant note, as is a mild, red chile powder.

Here’s my basic rub for pork.

¼ Cup dark brown Sugar

¼ Cup mild red Chile powder, (We use Hatch and highly recommend it)

3 Tablespoons Pepper blend, (We like Black, Red, Green, White)

1 Tablespoon fine Kosher Salt

1 teaspoon granulated Garlic

½ teaspoon Onion powder

½ teaspoon Celery Seed

Into the grinder with them and give ‘em a spin. Same treatment as beef for application.

Again, there are bunches of variations, so use your imagination and go wild. From pulled to roast, that combo won’t let ya down.

How about chicken? Love, love, LOVE putting a nice rub on a bird and roasting that thing! Chicken lends itself to many variations of rub or marinade, so you almost cannot go wrong. If you google basic rubs for chicken, you’ll find most have sugar in them and that’s where I veer off slightly and lean toward citrus for sweet-tart notes instead. I feel the sweet notes are already there in the basic flesh, hence the other path…

Here’s my go-to chicken blend.

2 Tablespoons Sea Salt
2 Tablespoons mild Green Chile powder, (Hatch again!)
1 Tablespoon Pepper Blend
1 Tablespoon Smoked Paprika
1 teaspoon dried Lemon Peel
1 teaspoon dried Orange Peel

Grind, oil the bird and massage that rub right in!

OK, so basic fish rub? No can do, I say – Too much diversity! We can do a couple variations though. First off, what fish would you rub versus marinating? Good question! When I think of applying a rub to fish, it’s fish that we would grill, smoke, or barbeque, so we’re talking about salmon, fresh tuna, swordfish, and the like – Dense, firm fish that can stand up to bold flavors and those cooking methods. The one everyone loves best and wants to do most is Salmon, of course. M and I hail from the northwest, so we’ve had some exposure here. Salmon rubs, like regional barbeque, are dangerous turf; there are many variations and all of them are the best, capiche?

Here’s our go-to wet rub for Salmon:

2 Tablespoons dark brown Sugar
2 Tablespoons unsalted Butter
1 teaspoon Bourbon Whiskey
Juice from one Lemon
¼ teaspoon granulated garlic
¼ teaspoon sea salt

Slather onto your salmon work rub in and allow to marinate for 15 to 20 minutes prior to grilling.

For Firm fleshed white fish, (Swordfish, tuna, snapper, cod, etc), we like this rub a lot.

1 Tablespoon Sea Salt
1 teaspoon ground Pepper blend
1 teaspoon lemon peel or zest
½ teaspoon granulated garlic
¼ teaspoon dill
¼ teaspoon thyme

Lightly coat fish with olive oil and then work rub in and allow to marinate for 15 to 20 minutes prior to grilling.

Well, there ya have it – Enough ammunition to keep ya rubbin’ from here to Labor Day – Enjoy!

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