Ah, the rub. The down low. The skinny. Never good news… until now. We’re talking about the meat rub.
The meat rub is arguably one of the most important parts of the cook, whether you are seasoning for the grill or going for that long cook. It amps up the flavor, provides the bark, and can make your guests bow down before you (okay, probably not, but they’ll want to know how you did it).
Ever been to the grocery store aisle and see all those rubs? They usually have those picture perfect cuts of meat, maybe a little meat guide to tell you what it’s good with, and just maybe they have the slogan that questions how much of a man you are… but they definitely all have one thing in common: EXPENSIVE.
Make your own meat rub
This is where I’m going to introduce you to making your own, if you don’t already. Here are the benefits:
- Significantly Cheaper – Like 80% cheaper
- You know what’s in it… ever read store rub ingredients? Natural flavors? Silicon Dioxide for flow? Malic Acid for flavor? Potato Malodextrin?
- Freshness – Who knows when that store stuff was made.
- Customized… thought your rub was a bit too much on the peppery side? You can reduce it. Make it taste the way YOU want it to taste, not some slogan machine on a store shelf.
Here is a direct comparison below: To make my KC BBQ Rub, I can buy the following totaling ~$63 (at the time of this writing). I can make 160 oz, meaning it cost me $0.12/oz with more than half of the paprika, onion, garlic, and cayenne left over OR, I can buy from the store and pay up to $0.80/oz and not know what’s in it. Your call.
Two Types of Meat Rub – Differences
First, we are going to discuss the two kinds of meat rub. The grill rub, and the long rub. I am in no way saying that they are never interchangeable and you must use one rub over another… but these are The Basics. The Q’ is all about what tastes great to YOU.
For the grill rub we are talking burgers, brats, corn, pork chops, maybe a tenderloin…. anything that we are putting over high heat and for short periods of time. The long rub we are talking briskets, ribs, butts, chickens, turkeys, etc… anything we are putting over a low heat and for long periods of time.
This is important because…
A lot of rubs contain sugars, especially for pork. Pork cuts are in love with sugar, a lot more than beef or chicken (Read: Sugar in a rub?). Sugars caramelizes at 320 degrees Fahrenheit; this means that sugar will release it’s water and turn into a clear liquid. After a few minutes the clear liquid will turn brown, and as the heat begins to break down the sucrose it will turn into caramel. Very shortly after it will break down even further and the sweetness is no longer there, but will begin to taste burnt.
The surface temperature of your grill is much greater than 320 degrees, and typically the art of turning simple sugars into delicious caramels or other treats is a slow and careful process… the grill is just plain burning sugar. This could be what you are after; some people might like the taste… but most don’t know better. If you are a sugar griller, I implore you to try it without the sugar next time, or if you have a store bought rub check the ingredients. You might be surprised at the flavor profile difference!
For the long cook, temperatures are less than 275 generally. This is a great temperature for sugar, because it won’t caramelize, but it will dissolve into the liquids and help form the bark you are looking for while still maintaining the sweetness.
So how do we still get the sweet flavor for a high heat cook?
Typically, perusing through the grocery store you’ll see two types of rubs… powder and granules. Unfortunately, they really market the granules as a “manly thing” and have the slogans and logos to further that image. Sometimes they’ll even throw a built in grinder… fancy! Here are the general guidelines…
The powders are generally best for the long low heat cooks. The powders are really good at creating that bark, and absorbing and interacting with the meat over long periods. This is especially true if the powder meat rub contains salt and sugar.
The larger granule rubs are generally best for the short high heat cooks. Think minced garlic instead of garlic powder, minced onion instead of onion powder, or chopped herbs in lieu of ground… These provide great presentations, especially after being exposed to high heat. They also allow for those bursts of flavor that is typical of a single serve meat portion off the grill vs large cuts that require chopping or pulling for serving.
For recipes that you want to convert powder to mince, expect the general ratio of 2:1; 2 tablespoons of Minced for 1 tablespoon of powder.
You’ll find that there are a lot of similarities between long and short cook rubs. Typically, they all contain some variations of onion, garlic, various peppers, sugars, and salt. Check out the SPOG beef rub.
For the long cooks, you’ll see a lot of paprika. American paprika is generally odorless and tasteless and is primarily used for coloring. Yes, you read that… we are trying to make our meat look good. However, using a smoked paprika or Hungarian paprika will give you substantial flavor; The fresher the better! You won’t see a lot of paprika in the short cooks because it’ll just burn.
For the short cooks, you’ll see a lot of peppers… black, cayenne, chipotle, etc. These tend to be higher quantities due to the burn off of the spice during the heat, so more is more. Generally, the peppers in the slow cook is a less is more situation as the capsicum is infused with the bark/meat.
Short cooks should also contain salt. This is where we’ll get that flavor blast of kosher salt… but generally long cooks should not contain salt in the rub. I get into that in my salt article.
Surely, we don’t need a section on how to apply the rub, do we? Yes, and don’t call me Shirley.
Pat, don’t rub
I’m not sure why it was called a rub, but it really should be called a pat. For the love of all things, can we stop rubbing our meat? We should be patting it on. Rubbing just rubs it off. There, I’ve said my piece.
How much rub should we put on, and isn’t more better? Generally, this is going to be a matter of taste and experience… You want decent coverage but don’t want it caked on. However if the rub contains salt we should measure. We want to make sure we have approximately 1/4 tsp kosher salt/pound… I’ll leave it to you to do the calculation for the max amount of rub.
When to apply
There are lots of people that like to apply the rub the night before. You can “dry marinate”, but just know it makes no difference to the meat unless it has salt. Anybody that tells you it “works its way into the meat” is lying, and more importantly doesn’t understand that a rub is meant to stay on the outside.
Rubs are a fantastic way to flavor your cook, whether on the smoker or the grill. If you’ve never considered making your own rubs, there is something awesome about being able to make your food taste exactly how you like it. Please consider the differences of high heat vs low heat, and the impact the ingredients have.