With summer nearing full swing, men are firing up grills with regularity to sear steaks, barbecue chicken, smoke ribs and slow-cook pork into tender submission. So why not give that special man the gift of flavor this Father's Day? Make some homemade rubs that will elevate his finished dishes to restaurant quality.
The trick to achieving perfection on the grill is building layers of flavor in the meat. That means starting with a rub.
Rubs are a cook's playground of spices, herbs and condiments. There are two ways to go with a rub: dry or wet. Dry rubs are mixtures containing herbs and spices. They adhere because of the natural moisture of the meat, poultry or fish. Wet rubs, which also are called pastes, add a moist component to the spices and herbs. Common ingredients include mustard, finely chopped garlic, oil, horseradish and yogurt. These rubs adhere to food more easily than dry rubs.
When it comes to spice selection, you can opt for simple or fancy.
"The flavor combinations are left to the imagination," said Chris Lynch, executive chef at The Cliff House at Pikes Peak. "I do a lot of experimenting on various proteins to find good matches. It's about learning how spices behave together. Some don't play nicely, so you have to try lots of different things."
Winning combinations are all about experimenting and then tweaking.
It's not unusual for Lynch to tackle large primal cuts at the restaurant.
"Bigger cuts of meat can take a stronger rub, but it really depends on what the end goal is," he said. "If there are red pepper flakes, then a sweet sauce is good to balance the flavor."
Because it can be difficult to get the dry rub to stick to meat or vegetables, Lynch suggests adding different oils.
"It helps the rub to adhere to food," he said. "For instance, I use sesame oil and five-spice powder on smoked duck that you can then turn into tacos with goat cheese."
Award-winning barbecue authority Steven Raichlen has written several books on the subject and boasts a wealth of recipes and tips.
"Dry rubs can be simply bottles of spices like Chinese 5-spice powder, chili powder or Old Bay Seasoning," he said. "For a simple wet rub, use either store-bought or homemade pesto."
Here are a few of his quick-hit rub suggestions:
- Rubs can be as simple as salt and pepper - equal parts of coarse salt and medium-grind black pepper is called a "Dalmatian Rub"; the addition of red pepper flakes makes it a "Newspaper Rub" (white, black and red/read all over) - or as complicated as the multi-ingredient rubs found in Turkish spice markets.
- Rubs can be made easily. A good place to start is with Raichlen's 4/4 rub (aka Raichlen's Rub): equal parts salt, pepper, paprika and brown sugar. This rub is infinitely customizable. For example, you could use smoked salt instead of sea salt; and maple sugar or Sucanat (minimally refined form of cane sugar) instead of brown sugar. Other common additions are garlic powder, onion powder and celery seed.
- Start with fresh spices and store in a covered jar away from heat and light for up to six months.
"There are two ways to use rubs," Raichlen said. "Sprinkle the rub on as you would a seasoning, like salt and pepper, just before cooking. You can use your fingertips to massage it into the meat. Or apply the rub several hours (or even days) ahead of time and refrigerate. In this case, the rub acts as a cure. You will wind up with a richer, more dynamic flavor. Leave it on too long and you will begin to cure the meat."
Not in the mood to mix and match? Raichlen has introduced a new line of barbecue rubs under the label Project Smoke that showcase regional differences in American rubs, "from Cajun-inspired blackening spices to Kansas City-style rubs, which typically have a sweeter profile."