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The Rub: Your Secret to Better Barbecue This Season

Simple spice blends can add big flavor

a slab of beef ribs with a bowl of spicy, Texas style dry rub

DebbiSmirnoff / Getty Images

Everyone loves summer barbecues, but if you want to take your backyard feasts to the next level, try a rub to boost the flavor of meat, poultry, fish and vegetables

These spice blends take very little time and effort to prepare and are made from what you probably have stashed away in your kitchen pantry. They impart big flavor in a mostly healthy way.

Rubbed all over the outer surface of your food before it gets cooked, rubs traditionally mix salty and sweet ingredients and work to amp up the flavor while at the same time giving the meat an appealing outer crust. 

pork shoulder grilling on a smoker

Julie Deshaies JD83 / Alamy Stock Photo

Big Hoffa’s Pork Shoulder and Rib Rub

Adam Hoffman, pitmaster at Big Hoffa’s Smokehouse in Westfield, Indiana, suggests this classic rub.

Ingredients: 

  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon paprika 
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard 

Instructions: Sprinkle or use a spray bottle to apply apple cider vinegar to a pork shoulder or ribs to moisten the meat. Blend rub ingredients together and apply to meat. Cook as directed according to weight and cut.

The ABCs of rubs

A general rule of thumb for how much rub to use is roughly two tablespoons per pound of meat. And if there’s leftover spice mix, don’t toss it. Store extra rub in an airtight jar for your next BBQ. 

Dry rubs are generally the most versatile and work best when cooking low and slow in a barbecue or smoker. If you prefer high-heat grilling, your best bet is a simple seasoning of salt and pepper, since rubs made from other spices will burn over high heat. If you plan to use a slow cooker or a conventional oven, another option is to slather on a wet rub (a cross between a marinade and a dry rub made from oil, spices, and an acid like vinegar or citrus juice).

But remember, says Jinnie Coleman, owner of Clay’s House of Pig in Tupelo, Mississippi, that barbecue rubs should never be used as the primary flavor but rather as a flavor enhancer for your meat, fish or vegetables. 

What foods work best with rubs?

Chicken is a “a neutral, mildly flavored meat which lends itself well to both rubs and smoke,” Coleman says. A good basic chicken rub starts with salt, pepper, paprika, garlic powder and onion powder, she says. 

“For an additional herb, one may use a tiny smidgen of rubbed sage,” Coleman says. Instead of being a stickler for precise measurements, she suggests building your rub based on your personal preferences, tweaking ingredients to suit your palate.

After you apply the rub, you can place the chicken on the grill immediately to cook at 275 degrees for 90 minutes. Then slather it with a finishing sauce of ketchup, a dash of sugar and apple cider vinegar before cooking for another 20 minutes. 

Certain meats are better off without rubs, says Adam Hoffman, pitmaster at Big Hoffa’s Smokehouse in Westfield, Indiana, who estimates that he’s cooked more than half a million briskets during his career.  

If you’re grilling up any kind of steak, including flank or skirt steak, you’re better off just using a marinade of salt and pepper, he says, since the meat already has plenty of flavor that comes through on its own. 

Dry rubs tend to work well on cuts like brisket — since they give the meat a delicious flavor while cooking over smoke and fire — as well as on pork shoulder and ribs, where rubs also work to bring out the meat’s texture, he says. 

Most dry rubs work best when applied to meat 24 hours before cooking “to really kick in some great flavor,” Hoffman says. An exception to that rule is brisket, he notes, which can be rubbed just prior to cooking. 


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More chef tips for pro rubs 

As a general rule, the better the cut of meat you’re cooking, the less rub you should plan to use (unless you want a blackening effect), says chef Dakota Hatton of Terramor Outdoor Resort in Bar Harbor, Maine. 

“Before cooking, I always take the meat out [of the refrigerator] and let it rest for 15 to 30 minutes and warm up to room temperature,” Hatton says. Tempering meat this way helps it stay juicy by allowing for more even cooking. For tougher cuts of meat, plan to apply the rub at least 12 to 24 hours before barbecuing so it can work its flavor magic.

In addition to using a slow cooker or regular oven, you can also pan sear meat that’s been coated with a rub, Coleman says. First, coat the meat with oil, then sprinkle on the spice mixture and rub it in before searing the meat on the stove over high heat to seal in flavor and give it a lovely browned exterior. 

To make a rub stick to sliced or chopped vegetables, you’ll want to toss them in a bowl with a little oil, add in the rub and toss some more until everything is well coated. 

Bermuda-based chef Michiko Campbell — creator of Chiko’s Smokey Rub — says to consider adding a dash of rub seasoning to your favorite barbecue sauce to lend an amazing flavor to grilled foods. 

And even though fish has a more delicate flesh and flavor than meats, don’t hesitate to use rubs on fish, too, Campbell says. Rub your filet (any type of fish will work, he says) with melted butter and gently apply the rub. Cover the fish with foil and allow it to rest for 30 minutes before baking at 350 degrees until cooked through. 

Whatever you do, says Hoffman, keep things simple. 

“If you have a good-quality piece of meat, the smoke and fire should provide great flavor,” he says. “Seasonings are just enhancements to the flavor, but don’t overdo it.”

Terry Ward is a contributing writer who covers food, drink and travel. Her work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Washington Post and on CNN.​​

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