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How-To

For a Flavor Kick, Rub in the Spices

Simple spice rubs add complex layers of flavor to meat, chicken, seafood, even vegetables

Fine Cooking Issue 33
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Discovering spice rubs was one of my greatest culinary epiphanies. Several years back, I was reading the newly released Thrill of the Grill (by Chris Schlesinger & John Willoughby, William Morrow) around the same time that I was spring-cleaning my pantry. Confronted with jars upon jars of spices left over from singular recipes or experiments in global cuisine, I suddenly remembered having read a recipe for spice-rubbed chicken. That night, I mixed together what seemed like an exotic combination of spices, rubbed it onto some chicken breasts, and cooked them on the grill.

I was completely blown away by the striking depth of flavor that I got with such a simple technique. Since that day, spice rubs have become part of my everyday cooking. And no longer do spices grow stale in my pantry—on the contrary, it seems I’m always shopping for more.

As easy as a marinade, but neater and tastier

A spice rub is, simply, a seasoning mixture that you rub onto food before cooking. Traditionally, it’s made up of dry spices, which is why you might have also heard it called a dry rub. There’s nothing new about rubs—from Caribbean jerked chicken to French goose confit, cooks have long known that the right mixture of seasonings rubbed onto meats before cooking can transform the simplest food into something spectacular. But unlike marinades, basting sauces, or finishing sauces, which coat food with a complimentary flavor, spice rubs permeate, creating complex layers of flavor that leave you asking, “What makes this taste so good?”

Besides giving foods deeper flavor than marinades and sauces, spice rubs are much less messy, especially on the grill, where oil-based marinades can drip and cause flare-ups. I even prefer spice rubs for tough cuts of meat, because most marinades have little effect on tenderizing the interior (no matter how strong) and can even make the surface somewhat mushy. In fact the only solution to tough meat is slow cooking, and here spice rubs are a real boon—as the low heat of the oven or outdoor barbecue coaxes the meat to tenderness, the spices mingle with the juices, leaving you with a deeply flavored, juicy, and tender treat.

Rubs are versatile and ripe for improvisation

While ground or whole spices generally play the main role in any spice rub, chopped seasonings such as fresh garlic, fresh herbs, citrus zest, nuts, and seeds are great additions. It’s always wise to start with a few rather than many ingredients, or the end flavor will become muddled. In fact, one of my favorite rubs is the very simplest: I take a single whole spice, such as cumin, fennel, or cinnamon; toast it briefly to punch up its flavor (I’ll get to that shortly), and then grind it as fine or as coarse as I like and rub it all over a rib steak, a chicken breast, or a few pork chops.

Once you’re confident with simple blends, go for more complexity. Indian curries are the quintessential spice mixture, so I like to use them as a blueprint. Curries most often begin with turmeric, cumin, coriander, fennel seed, peppercorns, and chiles, to name a few (which flavor is dominant depends on the curry and the cook). From there, most recipes add a warmer, or sweeter, “background” flavor to round out the mixture, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, allspice, ginger, or cardamom. Or, I may take another direction and add an herbal note to the mix—dried thyme, sage, oregano, and savory are especially good. I’ve also had great results using ground nuts and seeds, as well as ground dried mushrooms, which give an earthy background flavor to the Sesame-Ginger Chicken.

When concocting a rub, think geographically. A good strategy for combining flavors is to ask yourself what seasoning you typically recognize in the particular cooking of a region. For example, a Mediterranean spice rub might contain fennel, mustard seed, rosemary, and lavender, whereas an Asian rub might have hints of ginger, coriander, sesame, and hot chiles.

To bring out a rub’s full flavor, don’t forget the salt. Add a little salt to the rub, or season whatever you’ll be cooking directly with salt. One warning, though: if you’re planning to rub the food several hours before cooking, you should wait and sprinkle on a little salt just before cooking. You’ll notice that the salt draws moisture from meat, leaving the spice-rubbed surface slightly soggy, which means you’ll want to pat the meat dry before cooking and you might lose some of the rub.

Light brown sugar is one of my secret ingredients. While too much sugar in a spice rub will cause it to burn, a small bit can foster a darker crust and deeper flavor, as you’ll see in the Spice Rub for Steak or Lamb.

Toasting and grinding spices

Heat a small skillet over medium heat and toast the whole spice, shaking the pan occasionally. Toast until fragrant and starting to darken, 3 to 5 minutes, and then take the pan off the heat. Pour the spices onto a plate to keep them from cooking

Toast the whole spice.

If you’re using bay leaves, add them to the pan at this point and let them dry briefly on the residual heat of the skillet (don’t put them back over the heat). If you’re lucky enough to find fresh bay leaves, toast them until they’re dry enough to crumble.

Pour the toasted spices into a mortar or a spice grinder and grind them with the other spices and seasonings. Press down to crack any harder spices such as black peppercorns and whole allspice, and then work in a circular motion to grind the spices to a powder. Be sure not to overfill the mortar. A coarse grind leaves you with more texture and larger bits of spice and seed. A fine grind is subtler, and the flavors will be more evenly blended.

Add the bay leaves.
Grind the toasted spices.

A coating of rub can be thick or thin

You’ll see from the recipe yields that follow that I like a heavy coating of spice on most foods. Especially when it comes to good thick steaks, I love the contrast of a crunchy, spicy exterior with the succulence of the inside. But one of the great things about rubs is that they’re so adaptable, so it’s easy to take a different tack with delicate foods.

For vegetables and anything else that’s dry or delicate, use a light coating of oil. No matter how hard you rub, a spice rub won’t cling to the surface of a vegetable. To solve this, coat the vegetables first with a thin cloak of oil and then roll them in the spices. This is a delicious pre-grilling treatment for thick slabs of eggplant, summer squash, and onions.

For tender fillets of fish that may fall apart if rubbed too vigorously, such as salmon or halibut, a tiny bit of oil first before you apply the spice rub helps it adhere, and a sparser coating of the rub itself can be a good complement. Less rub will season less intensely, and for more delicate flavors, a light touch works better.

For chicken, slip a bit of the mixture under the skin as well as over the top. This technique not only helps crisp the skin, but it also ensures that the flavors of the rub come into direct contact with the meat.

Depending on your schedule and on the intensity you’re after, most foods can be coated with the spice rub up to six hours in advance and refrigerated until you’re ready to cook. Remember that the longer food sits with a rub on it, the more flavor it will absorb from the spices. If you’re rubbing in advance, hold off on the salt until it’s time to cook.

Rubs keep for weeks and are handy leftovers

Dry rubs keep for weeks in a covered jar, and any mixtures containing fresh ingredients like garlic or herbs will keep in the fridge for a week. Beyond rubbing onto meat, poultry, and seafood, a spoonful of spice rub is great stirred into pilafs, stews, salad dressings, and stir-fries.

Cook rubbed foods all different ways

I confess to a preference for grilling spice-rubbed foods: something about that smoky char-grilled flavor really hits home with the zesty flavors of a spicy crust. But sautéing, roasting, and even braising can all work. If you move the food around a bit during cooking, such as flipping fish in a sauté pan, you may lose bits of the spice crust, but don’t worry: simply deglaze the pan after cooking and use the pan juices as a quick sauce. The same applies to bits of rub that end up in the roasting pan: the pan drippings will create a perfectly complementary sauce.

And a final word about appearances: leaner cuts of meat with a dry rub may not look as succulent and juicy after cooking as sauced or marinated meat. Recently I served spice-rubbed pork to a few friends, and one of them bluntly remarked that it looked as dry as jerky. He recanted, however, once he cut into it and tasted all the wonderfully juicy, spiced meat.

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