09 June 2008

Rub It In

Almost everyone is familiar with food pan blackened by Cajun spices. Just a few years back however pan blackened spices in the Cajun tradition was about as far as rubs went with American cooks let alone backyard grilling an barbecuing. However today with the explosion of cooking outdoors over an open flame it is as if we could not survive without first giving that piece of meat a good rub down before throwing it on the grill. Rubs are actually just another form of marinade but in a dry style. The difference however goes all the way through the cooking experience from rub to flame to table.

Rubs got the name from the fact that the mixture of spices, herbs, sugars and salts are actually rubbed into the food before cooking. Kind of like massaging a piece of Kobe beef.Rubs are defined as simply a mix of herbs, salt, sugars and spices used to season food before cooking. Rubs are used on all forms of meat, fish, poultry, vegetables and even tofu for the vegan crowd. The end product of a dish prepared with a good rub before grilling vs. a non rubbed dish is night and day. A good rub adds dimension to basic chicken breast imparting bursts of flavor along subtle changes in the texture of the dish that border on the sublime. Good rubs gives meat or fish a delicious crust exploding with flavor and a tongue tantalizing taste.

A good rub, though simple to make, needs to hit every taste bud sensor, sweet, sour, salt and bitter.It should remind one of a grand orchestra as opposed to a simple street musician playing for tips.Along with the taste buds a good rub will hit another important part of a good eating experience your nose. Put the right mix of ingredients together and your grilling experience will never be the same. The ingredients in rubs are highly regional and vary greatly depending on the part of the world you are in. There will be of course a big difference in ingredients and taste from a Tex-Mex rub and a New England seafood blend. That what makes rubs so intriguing. Give two grill jockeys from two different parts of the US the same cut of meat or fish and the end result will be two different tastes. All due to the rubs used by the cook.

Cajun rubs will concentrate their taste in cayenne, onion and thyme whereas a Mexican rub will be influenced by even more heat from dried chiles, cumin, and of curse cilantro. Across the pond Spanish rubs include paprika, corinader along with cumin and saffron. Middle Eastern barbecue experts use cinnamon, mint and freeze dried chives. And finally in the Caribbean throw in some nutmeg, cloves and allspice and you are on your way to a tropical paradise without leaving home.

There is a big debate on whether sugar should even be in a rub. Too much sugar can end up burning on the grill and ruining a good cut of meat. Use sparingly and sugar hits the all important sweet tooth while rounding out stronger sour and bitter ingredients. If you are going to go through the effort of making your own rub use good sugar. Basic white table sugar has no place in my backyard gastronomic creations. Brown sugar, adds so much more depth with its’ higher molasses content and deeper flavor tones. In the mood for a patriotic rub? Use maple sugar. Another good sugar is turbinado or “sugar in the raw” a much less processed sugar that leaves a lot of the good stuff in the final product.

Salt is the only “learned taste” on our sensitive tongues and boy have Americans learned to love it. Regular table salt has no place in my rub offerings. Basic table salt burns and is exceedingly bitter in my mind. I use sea salt exclusively. The salt I use comes from the Mediterranean and is full of minerals and wonderful tastes that do not exist in table salt. Another good salt candidate for homemade rubs is Kosher salt. Kosher salt has a unique texture that exudes little bursts of flavor that penetrate deeper into meat.

Herbs are a natural for a good rub. However only dried herbs make the grade here. Fresh herbs with their high moisture content simply steam when grilled and have no place in a rub. Fresh herbs from a home garden however when dried make a superb flavorful addition that no store bought rub can match. Dry herbs in a microwave if in hurry or hang bunches upside down in a hot dry dark attic.

The sour aspect of the flavor spectrum can easily be supplied by dried citrus zest, lemony flavored herbs like verbena, thyme, lemon balm and even lemon basil.

How long you leave a rub on food before cooking is very important. A good rub left too long on a delicate piece of fish will dry it out and make meat taste like a bicycle tire. Salt while good for bringing juices to the surface also can dry out food if left on too long. My guidelines for how long before cooking you should place the rub on are as follows:

Fish and shell fish: 10 minutes Vegetables: 15 minutesThin sliced chicken breast or sliced steak: 60 minutesLarger cuts of meat and poultry: 2 - 4 hoursTough cuts like brisket, ribs, and pork shoulder: 24 hours

Rubs placed on seafood should be washed off just before grilling. Use on average 3 teaspoons of rub mixture per pound of grilled fare. All the above times are approximate and represent the longest amount of time one should leave a rub on food. While the rub “sets” in food should be placed in the fridge for the entire duration.

Variations on rubs are endless. A mid point between a dry rub and the traditional wet marinade can be made by adding some liquid to a dry rub to make a thick paste also called a wet rub. Olive oil, yogurt, mustard, ketchup and mayonnaise are often used to make pastes or wet rubs. Often though these pastes are added near the middle or end of the grilling process. To make a wet rub from dried add just enough liquid so the mix is not runny but stays together when formed with your hands. In wet rubs fresh herbs take center stage over their more potent dried counterparts. Since their time on the grill is often shorter than dry rubs there is no need to worry about their not sticking to the food as well as dried herbs. Wet rubs do wonders for briskets, pork shoulders and ribs.

Rubs are not just for grilling. My secret recipe “Red State/Blue State Rub” is so loved by my family it is added to salsa recipes, tomato sauce and even tossed on salads and dips. Red State/Blue State was developed from a blend of ingredients from all regions of the United States while watching late night election returns on TV. When the states on the screen kept lighting up red or blue as the polls closed the name Red State/Blue State was a natural. Friends and family on both sides of the aisle love it.

Home made rubs should be stored in a cool dark location where they will keep for several months. I find using a grated cheese shaker jar a good way to store sufficient quantities as well as the shaker top makes for easy application. Experiment with all the different ingredients available to make rubs and your grilling experience rises to a new level.

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