Beginner’s Guide to BBQ, Part 2: Perfect Dry Rub Recipe
I’m gonna venture a guess here. And a controversial one at that, maybe, but here goes nothing: The most important factor in BBQ is not so much the type or quality of meat used, it’s the type and quality of the dry rub! Sure, a well-picked cut of meat of the right quality goes a long way, but the addition of the perfect dry rub may well be the deciding factor. It is through the proper (and liberal) addition of that complex and often secretive blend of spices known as a rub that the magic of BBQ begins and it is the taste and song of those spices that carry BBQ from humble beginnings to a succulent, flavorful end.
In part one of our BBQ primer, we had a
quick somewhat lengthy overview of the various parts that do good BBQ make. In this, part the second, we dive feet first into a geeky look at one of the most highly debated yet highly secretive aspects of BBQ: The perfect dry rub! We take a look at some perfectly good reasons for creating your own dry rub, we examine the purposes a dry rub must fulfil, before eventually spilling all the beans and doing what no other self-respecting BBQ aficionado would ever consider: Offering you the till recently extremely secretive recipe for my home-formulated perfect dry rub!
Before jumping that far, though, let’s answer the question that’s bound to bother some of you: If I can buy a perfectly good dry rub, why should I bother to make my own?
Homemade Dry Rub: Why bother?
Wondering just why you should take the time and effort to create the perfect dry rub at home? Well, one very good reason would be total control over the outcome of your meal. Granted, there are a lot of readymade dry rubs out there; some of them actually quite good, using natural ingredients and being shockingly free of artificial ingredients and flavor enhancers. You *could* use one of those in a snap, but if you do, you’ve not only lost control or feeling over what’s in your spice mix, you’re also completely stuck with what others have deemed the perfect flavor combinations. What’s even worse, though, you have no way of tweaking it to your personal preferences. In other words, a ready-made rub might seem like an easy and failsafe introduction to the world of BBQ – and to some it is – but it might also turn a slightly (and by slightly, I mean very) boring solution in the long run.
Another great and certainly valid argument for creating your own rub is the age-old favorite of most people in this world: Price! Commercial BBQ rubs may not seem overly expensive, but bear in mind that producers need to cover costs towards production, packaging, marketing and many other things. In the end, you’re left with a (more or less) perfectly formulated product in a usually fancy but often quite small package, retailing at somewhat of a premium price. A single package may not seem outrageously expensive, but if you compare it to the cost of making your own at home from spices bought in bulk either online or from a local “ethnic” store, you’ll quickly realize that you can easily create your own rub at about a tenth of the price of a commercial product. With the added benefits of being able to tweak it perfectly to your personal preferences and making as much (or as little) as you need. Cheap products with liberty and justice for all? It’s the American way, people!
Getting started on your own dry rub: The great secrecy game!
Thusly encouraged, how does one get started on his (or her) own rub? Well, to find out, we could start by asking either the professional manufacturers or the real pros, the BBQ Pit Masters, for advice. Regardless of who we ask, though, answers from either side of the fence would probably range somewhere between “No comment” to something ending in words along the lines of “… But then I’d have to kill you!”
The world of professional BBQ is insanely secretive, you see, mainly because of the element of friendly (and sometimes not so friendly) competition going on between BBQ amateurs and professionals alike. Everybody has a reputation to protect and a secret recipe to promote. People do whatever they can to achieve an advantage in the game of competitive BBQ and spilling even the smallest of secrets do not constitute anyone’s view on a good time in BBQ land. Sadly.
So, if we are to figure out how to make a good BBQ rub, it seems, we’ll have to employ a bit of good old-fashioned reverse engineering! In other words, we must disect the anatomy and purpose of a dry rub, break it down into components and build it back up from scratch. In other words, if we are to figure out what makes a perfect dry rub, we must first ask ourselves what exact purposes a dry rub serves, then look at how we might create the perfect mix to fulfil those purposes.
The first part isn’t too difficult. What exact purposes do a dry rub serve? Well, we pretty much answered that in our first post in the Beginner’s Guide to BBQ, when we revealed that a dry rub serves at least three unique purposes:
1. It seasons the meat, both before and during cooking, adding a lot of predominantly sweet and spicy flavor notes to the cooked meat
Rubs are usually generously added up to 24 hours prior to cooking, leaving the spices plenty of time to soak into every surface of the meat for a deeper more complex flavor profile that will change and intensify even more during the prolonged cooking period.
2. It adds color to the finished meat
Rubs are usually full of bright, colourful spices such as paprika and chili powder which not only add tons of flavor to the cooked meat but also tints it with a nice, attractive deep, mahogany brownish-red color. Talk about your added benefits!
3. It adds crust and character
Most traditional BBQ rubs contain sugar, a lot of sugar! They do so not only because the sweetness of the sugar adds contrast to the predominantly rich and smoky flavors of BBQ, they also do so because of a little bit of magic that happens to the sugar during the prolonged cooking period. During the low and slow cooking period, the sugars will gradually caramelize, creating a hard, smoky/sweet, spicy and highly flavorful outer crust known in BBQ terminology as bark. Bark is highly priced amongst BBQ aficionados for the little, intense explosions of extra flavor it adds to the final dish. When making chopped or pulled BBQ, you should try to make sure that every portion gets at least some (and preferably an equal) amount of bark. Your diners will love you for it.
Bare (Rub) Necessities: Dry Rub Essentials
Having thus appreciated the simple purposes and advantages of a good BBQ rub, let’s figure out how to make one, shall we? The good news when it comes to making BBQ rubs is that there really are no rules. The bad news? There really are no rules! You can (and should) experiment with your rub composition and thus end up, with time, creating your own individually tailored, perfect, little blend along the way. Incidentally, this may actually help explain some of the secrecy going on in the BBQ world. If you’ve spent a decade or more coming up with your perfect rub, why then spill the beans to newcomers?
Well, in my case because I loves ya and want you to be happy and do well. Before I give it all away, though, let’s have a look at some of the essential components of BBQ rubs so you may understand how they’re usually put together, how they achieve the three purposes we defined above, and how you can tweak them for your own personal gain.
Let me just kick things off by saying that creating a BBQ dry rub is no joke and that while seemingly simple, even my modest rub certainly did not just come by overnight. The thoughts and ideas that went into this are collected from years of sifting through basic recipes, tasting things, comparing notes and listening to those actually willing to spill the beans. In the end, my ideas are based loosely on work done by everyone’s favorite geek, Alton Brown, the Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe, and various more or less anonymous sources quoted in “Peace Love and BBQ” and other tomes on the subject. That being said, then, what’s in a rub?
My God, it’s full of… Sugar!
This may come as a bit of a surprise to you, but the main component in BBQ dry rubs is not actually spicy, it’s sweet! We all knew that BBQ rubs contained sugar (especially now that I’ve just mentioned it above), but did you also know that it’s actually the most prominent ingredient? Upwards of 60% of most truly great dry rub recipes are actually composed of sugar owing to the two perfectly good reasons mentioned above: 1) Sugar adds sweetness, contrast and character to the dish AND 2) it caramelizes during cooking, adding a crusty layer of caramelized, lightly burned, spicy and very flavorful goodness. Because such a large part of the mix is made up of sugar, it stands to reason that quality, flavorful sugar should be used. And by quality, I mean unrefined sugar, preferably cane sugar or raw demerara sugar. The extra depth and character really shines through in the finished product. Believe me!
… And more salt than the Doctor ordered!
The second-most important player in BBQ dry rubs is another favorite culinary sin of mine: salt! Salt is a natural flavor enhancer and without it, meat (and most other things for that matter) tastes bland. Since BBQ usually involve rather large pieces of meat, salt will, rather obviously, play a pretty major role in any form of BBQ dry rub because it helps to elevate the flavors of the meat as well as the spices in the mix. In short, salt is absolutely essential to the flavor of BBQ, and we need a lot of it! I use about 55 grams(!) of salt in my standard 1.5 cup BBQ dry rub batches. To further spice things up, I usually split my salt ratio between 80% kosher salt and 20% smoked sea salt if I have it at hand. For some reason, the addition of the smoked salt just makes for an even deeper flavor in the finished product. As does my next, somewhat unusual trick:
Now, here’s a shocker: Onion powder!
Now, this one may come as a bit of a shocker to those who know me or follow the blog regularly, but the next ingredients in many dry rubs, mine included, are onion and garlic… Of the dehydrated, powdered variety!
Now, I’ll give you a minute to pick yourself off of the floor and come to grips with what you’ve just read… It’s shocking, I know, Johan suggesting an industrial product over a fresh, natural one, but there’s a perfectly good reason behind my madness, and it’s not an acute case of laziness. Rather, it has a little to do with consistency.
Some of the more prominent flavors in BBQ other than smoke, salt and sweet are those complexly deep sweet, spicy and pungent flavors provided by roasted onion and garlic, and in the wonderful world of BBQ, these are usually added in powdered form. Commercial onion and garlic powders (basically dehydrated, ground onion or garlic), you see, add flavor in a consistent and controllable manner without inviting excess moisture to the party. In other words, a teaspoon of the same brand of onion powder will give you the same flavor every time. Half a freshly chopped onion and a clove of garlic will probably not – it will, however, as stated, add undesired moisture to the party. For these reasons, and these reasons alone, I’ll bow my head in shame and turn to a commercial product. If you’re a purist and feeling adventuros, you can of course use this procedure for making your own onion powder or garlic powder. Me? I got started using a quality store brought brand and have used it ever since. For consistency in flavor and texture.
And then there’s everything else that adds color and taste…
Lastly, but certainly not least, dry rubs, as mentioned above, are all about adding flavor and color. And this is usually done in the form of spices, lots of spices. A dry rub, really, can contain just about anything and as mentioned quite a few times before, most people have their own proprietary blend of spices. Usual suspects from the spice rack, however, include paprika, cumin, ground chili or chili powder, thyme, pepper and oregano. Things like rosemary and coriander aren’t uncommon either. In the end, it pretty much depends on what you like. You can (and should) experiment with the types and ratios of spices and even tune them to the kind of meat, you’re smoking. But more on that later. For now, let’s – finally – have a look at how I like to do things.
As for my take on a rub here, I’ve tried to make a nice, middle of the road sort of thing, which not only tastes fantastic on various proteins, but also adds a nice bit of color and shine to the finished dish… The color in my dry rub comes from a combination of large parts paprika with a bit of turmeric and a lot of brown sugar while depth and spiciness are, again, provided by several different types of paprika, chilies of various heat levels and a couple of deep, dark, earthy spices.
But I digress… Right, then, here goes a couple of years of research, trial and error. Please, guys, treat her with respect, she’s my baby after all…
Spilling the Beans: My Perfect Dry Rub Recipe
Alright, alright enough horsing around, we all know what you’re here for… I think I’m ready to tell you my secret now. Ladies and gentlemen, my dry rub recipe… Here, have at you, treat her well! 😉
- ½ cup cane sugar or light brown sugar
- ⅓ cup salt (80% kosher salt, 20% smoked sea salt)
- ¼ cup paprika (1/3 sweet, ⅓ hot, ⅓ smoked)
- 1 teaspoon dried chipotle chili
- ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes or mild chili
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 2 teaspoons onion powder
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ½ teaspoon oregano
- ½ teaspoon thyme
- ¼ teaspoon turmeric
- Combine all ingredients well
- Use immediately or store covered in a cool, dark place for up to six months.
Now, that all seems simple enough, doesn’t it? But believe you me, I’ve just given you more than most people in my place would have. Most people treat their rubs as their baby, their pride, their joy. They share the taste but *never* the ingredients or compositions. Why this breach of code of conduct on my side? Well…
First of all, the chances I run into you on the professional BBQ circuit are slim to none (for starters, it would involve my starting to compete), secondly I like you and want you to do well. Maybe you’ll use this rub in a BBQ feast for your friends and family, maybe they’ll be amazed and maybe you’ll tell them “yeah, I got the idea from my favorite foodie geek, Johan, you should go check out his website at johanjohansen.dk” (hint, hint!). Or maybe, just maybe, if I’m lucky, you’ll claim this recipe as your own and start tailoring it to your own needs.
And just for the record, we’re totally cool on that issue. Totally cool. By all means: Do it! Claim it! Work with it! Make it your own! Don’t like turmeric? Pull it out and add more heat instead or another earthy spice of your choice like, I don’t know, cumin. Switch sweet paprika for hot, non-smoked for smoked. Want to make it more floral and pungent? Why not try some extra thyme and a bit of rosemary when cooking beef or lamb? I’ve even heard people playing around with powdered liquorice in their rubs… The options are pretty much endless and once you’ve made but the smallest of adjustments, it’s no longer my baby, it’s yours! Congratulations, you’ve made your own rub, you’re in the BBQ business, now strut your stuff and impress people! Multiple times over, lord knows this recipe makes a lot of the stuff, and it actually keeps pretty well! And has a lot of interesting uses.
But wait, just how do you use it, you ask? Well, patience young grasshopper. That, sadly, is the subject of another post. Our next post in the series to be exact in which I will attempt to tell you how to put your new powers to good use over the course of way too many hours to create one of the most epic food porn masterpieces: Pulled pork BBQ. Stay tuned and stay hungry!
Box: Want to easily test a new composition or addition to your rub? Don’t feel like mixing up an entire batch and firing up the smoker for a day or two? No problem! BBQ rubs make for fantastic seasonings for steaks, chicken breasts or pork chops. Simply dust on a bit before frying and grilling. You won’t get the full effect of time, smoke and everything else, but you’ll be able to test the spice ratios just fine. And have an amazing dinner or lunch in no time! Bam!