Making spice rubs for summer BBQs is simple. Just start with a few basic ingredients and add others to your liking.
You really can’t mess up a spice rub. You simply adjust the seasonings to your tastes. But starting with the freshest, highest-quality spices “makes a huge difference,” says Dan Hayward, owner and managing partner of Savory Spice Shop in Boulder, which sells a variety of house-made rubs.
Most rubs have three ingredients in common: salt, sugar and some type of chile.
“Salt is used in the majority of rubs,” Hayward says. “The easiest to use is kosher salt, but you can play with different types for flavorings and color, like Himalayan pink salt, various sea salts or Celtic gray salt, which has a little more crunch.”
Sugar is a must, because you want a balance of sweet and salty in a rub. Brown sugar is the most common, but Hayward also uses white sugar, maple sugar and honey powder. “A nice taste balance of salt to sugar works best,” he says.
Chile is the other base ingredient, and you have choices here, too: cayenne, aleppo, paprika and other chiles. Hayward prefers paprika as the base in most of his rubs. Spanish smoked paprika is a good option “if you’re going for a smoky flavor,” he says. If you like it spicier, you can always add more than one type of chile.
After you’ve combined the base ingredients, incorporate flavor by adding things like black or white pepper, mustard powder, dried onion and garlic powder. Stamp your rub with signature herbs, which depend on what type of meat you’re cooking. Dill complements fish, while rosemary goes well with chicken. Oregano and marjoram are shoo-ins for lamb and pork, while thyme, chives and parsley enhance beef. Thyme, in fact, goes well with just about any meat or seafood.
Hayward likes to use smoked sweet paprika and maple sugar in salmon rubs. For white fish, like tilapia and halibut, he’ll often use tarragon or dill with a chopped shallot, lemon zest, garlic powder, salt and black pepper. For beef, he suggests parsley.
To apply a rub, pat the meat dry and moisten it with a light sheen of olive oil to soften the spices and help them adhere. Then coat the meat thoroughly with the spice rub.
The method of cooking with a spice rub is very important. You don’t want to grill meat, because the sustained heat will burn the sugars. “I like to sear the meat at high temperature first, then finish it low and slow at more indirect heat to incorporate the spices,” Hayward says.
Searing locks in juices, and you could use either a cast-iron skillet or a plancha—a griddle-like slab of cast iron you place on the grill—for searing. (“I love my plancha!” Hayward says.) He sometimes cooks meats on a Himalayan salt brick to further infuse them with salt and minerals.
Always let meat come to room temperature before barbecuing it, he recommends.
Don’t let a rub rub you the wrong way, because you can’t really mess it up. The main thing, Hayward says, is to balance the flavors. “Think about the overall flavors—sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory—and the ingredients, so it’s not too strong on pepper, or paprika or mustard powder, and that all the flavors come through according to your taste preference.”
One of Hayward’s favorite rubs is the Pearl St. Plank Rub he concocted to sell in his store (see the recipe above). Apparently his dogs approve: “I have to be outside and watch them, so they don’t eat anything off of my plate!”
Pearl St. Plank Rub Recipe
Dan Hayward designed the rub for cedar-planked salmon, but says it’s equally outstanding on chicken, pork and sweet potato fries. Sweet, spicy and smoky, the rub contains maple sugar, smoked sweet paprika, salt, chiles, garlic and yellow mustard powder.
1 1-pound salmon fillet, skin on
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon Pearl St. Plank Rub
(Note: If using a 2-pound fillet, double all ingredients.)
1 cedar grilling plank
Soak the cedar plank in water for several hours before cooking (the longer you soak it the better). Wash and pat-dry the salmon fillet. Rub the fillet with olive oil and apply 1 tablespoon of the rub. Let the fillet sit for 30 minutes to give the rub time to permeate the salmon.
Heat grill to 350 degrees. Heat the plank for about 3 minutes on each side. Place the fillet, skin-side down, on the plank and close the grill lid. The salmon should be cooked to medium in 12 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness. Serve with lemon wedges.
Great served with roasted potatoes and grilled asparagus lightly drizzled with olive oil and gray sea salt. Sprinkle cubed potatoes with salt and olive oil and put them in a foil pack.
Place the pack on the grill about 30 minutes prior to the salmon. Coat asparagus spears with olive oil and grill separately in a basket for 5 to 10 minutes, turning every couple of minutes, until lightly charred and barely fork tender. Combine with the potatoes and serve with fresh lemon wedges.
By Carol Brock