Mixing and Matching in Rubs and Marinades

In this part . . .Pat on a rub or soak meat in marinade and magic happens. Rubs season and tenderize meat, help seal in moisture while you cook, and impart a crisp crust. Marinades infuse meat with flavor, adding not just interest but tenderness. In this part, you find out how to use rubs and marinades and how to mix up batches of either by using the ample recipes or instructions for building your own.

What you do before you cook meat makes all the difference in the result you get. No pressure, but really, taking the time to let meat sit in a dry rub or marinade gives the stuff flavor and can even bring any meat extra juiciness and more toothsome texture.

Dry rubs and marinades overlap in function but operate very differently.

In most cases, you use one or the other. This chapter gives you the goods on what dry rubs and marinades do and how they do it. You also find an overview of what goes into dry rubs and marinades. They have many, many permutations, but the basic formula for either is significantly easier than pie.

Building a Dry Rub from the Binder Up

A dry rub creates a bark on the outside of whatever meat you’re cooking, and that bark holds in the moisture. Put it together well, and the rub that builds the bark also provides some incredible flavor in the meat.

You find as many recipes for rub as there are cooks, and there’s no end to the possibilities.

There is, however, a basic formula for building a rub. (And, really, a limited number of standard combinations that survive because they work so well together. The difference in these lies in the proportions of ingredients, and playing with proportions could keep a cook busy ad infinitum.) The following breakdown describes how most dry rubs come together :

  • Binder: Something relatively neutral that provides a base for all the other flavors. Paprika is a commonly used binder for traditional barbecue dry rubs; cumin shows up in a lot of Indian rubs; and if you’re following a Jamaican recipe, brown sugar is likely to fill this role. (But brown sugar is not really dry, and because it’s not powdery, it tends to sit on the meat instead of penetrating it to add flavor.)
  • Salt: Plain old table salt, sea salt, or kosher — garlic, even — you want some kind of salt in the mix for flavor, texture, and its tenderizing effect. A little salt draws out other flavors in your rub — but use too much, and all you taste is salt.
  • Sweet: Sugar adds body and helps balance your dry rub. Plain old granulated sugar does the trick, and you get good results from cane sugar or brown sugar as well. Use sugar sparingly, though; too much will give your meat a burnt and bitter crust. Turn to Chapter 8 to find out more about sugar’s problem properties.
  • Power: You generally add one or two strong flavors to give your rub oomph: spices like chili powder, curry powder, cayenne pepper, or crushed dried chilies work beautifully.

The four elements in the preceding list get you started, and then you add some of this, a little of that, until you find the flavor you’re looking for. Grab some dry mustard; toss in granulated onion — whatever sounds tasty, within reason. In the upcoming section, “Warring Flavors You Don’t Want to Mix,” I steer you away from some bad ideas regarding spice mixing.

When you start putting together a rub, determine the main flavor you want to come through, and then make sure you give that flavor top billing. Use equal amounts of sugar and salt, for example, and you end up tasting neither. But if you want a sweet rub and use more sugar than salt, you get sweetness with salt flavor that keeps the rub in balance.

Smelling the flavor

“Eye appeal is half the meal” is a mantra that reverberates through restaurants, where presentation is critical. At competitions, barbecue cooks go to great lengths to make sure their food looks lovely, even spraying it with apple juice to give it an eye-catching sheen. Turns out, the nose has much more to do with your perception of taste than your eyes.

The tongue picks up on only five different flavors (sweet, sour, bitter, pungent, and salty), but the nose can discern among thousands of aromas. Molecules from herbs and spices are highly volatile and so fly up into the air and into your nose, bringing the aroma of the seasoning with them. Even as you’re chewing, the aromacontaining molecules are meandering into your nasal cavity. The sensation of smelling mingles with that of tasting, and the whole glorious combination comes together as pleasure (or not).

You get a first-hand, um, taste of this phenomenon when you have a cold and can’t get a good whiff of your food. Those clogged sinuses of yours are the reason you can’t taste the difference between an apple and a raw potato.

Rubs work best when they’re composed of fine powders that give you an even coat on the meat. And fresh-ground herbs release more flavor than those that have been ground months before. A coffee grinder works great for reducing coarse salt, coriander seeds, or pretty much anything else to a powder. If you already have a grinder that you use for your morning coffee, get a second one just for grinding seasonings; otherwise, you’re likely to end up with some funky-tasting coffee.

And speaking of coffee — many cooks use it in their rubs. Ground coffee (but not used coffee grounds) gives a unique flavor to meat and is a good complement to smoking. Legend has it, the notion of using coffee grounds came as an accident when a cook spilled some coffee on the cutting board where his waiting steaks sat and decided to roll with it, rolling his steaks in the stuff to tasty effect.

After you mix any dry rub, seal it in an airtight container and store it at room temperature for about a day. You can skip this step if you’re in a hurry, but a nice amalgamating effect comes from letting the spices mingle, making the whole much bigger than the sum of its parts.

Seasonings That Play Well Together

The grains filling little jars in your spice rack started out as weapons. Plants’ intense flavors are how they convince animals to get away after taking a bite. Dilution and mixing make the flavors palatable to people, but strike upon the wrong formula of flavors, and your cooking may become noxious in a new way. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experiment, but it does mean that smart experimentation follows a few rules.

As you flip through the recipes in Chapter 6, you probably start to notice a few similarities among them. That’s because there’s a basic formula for making rubs, and some general guidelines for using seasonings that are never going to change. Don’t think for a minute that those truths are limiting factors, though: Within them are at least a gazillion ways to get from spice rack to dry rub. And, as you get a feel for mixing dry rubs, you’re likely to want to try your own. This section gives you the basics you need for doing it yourself.

You have centuries of cooking with herbs and spices to draw on, which means a lot of the trial and error of spice pairing has been done for you. Still, no hard and fast rules exist when it comes to putting seasonings together, and your personal palate has a lot to do with the combinations you favor.

Put every color in a paint box together, and muddy brown is the likely result. Go overboard when putting spices together, and flavors start canceling each other out, leaving you with a tasteless sludge. Keeping your combos simple usually gives you the besttasting rub.

The following guidelines help you experiment with seasonings without arriving at less-than-toothsome results :

  • Open the lids of the seasonings you plan to use, and set the containers out in a close configuration on the counter. Take a whiff of the melded flavors and see whether anything sticks out as not meshing. Forget that seasoning this time.
  • Use different quantities of spices that have similar qualities. That is, if you’re using two sweet spices, like allspice and anise, use a little more of one than the other.
  • Keep in mind that more is almost never better. Using a few well-matched seasonings usually is preferable to adding and adding and adding flavors.
  • Shoot for contrast : If you’re using a hot spice like cayenne pepper, tone it down with a little sugar.
  • Remember that the benefit of using some moderately flavoured seasonings is that they bind more intense flavors without muddying up the mix. Good choices for this effect are coriander, fennel, paprika, and turmeric.

Table 5-1 shows you time-tested combinations of herbs and spices used for various types of cuisines. Getting a sense of how flavors work together goes a long way toward success as you start experimenting in the kitchen.

Table 5-1

Common Spice Mixes

Spice Mix


Chili powder

Allspice, cumin, garlic, onion, oregano, salt

Chinese five-spice powder

Cinnamon, cloves, Szechuan pepper, fennel, star anise

Creole seasoning

Basil, black pepper, cayenne pepper, garlic, onion, oregano, paprika, salt, thyme

Curry powder

Black peppercorns, coriander, fenugreek, ginger, mustard seed, turmeric, red chiles

Garam masala

Bay leaves, black peppercorns, cardamom, cloves, coriander, cumin, ginger, nutmeg

Herbes de Provence

Basil, fennel, lavender, marjoram, rosemary, thyme

Jamaican jerk seasoning

Allspice, chiles, cinnamon, cloves, garlic, ginger, thyme

Pickling spice

Allspice, bay leaves, black peppercorns, cinnamon, cloves, dill seed, ginger, mace, red pepper flakes, yellow mustard seed

Poultry seasoning

Marjoram, oregano, sage, thyme

Mixing Marinades

Part tenderizer, part juicifier, and part sweet sassy molassey!, marinades give meat greater toothsomeness in every sense of the word.

A marinade is any combination of oil, acid, and herbs that meat soaks in before you cook it.

You have an infinite variety of combinations for creating delectable marinades, and with the slightest smarts about how the elements work together, you can whip up versions for any meat you want to cook and any result you want to chow down on.

In this section, you find out how to put together balanced marinades that tenderize, give great pep, and add moisture to whatever meats you may cook. You accomplish that tripartite mission with three kinds of ingredients that vary according to the effect you want to achieve and the kind of meat you’re cooking.


Acids act on proteins in meat, helping them break down and become more tender. As the proteins break down, they leave space within the meat for flavor and moisture to seep in.

Acids that commonly are used in marinades include the following :

  • Beer
  • Bourbon or other hard liquors
  • Buttermilk
  • Carbonated beverages (except diet soda, which adds an unpleasant bitter flavor)
  • Coffee
  • Cranberry juice
  • Grapefruit juice
  • Lemon juice
  • Lime juice
  • Orange juice
  • Vinegar
  • Wine
  • Yogurt

Ceviche: The crossroads of marinating and cooking

Travel to South America or Central America, and you probably sample a cold seafood salad called ceviche. To make it, bite-size pieces of fish are soaked in lime juice or lemon juice, minced onions and peppers, and maybe cilantro or parsley.

Sometimes other minced ingredients, like celery, avocado, or tomato, are added as well. All kinds of fish end up in ceviche, and what kind you find depends in part on where you are.

The acid in the lemon juice or lime juice “cooks” the fish over the course of a couple hours by changing the composition of its proteins, just as heat does, but more gently.

Preparing fish this way is gentler than heating it, so the result is more delicately flavored, more succulent fish.

Just like barbecue, the word ceviche (and the stuff itself) has origins that spark debate. One theory that seems reasonable enough has it stemming from the Iberian Spanish word escabeche (meaning “marinade”).

Which works best? Surprisingly, it’s the buttermilk and yogurt, which seem to be able to better penetrate meat but without leaving it too tough or mushy-textured. The theory goes that dairy products work best, in part, because they’re on the low side of the acid spectrum.


A marinade’s oil is its moisture. A good dose of oil — just about any kind will do — helps meat hang onto whatever moisture it has and even adds to it.


You add flavor with the oil and acid, but you get most of your marinade’s pow when you use seasonings to build a balanced and interesting combination of flavors. (The earlier section, “Seasonings That Play Well Together,” tells you more about how to combine seasonings.)

Matching Marinade to Meat

Many of the same ingredients work no matter what meat you plan to cook: Garlic, black pepper, citrus juice, and ginger are practically ubiquitous marinade ingredients that complement just about anything you could think to cook. Other ingredients work better with particular types of meats.

In this section, I give you some ideas about what works with some of the common meats for outdoor cooking.

Starters for seafood

Because seafood soaks up flavor so quickly, marinades work best when they’re subtle, and the type of fish you plan to cook affects the flavors that you use: The stronger flavors that may work for denser, fattier fish like tuna or salmon don’t necessarily complement delicate red snapper. And then there’s shellfish. Shrimp are great for grilling and can hang with most marinades; scallops need a sure hand for appropriate marinating.

How does all this add up? Here are a few guidelines for marinating fish :

  • Marinate with reserve. Too much time or intensity enables a marinade to overpower a fish or even cook it (which is tasty, sure, but a whole different animal from marinated, grilled fish).
  • Match subtler flavors to more delicate fish. The fat content gives you an indication of the fish’s muscle in the face of marinade. Fattier fish can withstand stronger flavors than lower-fat fish. If you’re cooking tuna or mackerel, for example, you can let loose with some soy sauce, crushed red pepper, wasabi powder, or similarly strong ingredients.
  • Use the tried and true. Citrus juices and olive oil are always a safe start for fish; black or white pepper, paprika, or a smidge of crushed red pepper can finish the job with surprisingly delicious results that belie the simplicity of the concoction.

Adding oomph to chicken

Chicken is practically a blank canvas and does fine with whatever you choose to paint on it, be that a subtle lemon-herb marinade or an intense chile-ginger version. It’s hard to go wrong in part because chicken itself is mildly flavored and its texture makes it somewhat resistant to the seasonings you add (except for the dark meat, which is less dense and picks up flavor more efficiently).

Citrus juices, wine, mustard, and soy sauce top a long list of good pairings for chicken.

Because chicken can be resistant to marinade, reserve some of yours (a portion that hasn’t touched the raw chicken, of course) to serve with your cooked chicken. You can also boil the marinade (in which case, you can even use leftovers from the marinade bowl) for several minutes to reduce it and create an extra-flavorful sauce for topping or dipping the chicken. An extra dash of the flavors you cooked the chicken in goes a long way toward driving home the result you want.

Good ideas for pork

Pork has a mild flavor that you can easily take in several directions with marinade, and it gives itself over well to the marinade, readily absorbing the flavors. Soy sauce is a stellar starter for pork and shows up in the majority of pork marinade recipes; use it with ginger, garlic, and honey or sugar, and you get a tender, tasty result. Go in the other direction and pair it with fruit juices for a sweeter and milder result.

Pork also does well with delicate, wine-based marinades, and it can stand up to powerful marinades with chile sauce or chipotle peppers.

Do your worst; pork can probably take it.

Sure bets for beef

The rich flavor of beef merits complex flavors in a marinade. Red wine or red wine vinegar are excellent choices, and soy sauce works well, too. Horseradish is a sure bet, and so are

Worcestershire sauce, garlic, dry mustard, and ginger.

Herb-wise, thyme or rosemary are great choices; a bay leaf can add the smidge of bitterness that balances meat’s savoriness.

Use only a little citrus, if you use it at all. A hint of it can make your other flavors pop, but if the citrus takes over, it clashes with the beef.

Timing Meat’s Marinade Soak

The reason different types of meat have different flavors (the structure of their proteins) is the same reason meats handle marinades differently. Leave fish too long in marinade, and you cook it. Denser red meat can take much more time to soak in the flavors of a marinade, but it turns mushy on its edges and tough in the middle if it spends more than the optimal amount of time soaking.

Use a glass or stainless steel container to marinate meats, or put the meat and the marinade in a plastic freezer bag with a zipper seal. When you use aluminum bowls, the meat picks up unsavory flavors and takes on an unnatural color because the acids in the marinade oxidize molecules in the bowl.

The line between flavorful and over-marinated isn’t a thin one. You usually have an unintimidating and wide margin of error to work with. Here are some guidelines for determining the time particular meats need in marinades :

  • Fish: Up to an hour
  • Chicken: One to three hours
  • Pork: Four to seven hours
  • Lamb: Five to eight hours
  • Beef: Big barbecue cuts (like brisket), 12 to 24 hours; smaller cuts that you grill, 6 to 12 hours

The timing depends somewhat on the flavors in the marinade, as well. If you’re using a subtle marinade, go for the longer side of the timing window; for intense marinades, err on the side of caution.

If you’re marinating meat for more than an hour, do so in the fridge. You don’t want to risk giving bacteria a place to grow. Those opportunistic suckers are lurking and ready to multiply like crazy.

Make sure you throw out any leftover marinade for that very reason. Juices from the raw meat that soaked in it are an easy target for a bacteria infestation.

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