by Obie Obermark
Technically a rub is any dry powder applied to a meat’s surface prior to cooking. Usually this “dry powder” consists of salt and or sugar and spices, with the most basic form being salt and pepper. While any good seasoning can be used as a rub, “pure” rubs tend to have more sugar than do general-purpose seasonings. Rubs have to do more than taste good, they have to stick to the food throughout cooking, and sugar gives them a good cling on the meat. Although as long as the finished product tastes good–spicy or sweet–anything goes for rubs.
Rubs work so well because of the way meat is structured and the way meat will “open up” and become “receptive” when it’s heated. Meat is muscle, and muscle is made of fibers–bunches and bunches of tiny bundles of microscopic fibers. When the cut edge of any meat is heated, these bundles open up, “blooming” in effect. This is the point when they most readily absorb outside flavors like smoke and spices AND are most vulnerable to losing moisture and drying out. (See also: LEATHER). Rubs function by recycling the meat’s own juices. When the little bundles “bloom” and start to sweat, the moisture is absorbed by the rub before it can leave the meat. The rub will melt and the spices are carried back into the meat by its own natural juices while the surface remains moist enough to readily take in smoke flavor.
Rubs also penetrate sooner–much sooner–as in “starts while the meat is totally raw” sooner. If you scorch conventional tomato-based barbecue sauce, what do you get? Nasty tasting mess that reeks of burned tomato, isn’t it? Not something that you want on dinner, that’s for sure, so most folks will wait until near the end of their cooking to paint on the sauce. Scorch a rub, on the other hand, and you just caramelize the sugar. You most certainly get a different flavor, (frequently an improvement), and you never get anything as icky as burned sauce. That means that you can rub the meat BEFORE cooking. A rub will work for you by protecting the meat the whole time it’s on the fire. Rubs let you use the condiment to protect the meat instead of cooking the meat to protect the condiment. Now doesn’t that make a lot more sense???
Rubs can bump your bottom line in many ways. If you want to create repeat customers, try being a sole supplier of a specialty product, because many markets do not currently have anyone supplying high quality rubs. Secondly, rubs are very simple to use and make an immediate big improvement to your customer’s cooking, so now is a great time to teach them “Dry Rub” barbecue.
Cooking Tips For Rubs
ALL PURPOSE INFORMATION
Rub Early: Give the flavors an hour or two to penetrate, if you can. I usually rub before I start the fire.
Salt Penetrates, Sugar Seals: The more sugar in a rub, the more likely I am to use it on pork and less likely to use it on beef (with exceptions of course!) Salt helps carry flavor into the meat better than sugar but it doesn’t give much protection against moisture loss. If your cooking technique seals the meat (searing, deep frying, etc.), then use a rub with more salt than sugar. Likewise, big thick chunks of meat don’t dry out quickly and are hard to penetrate, so look to more salt than sugar, once again. If you’re mostly worried that the meat might dry out, like chicken or pork chops, use a high sugar blend.
GRILLING (cooking directly over the fire so that the meat gets radiant heat)
As Temperature Rises, Sugar Falls: Sugar caramelizes at medium cooking temperatures (bueno), but it burns at high heat (yuck-o). Sugar will “brown” (caramelize) at lower temperatures than the meat it’s covering–that’s great for looks, but if I want to sear and brown the meat, I’ll lay off sugar.
Sweet Meat Likes Low Heat: Meats like chicken, pork, and fish cook best at low grilling temperatures, and a high sugar rub will form a protective glaze that both seasons and seals the meat. My favorite technique is to baste with fruit juices and sprinkle on enough rub to cover the meat. The rub will melt as it hits the moisture and form a beautiful glossy glaze that will brown at low heat.
SMOKING (using a baffle or separate firebox so that the mat is never exposed to the flames)
Once is good, twice is better: Two moderate rubbings are usually better than one heavy coat. My rule of thumb is: “If I can’t see the meat, then the smoke can’t either.” Only season the meat moderately when you start cooking, because a thick coat of rub will give you a layer of splendidly smoked seasoning on relatively plain meat. I put on enough to give color, but I can still see the meat through the rub. Cook the meat to desired smokiness (in a good smoker, meat often gets enough smoke flavor before it’s through cooking), then pull it off the pit and season it again with a much heavier sprinkling of rub on all sides. Next, either transfer the smoked meat to a non-smoky oven to finish cooking, or protect the meat from further smoking by wrapping it in aluminum foil and put it back on the pit. Foil-wrapping the meat also helps tenderize without drying by steaming the meat in its own juices.
Generously sprinkle both sides of your steak with seasoning and pat it into the meat. Go light your fire now, while the seasoning sinks into the meat–fifteen minutes, or so. Cook over an intensely hot fire until the top of the steak starts to “sweat”–roughly four to five minutes–and expect a sudden increase in smoke at about this time. Turn the steak and again cook it until it sweats, then turn it. Actual cooking times will vary with the thickness of the meat, the heat of your fire, etc. An inch-thick rib-eye cooked medium-rare takes twelve minutes on my pit, with turns at five minutes and ten minutes.
Wet the meat with beer or water and lightly coat the entire brisket with brisket rub and let it sit for an hour or more. Set up your barbecue pit as a smoker using indirect heat and a water pan when possible. Cook at 250-275 degrees, or with the water pan at a low boil. Start brisket meat side up for one to two hours, then turn it fat side up. Heavily smoke for forty minutes per pound. Transfer the brisket to a large piece of foil, heavily season all sides, add a little beer or water, and seal in foil. Finish cooking in a pit or oven at 250 degrees for twenty to thirty minutes per pound, or until tender.
The principle here is basic…you’re going to protect the meat and keep it very juicy by sealing the meat with a glaze. There’s nothin’ to mix…nothin’ to measure…you don’t need to marinate…you don’t have to think hours ahead of time! Just get the meat wet and sprinkle on a sweet rub. Cook over low direct heat (I can comfortably hold the back of my hand over the fire at meat level for ten seconds). Start the bird skin side down, liberally baste its top side with pineapple juice, and sprinkle on enough of a sweet rub to completely cover, but not cake on the meat. The sweet-type rub will melt down to form a beautiful glossy glaze, and the bird should look like it was spray-painted shiny red. Lightly brown the skin (this takes about twenty minutes on my fire), then turn and once again glaze the meat by basting with juice and sprinkling on a sweet rub. Give ’em a few more drops of juice if the sweet rub hasn’t completely melted after ten minutes or so. The meat should always be shiny, which means the glaze is moist the flexible. If it isn’t glossy, baste it and continue cooking at low temperature until the meat is very tender.
Obie Obermark is a proud Texan, a life-long resident of the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, and winner of many prestigious barbecue competitions. He is a Founding Father and past Executive Director of the International BBQ Cookers Association (IBCA), and has been in the seasoning business for fifteen years. His company Obie-Cue’s Texas Spice, is most famous for barbecue rubs. In the 1998 American Royal Rub Contest (the biggest rub competition in the world) Obie-Cue rubs won 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th, overall including “Best Mild,” “Best Hot,” and “Best Rub on the Planet” for the first-ever sweep of a category by one manufacturer.