Sealing in the Flavor With Aromatic Blends of Secret Rubs, by John Willoughby and Chris Schlesinger, Dec. 1, 1993

“Spice rubs are to classic French sauces what street performers are to opera stars: exotic, a little wild, and prone to improvisation. They provide intense culinary excitement without requiring hours of labor.

Mixtures of spices, rubbed on the outsides of foods, encourage the formation of a browned crust packed with complex, concentrated flavors. The spice blends can be as simple as roasted cumin seeds combined with salt and pepper, or as complex as a garam masala from India, which may contain a dozen or more spices. Either way, they are a healthful alternative to traditional sauces, adding deep flavor without fat.

For most people, the idea of coating foods with aromatic spice blends inspires images of exotic Moroccan souks or Indian bazaars studded with open burlap bags of colorful powders. This makes sense, since carefully blended spice combinations have long been central to the cuisines of hot- weather countries.

But in the classic cooking of those regions, spice mixes are not used primarily as rubs. Surprisingly, that technique is more typical of indigenous American cooking — specifically, Cajun ‘blackening’ and the beloved barbecue of the South.

In fact, there is a moment at any all-night, Southern-style barbecue that virtually defines spice-rub technique. When the good ol’ boys (and girls) have gathered, the fire in the pit has burned down to the proper stage and the brisket or pig is about to go on, the pit master takes out a plastic bucket full of a reddish powder, invariably called “my secret rub,” and vigorously massages handfuls of it all over the beast of choice.

As the meat cooks through the night, the heat and the spices interact to form a crisp, flavor-packed crust. By morning, the contrast between this crunchy, spicy coating and the rich, moist and juicy interior provides a perfect demonstration of what spice rubbing is all about. Anyone who has ever tasted shredded pork barbecue in North Carolina or the ‘burnt ends’ at Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City, Mo., will recognize the sensation.

Although the pit masters of the South might not think of them this way, spice rubs actually function as a kind of dry marinade. As such, they have several advantages over their traditional liquid counterparts.

Since they are composed almost solely of spices at most moistened to a paste with a bit of liquid, rubs provide stronger and better-defined flavors than marinades, typically comprising oil and an acidic liquid with some added spices.

Rubs adhere better to the surface of foods than marinades, which again intensify the flavor. And rather than melding their flavors with those of the food being cooked, as marinades tend to do, rubs create a very distinct layer of flavor that contrasts wonderfully with the pure, unadorned taste of the food’s interior.

In addition to their many other virtues, spice rubs are versatile. They are equally good used with small pieces of meat or fish that are sauteed, grilled or broiled, or with larger items that may be braised or roasted. In the latter case, you simply rub on the spices before searing. And there is no need to restrict rubs to red meat, either; any type of food, from meat to poultry to fish to vegetables, can benefit from the added flavor of a rub.

While there are hundreds of traditional spice blends to use as rubs, it is also fun to make up your own. If you decide to venture out on this particular culinary tightrope, there are a few simple guidelines that might help.

Use a smaller proportion of the highly aromatic spices, like clove, nutmeg and cinnamon; a higher proportion of the more earthy spices, like coriander, cumin and paprika, which provide a base for the mixture, and go heavy or light on chili peppers, depending on your taste for heat. You should also be careful to create an overall balance between the sweetness of spices like cardamom, the heat of chilies and the aroma of spices like cinnamon.

Whatever your mix, the technique is simplicity itself. Just take small handfuls of the spice mix and rub it over the entire surface of the food you are going to cook, using a bit of pressure to make sure that a good layer adheres to the food. Don’t bother with brushes; bare hands are the best way to apply these mixtures. This step can be done several hours before you begin to cook, or five minutes before; the effect will be about the same.

When you start to cook the rubbed food, don’t worry if the rub begins to turn dark brown. This is what happens to spices when they are cooked, particularly if you are using a high-heat technique like grilling or sauteing. As long as the spices don’t begin to smoke, you are in the clear.

But this is not to be confused with the blackening process, so don’t let the spice crust turn deep black; if you do, the crust may acquire a bitter edge. The main point to remember is that this simple technique has maximum effect with minimum effort.”

-Excerpt and images courtesy of The New York Times, Times Machine, “Sealing in the Flavor With Aromatic Blends of Secret Rubs,” by John Willoughby and Chris Schlesinger, Dec. 1, 1993

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