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7 Things You Need to Know About Made-From-Scratch Barbecue Rubs

12/13/2013 09:10 pm ET | Updated Feb 12, 2014

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Stumped on what to buy that barbecue fanatic on your holiday list? Why not skip the shopping madness entirely and make the gift yourself? You get to show off your creativity (and generous spirit), and you don't have to fight the mall crowds. The gift I have in mind is a made-from-scratch barbecue rub you concoct in your own kitchen.

So what do you need to know to come up with your signature rub for holiday gift giving?

Well, first the basic flavor building blocks that go into any rub. Scientists recognize four families of tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. In 1908, Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda proposed a fifth taste that he named umami after merging the words for "delicious" (umai) and "taste" (mi). It is best described as a savory, meaty flavor, and is found in ingredients rich in glutamic acid (see examples below).

  • Sweet flavorings for rubs can include granulated sugar, brown sugar (light, dark, or granulated), demerara and turbinado sugars, maple sugar, palm sugar (for an Asian touch), and freeze-dried sugarcane juice (one widely available brand is Sucanat). You can also add sweet spices like cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg.
  • Salty flavorings for rubs include sea salt, kosher salt, table salt (use as a last resort), or any of the many specialty salts now on the market: Hawaiian salt, Himalayan salt, Murray River salt, black salt, etc. One interesting salt you can find in gourmet stores and online is Tabasco salt featuring Avery Island salt and the essence of Louisiana's signature hot sauce.
  • Sour flavorings include freshly grated or dried lemon, lime, or orange zest, lemon pepper, sumac (ground from a purple Middle Eastern berry), and powdered citric acid. Used sparingly, sour flavorings can give a rub brightness and focus.
  • Bitter flavorings include pure chile powder, chili powder blends, cocoa powder (unsweetened, please), ground coffee, ginger, and Indian spices like fenugreek. They function the same way a dash or two of Angostura or Peychaud's bitters do in a cocktail, which is to say, they add complexity and depth of flavor and a subtle but pleasant jarring note that makes you sit up and take notice.
  • Umami flavorings include powdered dried mushrooms, powdered seaweed, grated Parmesan cheese, powdered Worcestershire sauce, powdered soy sauce, granulated or powdered bouillon or broth bases, or tomato flakes. (Online spice and herb purveyors like Penzey's are sources for some of these ingredients.)

In addition to these universally recognizable taste components, I would add:

  • Hot flavorings, which include pure chile powder, blended chili powders, cayenne pepper, hot and smoked paprika, peppercorns, ginger powder, mustard powder, and wasabi powder. Used strategically, these ingredients have an electrifying effect on any rub and are an essential ingredient of the classics.
  • Aromatic flavorings include powdered or granulated alliums like onion, garlic, and shallots, and dried herbs like oregano, sage, rosemary, and others. (Remember: Some herbs, like the ones mentioned above, dry well, while others, like tarragon or cilantro, lose most of their flavor when dried. Other aromatics include spices like cumin, coriander, and caraway—all available in whole or ground form.

In all likelihood, you have many of the above ingredients on hand (hopefully purchased in the last year!) and can make a great rub without having to make a trip in frigid temperatures to the grocery store. Inside of 30 minutes, you can have a trio of rubs lined up and handsomely packaged, ready for holiday giving.

Here are a few tips to get you started. (Get additional rub-making tips at BarbecueBible.com.)

  1. Pick up inexpensive shaker jars or other lidded containers when you find them for packaging your rub(s). Restaurant supply stores are good sources. Cup- or pint-size canning jars, available at any supermarket, also work well.
  2. Use a cautious hand when adjusting flavors. You might think, "If some is good, more must be better." Sometimes, more is too much. This is especially true of hot pepper flakes, pure chile powder, cumin, etc.
  3. It's always a good idea to "test drive" your rub on a piece of meat to see how it tastes once cooked.
  4. Most rubs contain salt. But not all salts are created equal. Sea salt and kosher salt are more interesting than table salt, as are specialty salts. (See above.)
  5. Introduce a smoky element in the form of Spanish pimenton, chipotle chile powder, or smoked salt.
  6. Keep your eyes open for unexpected finds like powdered honey, dried Worcestershire sauce, powdered soy sauce, or other ingredients that have the potential to add flavor and interest.
  7. The most important ingredient in a rub is balance. A good rub resembles a musical chord, without one ingredient dominating. Think more than the sum of the parts.

Here are three recipes to get you started:

Have your own special mix that you want to share? Tell us on the Barbecue Board.

READ MORE ABOUT GRILLING AT BARBECUEBIBLE.COM:

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Steven Raichlen is the author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and the host of Primal Grill on PBS. His web site is www.barbecuebible.com.

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