A rub is a spice and/or herb mixture that is added to foods before cooking. Rubs can be completely dry or incorporate some liquids in which case it is called a wet rub or paste. Rubs are most often used in barbecue and grilling because of their ability to stick to meats when grilled or smoked. Generally, rubs start with salt and sugar, From here virtually anything can be added.
As the popularity of barbecue grew and, thanks to the internet, spread around the world, rubs became the great secret ingredient.
Ask any barbecue competition cook what their secret is and they are more likely than not to say that it is in the rub. The truth is that rubs are just spice mixtures, typically relying heavily on salt, the one true flavor enhancer, and sugar. Since barbecue is traditionally cooked at low temperatures (below the 265 degree F/130 degree C burning point of sugar) it is generally safe to use lots of sugar if so desired.
Rubs are used to add flavor and color, as well as help to produce the "bark" surface on meats. Bark is a heavy, smoke-infused crust on the surface of slow-smoked meats that is so desired in barbecue. To add color, rubs generally rely on a heavy amount of paprika and/or chili powder, depending on how spicy the cook wants their food to turn out. These red hued spices give meats the desired color and, if used properly, help to create an almost sauce-like consistency on the surface.
As you should be able to determine from this, rubs are nothing new and their origin dates back to the origins of cooking. Any time that a blend of spices and herbs is applied to meats before cooking, you are using a rub. The term rub can be misleading since it is usually dusted on to meats and not necessarily "rubbed" into the surface, but the word rub has been used to create a vast majority of the puns used in barbecue over the years.
While each rub recipe is unique and there is a wide number of them out there, they tend to be relatively simple with most rubs being based on a standard set of flavors. In addition to the ingredients named above, it is typical to find garlic and onion powders, cumin, oregano, and many of the most common herbs and spices in the typical spice rack.
As a general rule, the amount of rub needed for any piece of meat is whatever sticks to it. For this reason, it is a good idea to make large amounts and keep them on hand. Apply rubs with a shaker evenly over the entire surface and whatever sticks is the amount needed. Dry rubs can be stored for months without the losing their flavors or quality. Wet rubs are made by adding a liquid component to a rub which can be practically anything that will add flavor. Many wet rubs include lemon or lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, or other specific flavor profiles. Wet rubs should be stored in the refrigerator and will hold their flavors for a few days to a few weeks depending on the liquid ingredient.
See more on making rubs.
Also Known As:
Dry Rub, Wet Rub, Spice Rub, Paste (when wet), Seasoning, Seasoning Rub, Dry Marinade, BBQ Rub