Barbecue: Rules of the rub

Dry rubs may be the signature of Memphis-style barbecue, but that doesn’t mean you have to head south to get a taste of this tried-and-true technique. Many spots here in town turn to dry rubs to seal in flavor and form a crisp, charred crust around the meat, and with just a bit of basic knowledge under your belt, you, too, can master this wetter-isn’t-better way of barbecuing.

The first thing to remember when creating your own dry rub is that fresh herbs will always outshine their drier, blander counterparts. Spice grinders, mortars and pestles, and spice mills are your friends here: They will make everything from peppercorns to paprika uniform in size. Salt should be part of your rub no matter what flavor profile you prefer, as it draws the moisture to the meat’s surface, creating a crispy, crunchy caramelization that acts as a “sauce” all its own – just remember, less is more, as you still want plenty of those juices to stay inside the meat. Just be sure to choose your salt wisely: Use coarser grinds such as sea and kosher salts, which will dissolve better on the meat as it cooks and give you a bigger bang for your flavor-packed buck. As for pepper, there are a plethora of ways to add that piquant flavor into the mix, from grinding fresh black, white or pink peppercorns to throwing in some cayenne to toasting dried chile peppers for a tad more zing.

From there, the choice is yours. Experiment with spices both common and exotic to learn how the heat affects the flavors of your favorite add-ins. Like a little extra kick? Add some more cayenne or chiles to the mix. Want things on the sweeter side? Toss in some white or brown sugar. Just be careful with sugar, since it burns at 340 degrees, creating a tacky surface that attracts ash from the coals below the meat. Keep in mind the flavors of the other elements of your meal as well, tossing in some oregano for Greek-inspired sides or ground ginger, Chinese five-spice and garlic powder for a little Asian flair.

Rubs can be applied up to an hour before cooking (no need to marinate overnight since the spices don’t soak into the meat), but be sure to taste your rub before you apply it – there’s no going back after it hits the grill. Once perfected, apply it evenly and generously, making sure every inch of the meat is covered with all your favorite flavors.