Several years ago, I made up a jar of barbecue rub for my dad for Father’s Day. It was a fuss free affair: a little salty, a little spicy, a little sweet. But this one jar of simple seasoning set off a chain reaction of everyone in my family asking me for the recipe: my mom wanted it so she could send some to my uncle, my uncle wanted it so he could make more when it ran out, et cetera.
Only one problem: the recipe doesn’t exist. Because barbecue rub is not a recipe situation. It’s a technique, a way of treating the meat before you grill or smoke it. It is the epitome of a-little-bit-of-this-a-little-bit-of-that cooking.
Go with your gut: do those ribs look like they need chipotle powder? Does your steak want a touch of cumin? Think those chicken legs could use some ground fennel? The wide world of spices is yours, my friend, and the good news is you can’t really mess this up. But you could probably use some guidelines for an easy recipe for your next barbecue, so here goes:
1 part sea salt
1 teaspoon, 1 tablespoon, 1 cup: up to you how much you want to make, but you might as well make a bunch so you have it on hand at all times. Keep it in an airtight container in the pantry, ready for whenever the meat craving hits.
1 part seasonings
You want this to be mostly coarse ground black pepper. You could, in fact, use only coarse ground black pepper — and you’d be classically minimalist in doing so. But if you’re feeling fancy, try adding other flavorings. Honestly, pretty much any spice you have lying around would work: cumin, chili powder, paprika, onion or garlic powder, ground thyme, even cinnamon. Grind up any dried herbs between your fingers; if the leaves are too big, they’ll burn during cooking. And take it easy on the spicy stuff unless you are absolutely, positively sure you know what you’re doing. Don’t ruin a fine ribeye with tons of cayenne.
½ part sugar (optional)
I think sugar makes the rub. There’s something about the caramel that forms on the surface of the meat when it melts into the fat that falls just short of actual, literal magic. But some people think it’s weird to put sugar on meat. Up to you. If you do use sugar, though, make sure to watch that meat like a hawk while it’s cooking; sugar has a tendency to make things burn.
Rub the rub
Depending on the size of meat you’re cooking, you will want to add the rub anywhere from the night before (big chunks of meat) to immediately before cooking (little birds like quails). And as for how much, a good rule is to press the rub into the surface of the meat and then brush of anything that doesn’t stick. You’re not trying to create a crust of salt and spice here; you just want to season the meat.
Then, how you cook it — grill, smoke, or otherwise — is up to you.