Time Savers: Spice Rubs

When time is on my side I like to marinate meat for hours on end, letting it soak in flavorful juices and seasonings until it starts to call out, “Please baby, it feels so good but I need more! Gimme some heat, mama!”  There’s something about a succulent chicken breast which soaked for hours in a tenderizing garlic and yogurt marinade, or juicy cubes of beef which have been wallowing in a mango chili sauce since yesterday afternoon.  On the other hand, when I’m in a time crunch and I want to make dinner in a flash, I often turn to my good old friend the spice rub.

Spice rubs are a brilliant way to add full flavor and zing to your proteins when you don’t have hours to wait for a flavor to infuse.  Unlike a marinade, which permeates straight through the meat, a spice rub coats and seals the surface and adds a bold punch with every bite. It only takes a few minutes to whip up a quick rub using the ingredients you have on hand in your spice rack, and they can add a lot of big flavors to an otherwise simple dish.

A spice rub is basically a blend of different dried herbs and spices, often containing either salt or sugar to seize the moisture in your meat.  Some classic spice blends are garam masala, curry (of which there are umpteen varieties and I love them all), ras el hanout or Middle Eastern za’atar.  Each one of these blends is made up of a few key ingredients that give it a distinctive color, flavor or scent, but if you ask 15 spice merchants what they put in their ras el hanout, you’ll get 15 different answers.  That’s the joy of blends, because you can play Mad Scientist in the kitchen, adding layers of flavor and depth until you find the one that tastes just right to you.

Whipping up a double batch of a spice rub only takes a few minutes, and the mixture will keep it’s flavor in a sealed jar or container for as long as the sum of the ingredients would.  Depending on what you’re going to use the rub for, you may choose to add salt or leave it out.  The benefit of having salt in a rub is that you’re seasoning directly into the meat and the salt acts on the outer cells of your protein, causing them to seize and pull all of the moisture inside.  On the other hand, it’s much easier to control your salt intake if you season each cut individually and to taste. Really, it’s up to you.  I’m lazy enough that I often like to get the salt right in there at the start and save a step, but that’s just me.

Now then, why would a spice rub be an advantage for a frantic home cook?  Well, imagine that you get home after a shattering day.  It’s 8:30 pm and you’re hungry with the kind of gnawing pain that makes you question whether you want to just grab a brick of cheese from the fridge and eat it like an apple, or punch someone in the nose.  Usually, when I’m really hungry, I oscillate between craving those two in particular.  Anyway, you set the oven to preheat to 400ºF, grab a couple of chicken breasts out of the fridge and rub them with your spice blend.  Wash your hands, take off your dirty work clothes and pour a goblet of wine.  In 15 minutes your chicken has come down to room temperature, the oven is hot, and you’re only 20 minutes away from dinner…which gives you time to check your email, make a salad, put in a load of laundry and reject the idea of watering your plants.  See?  That’s what I’m all about.

It helps to have fast-friendly proteins on hand for days like that, and most of them are excellent with just a simple spice rub and a quick cook.  In a hot oven, a boneless skinless chicken breast will cook in about 20 minutes, as will pork tenderloin, and most fish will bake in only 5-10 depending on thickness.  If you’re a fan on the grill, dinner will often be even quicker.

You might have a favorite spice blend already (Mike’s is Montreal Steak Spice), but if you’re looking to shake it up a bit, these are five of the ones that are tried and true in our house.

1.  Cowboy spice rub

Perfect for pork, salmon or a flavorful beef like flank or skirt steak

Makes just over 1/4 cup

  • 1.5 tbsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tbsp chipotle chili powder
  • 1 tbsp brown sugar
  • 2 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1.5 tsp garlic salt
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
  • 3/4 tsp kosher salt, or to taste

From the recipe for Spice Rubbed Cowboy Pork Chops, and as featured in Saveur Magazines “Best of the Web”.

2.  Moroccan Spice Rub (Ras El Hanout)

Excellent with veal tenderloin, pork, lean beef or chicken

Makes just over 1/4 cup

  • 3 tsp cumin powder
  • 2 tsp sweet paprika
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp allspice
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp anise seed
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp ground cardamom
  • 2 tsp kosher salt, or to taste
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper

From the recipe for Moroccan Spiced Tenderloin with Honeyed Shiraz Sauce.

3.  North African Adobo

Excellent on beef, chicken or tuna steaks

Makes 2/3 cup

  • 2 tsp coriander seed
  • 1.5 tsp allspice berries
  • 1 tsp black peppercorn
  • 1 tsp cumin seed
  • 2 tbsp dry mustard powder
  • 4 tsp kosher salt, or to taste
  • 1 tbsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tbsp sweet paprika
  • 3 tsp brown sugar
  • 1.5 tsp ground ginger
  • 1.5 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1.5 tsp hot red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp ground turmeric
  • 1 tsp cayenne

From the recipe for North African Adobo Spice Rub.

4.  Spiced Herb Rub

Good for rich, fatty meats like short ribs or a beef rump roast

Makes 1/3 cup

  • 4 tsp dried rosemary
  • 2 tbsp chili powder (preferably ancho)
  • 2 tbsp smoked paprika
  • 4 tsp cumin powder
  • 2 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 tsp kosher salt, or to taste

From the recipe for Stout Braised Short Ribs with Horseradish Cream Sauce.

5.  Carnita Pork Rub

Obviously good with fatty pork shoulder/butt, but also delicious on chicken

Makes 1/2 cup

  • 2 tbsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tbsp orange zest (from about 3/4 of a navel orange) *
  • 1 tbsp chipotle chili powder
  • 1 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp garlic powder (not garlic salt)
  • 1 tbsp onion powder (not onion salt)
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1.5 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper, or to taste
  • 2 tsp kosher salt, or to taste

Additional:  2 bulbs roasted garlic, which is another great time saver.

* Many specialty or spice stores sell dried orange peel which you can grind and add to the mix.  If you’re using fresh orange zest, do not add it until you’re ready to coat the meat.

From the recipe for Lazybones Carnitas:  Slowcooker Shredded Pork.