A good steak rub can add an incredible amount of deep flavor and complexity to any cut of steak, turning an average dish into one that earns the cook a huge amount of praise, and requests for your ‘secret recipe’! In truth, creating your own rub, or even finding and buying a pre-made steak rub is a simple, quick and yet delicious way to bring the most out of your meal. However, in my opinion, there are 3 golden rules that I always follow in ensuring that the steak rub does not turn a great piece of steak (or chicken, fish or even vegetables) into a mouthful of spice and nothing else!
1) Take it easy on the rub! Seems a simple enough rule at first glance, but it is amazing how many people seem to think that they are expected to use a whole jar of steak rub on one piece of meat, or that it should have a 2 inch crust of rub over the entire surface area of the steak. Doing this not only causes the delicate flavor of the meat to be masked (and often ruined), but is also an expensive way of creating a lot of smoke on the grill or in the pan and not much else. In today’s economic times we should be looking to maximize taste and flavor in less expensive cuts of meat; a good steak rub applied in the correct amount will do this by enhancing the meat and not overpower it. How much is just enough? A great rule of thumb is a light coating on all sides of the meat and then pressed into the flesh (to avoid the loose rub falling off) is usually sufficient. It is also crucial to remember that it is not how much rub to apply, but also for how long you let the rub soak into the meat (think 5 pound standing rib roast versus a fillet of cod!) This guideline can be further refined with golden rule #2:
2) Understand the flavor of the meat you are working with. This is another crucial component of ensuring a good result when using steak rub. What do I mean by understanding the flavor? If you are cooking two cuts of steak on the same night, for example a porterhouse and a fillet mignon, applying the same amount of rub to both will lead to vastly different results. The porterhouse with it’s bone and higher fat content will be able to handle not just more rub, but also a more spicy or bold steak rub (see golden rule #3 for types of rub) than will the fillet. Indeed, I often advocate that for fillets, given their relatively lean composition, they should often be prepared with either a wet rub (a dry rub mixed with a little oil to provide for a more substantial rub), or no rub applied at all and instead served with a sauce. Similarly, a chicken breast or fish fillet will also need to have a rub applied in a much more conservative manner than would a ribeye steak.
3) Balance the flavors in your steak rub. Now that we know not to totally submerge the steak in a rub (in both amount and time), and we know how well each piece of meat or fish can handle a mix of spices being applied to it, we need to ensure that the mix of herbs and spices in our rub are complimentary to each other. Flavor profiles are obviously a matter of personal preference, but there are certain guidelines that can always be followed to ensure that you are on the right track with your steak rub choice. Whether the spices you are using are hot (such as cayenne or red chili flakes), sharp (onion, garlic), sweet (brown sugar, cinnamon) or more herb based flavors (thyme, sage, etc.), please keep in mind how well each of these groups would not only mix well together, but also how they would taste together with your chosen steak. A great tip here is to begin with a ready made steak rub, and try adding one or more new herbs and spices to it. This way, you can try a multitude of flavors without having to buy every herb and spice on the market.
Of course the most important rule in the world of steak rubs is to keep trying new concoctions and to have fun doing it!
Paul Brough is a Financial Analyst and passionate amateur in the world of all things steak rub.
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