Like tainting a great single malt by mixing it with Coke, cooking a high-grade slab of lamb or beef with a haphazard sprinkle of spice is disrespectful to the central ingredient. A handful of Old Bay might work for your basic burger or store-bought trout, but ranch-raised beef, fresh game meat, and Gulf Snapper deserve a better rub down. That's why we asked Chef Edison Mays Jr., a farm-raised rub master, how best to put spices to work.
"Steak is steak; it needs more than salt and pepper," says Mays, who has created dozens of savory rubs – including the "Lemon Buddha," "Edison's Medicine," "Herbal Ember," and "Devil's Tail" – for Four Seasons Resort restaurants. "It's got to have some flavor. I grew up on a farm and – as far as I know – a cow doesn't come salted or spiced." That's why Mays' kitchen boasts some 40 mason jars of spices and why he encourages young cooks to experiment. A great rub, he points out, is "unique to each person."
Achieving that singularity can be complicated process, but Mays is quick to point out that the ingredients needed for rubs – unlike sauces or glazes – are easy to find. He estimates that 90 percent of the spices he uses can be found in either a grocery store or the average man's cupboard. The key is combining them the right way. Here is his process and some recipes rub rookies can use as a jumping off point.
When experimenting with new rubs, it is important to keep salt out of the mix until it can be used to enhance flavor instead of defining it. Doing so in previous steps would compromise the integrity of new flavors and ultimately the finished product. Once the rub is finished, however, the key decision is how much salt should be introduced. "How liberally do you want to use the rub?" says Mays "If you want to use a lot, you'll just add a little salt. If you use only a little spice, you'll want to use more salt."
He also encourages experimenting with different kinds: "Maldon, fleur de sel, Himalayan salt. Each one has a different minerality to it." Go around your kitchen and actually taste the various types of salts you have before adding to the mix. Salt isn't just salty.
Credit: William Andrew / Getty Images