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.
Often an overlooked step, the application of oil creates an adhesive surface and allows the rub to stick to the protein. "When you put the rub directly on a steak, the steak sweats," says Mays. "So when you turn the meat, the rub falls off or clumps." The protein doesn't need to be drowned in oil, so imagine how much you'd use of baby oil or sun lotion on yourself: just enough.
There are also oil blends that can add a layer of complexity. Try out a canola-olive oil (half and half) or sunflower-sesame combo. With the protein covered in oil, massage it carefully onto the meat. Take your time and use your fingers. If your hands are not disgusting, you're not doing it right.
Credit: Robin O'Neill Photography